Essay:A nineteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem

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The following is an essay that has been sitting on my hard drive for probably two years. I wrote said essay before I even knew of RW. It has not been published in any form and may need some polishing. Of course it is not formatted the way it should look like as it was not intended as a contribution to any wiki, much less this one. I look forward to having a civil debate about an issue near and dear to my heart that is not Zionism for once. Enjoy.

A nineteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem[edit]


Mobility, especially urban mobility has been deemed one of the biggest problems of our time. At the same time carbon neutral technologies are sought for but rarely found. How can we reconcile our demand and need for mobility with environmental considerations? Many brilliant engineers have used tremendous amounts of manpower and ingenuity to come up with new technologies to solve the problem, but I want to present a solution, that some cities had already achieved at the end of the 19th century.

A short history of mobility[edit]

With the beginning industrialization fewer and fewer people worked in agriculture and this trend continues to this day. While this brings a whole load of undeniable benefits (the incredible growth of the world's wealth is only one aspect) it raises the very serious question as of how people get to work. In simpler times people lived where they worked and that was it, since the 1750s however people started to move to big urban centers and (this is the key difference to earlier urban developments) started dependent work outside of their own home. Although this trend has been somewhat reversed in the United States (and to a lesser degree Europa and Canada) in recent days, it still continues in developing and emerging economies worldwide. How was the problem of urban mass transport addressed, when it first presented itself? First and foremost, people simply walked longer and longer distances from their house to work. However, this form of transport has obvious limits (walking more than 5 miles[1] a day may drastically reduce your productivity, especially in a physically demanding job), so wherever possible horses, mules or other animals were used to provide transportation. The downsides of animal means of transportation are obvious: risk of disease, smell and the limited availability of “fuel” (food). However the upsides are also plentiful and often underrated: maximum flexibility, a “food reserve” in times of war and hunger, and a solution that also provides medium range as well as short range transport.

Alternatives to horses[edit]

However authorities soon discovered the downsides to be greater than the upsides and so several alternatives were introduced, first of them the steam engine (although it has been used in other means of transportation, I will focus on the train for practical purposes) Its upsides are the bigger transport capacity (both per square foot and per vehicle), its high reliability (no sick horses, no panicking animals etc.), and its (at first) cheap almost ubiquitous fuel (coal) instead of crisis-stricken oats. However the downsides of the steam railroad are (especially from today's point of view) so big that a further use is almost never seriously considered. Among those are: the extremely dirty fuel (if you don't replace coal with anything else, which is hardly ever done) i.e. high emissions. The comparatively low efficiency at high speeds (even though speeds of 100 mph and over have been successfully reached they are not very fuel efficient). And the relatively low flexibility.

Nineteenth century innovations[edit]

However two often forgotten innovations from the 19th century might provide a solution here: the bicycle, which is the most fuel efficient way to transport a single person that has been invented so far. And the electric engine, which can be used in almost any mode of transportation. The tram, subway and train were (and still are) by far the best forms of electro-mobility that are in use. Funnily enough they were built and implemented before the rise of the gasoline driven automobile. Therefore it could -and has been- argued, that those forms are just outdated, not up to the task not “individual” enough. Sufficient proof for this -some argue- is the fact, that they were more common in communist Eastern Europe than in the west. But there is a fallacy right there. The very core of mass mobility is that it has nothing individual to it. That's exactly what all the books and movies that criticize capitalism (such as modern times with Charlie Chaplin) are all about. There is nill[2] individuality in taking your car at the same time every day and driving to the same place five million other people go to and -having fulfilled your part in the productivity of your nation- going back home the exact same route. In fact it would be easier, safer (and produce less traffic jams) to move the road and let the cars stay static. The big but that is then brought forward against electro-mobility is that electricity has to come from somewhere. Yes. That is indeed true. But (and there is another but) a tram is even than more fuel efficient then a car, when its electricity is produced 100% from coal. Why? Because stationary energy transformation can be more efficient, as it can use parts, that are heavy but increase efficiency, which can't be done if those parts have to be moved. Therefore a stationary steam engine (i.e. a “normal” power plant) is more fuel efficient than a moving steam engine. Also the tram or subway has a big advantage over the electric car, as it does not have to carry its fuel.

Won't somebody think of the poor countries?[edit]

But what now about emerging economies that don't have the money for big investments in transportation? Well, they can increase domestic commerce and lessen vulnerability to world market price volatility of some few cash crops, by growing the oldest agrofuels[3] there are: horse-food. In fact a horse drawn carriage in 19th century London was as fast as a car is in central London today. The same goes for horse and car in present day “car friendly” Managua, Nicaragua. Having solved the urban transport-problem, one now has to find a conclusive solution for long range transport. Well... Ask France or Japan, why they hardly have any domestic flights.

Footnotes - if they are still allowed, that is[edit]

  1. Apparently my intended audience was too stupid for metric units
  2. And I also used the occasional Britishism back then, apparently
  3. fuel derived ultimately from products of agriculture