FindMyPast.co.uk recently tweeted this image of London Bridge in 1890, and it reminded me of the following passage from Jane Jacobs’ acclaimed (and still in print) 1961 book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’:
Automobiles are hardly inherent destroyers of cities. If we would stop telling ourselves fairy tales about the suitability and charm of nineteenth-century streets for horse and buggy traffic, we would see that the internal combustion engine, as it came on the scene, was potentially an excellent instrument for abetting city intensity, and at the same time for liberating cities from one of their noxious liabilities.
Not only are automotive engines quieter and cleaner than horses but, even more important, fewer engines than horses can do a given amount of work. The power of mechanized vehicles, and their greater speed than horses, can make it easier to reconcile great concentrations of people with efficient movement of people and goods. At the turn of the century, railroads had already long demonstrated that iron horses are fine instruments for reconciling concentration and movement. Automobiles, including trucks, offered, for places railroads could not go, and for jobs railroads could not do, another means of cutting down the immemorial vehicular congestion of cities.
We went awry by replacing, in effect, each horse on the crowded city streets with half a dozen or so mechanized vehicles, instead of using each mechanized vehicle to replace half a dozen or so horses. The mechanical vehicles, in their overabundance, work slothfully and idle much. As one consequence of such low efficiency, the powerful and speedy vehicles, choked by their own redundancy, don’t move much faster than horses.
Trucks, by and large, do accomplish much of what might have been hoped for from mechanical vehicles in cities. But because passenger vehicles do not, this congestion, in turn, greatly cuts down the efficiency of trucks.