Are Antique Electric Cars the Solution to New York's Carriage Problem?
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African proverb
Before the Age of the Automobile there were only a few ways to get around. Trains were the most efficient and convenient, if you were going between large cities served by the “Iron Horse”, but they were few and far between. Most travel, to cover distances too far to be reached by foot, was done in a saddle. Otherwise it was a stagecoach, which could not have been very comfortable bumping over unpaved roads. The smooth steel rails were a great leap forward and barges pulled by animals along canals, and rickety wooden wagons, were no competition in the freight business for the relatively speedy trains with their huge capacity.
A lot changed when personal travel became mechanized. Bikes had a role in using these new technologies to provide some more variety in the choices to be made, but the streets were still filled with animals and their by-products, and nobody paid much attention to them or questioned their role in the transportation system. The revolution came in 1832, in New York City, where there was a merging of the mediums into a novel “hybrid” arrangement, in which the horses pulled passenger vehicles over iron rails for a mile. They called it a horse-drawn tram, or streetcar, and once operational, it inspired cities all over the world to follow this example. Eventually they turned into the electric-powered trolley systems, that covered the entire country with convenient, affordable ways to get to work and recreational opportunities like the popular “Electric Parks”.
This worked pretty well, although local transit systems were often mired in debt, dependent upon subsidies and tangled in regulatory nightmares. 90% of trips taken in major cities were provided by urban rail, until the mid 1930's, when GM and Standard Oil found that they were not able to compete against the economical trolley cars. They decided that they had a better idea, to convert them to low-quality buses, and wipe them out. This was all very well documented in the Snell Report of 1974, (the subject of my next piece for EVWorld). There are those who contend that the weakness of the trolley companies, the Depression and the march of technology were bound to bring about the same results, but there is no doubt that the 400 secret holding companies, formed to take over this clean and fast form of public transit, were crucial in bringing about its demise.
It is nearly two centuries later and here in the Northeast United States, there are not too many horses (or trolleys) plying our streets anymore, and the few who remain are facing a serious struggle to survive. In Central Park, renowned for it classic beauty and relief from the hectic city that surrounds it, there are 80 beautifully painted horse-drawn carriages, not dissimilar to the ones which were popular in the 19th Century, and even for many years prior to that. Now used almost exclusively by tourists and romantics for a tour of the park and its various attractions, fountains, zoo etc., they are the last, final link to a former time, and a vivid reminder of the benefits, and stinky liabilities, which this still-alive relic of our past provides.
Animal activists, aided by a real-estate company, which, it is alleged, is intent upon taking over their stables for a real-estate development, have been working hard to evict these creatures and their drivers from the park in the name of humane treatment of animals. There is no doubt that there was a time when at least some of these beasts were badly mis-treated by their owners, and the scandals that ensued were sufficient to force the authorities to demand that the industry reform their practices radically, and provide for much improved conditions for their charges. There are those who will assert that the very presence of these steeds, in the midst of a flood of motorized traffic, is both cruel and out-of-step with our current sensibilities, and that they must be banished forever from these streets. Occasional occurrences, such as are bound to occur under these circumstances, are treated like horror stories, with front page headlines and dramatic photos to illustrate the terrible accidents. The public is horrified by this, of course, since we are no longer farmers, and well-distanced from the realities of animal husbandry.
Our current Mayor-to-be, Bill DeBlasio, was aided greatly by the attacks on his major primary opponent, by an Animal Rights group, that is intent upon ridding the city of the last vestige of its equine past. He has promised to make the horse-carriage business history. In its place, it has been suggested, would be an assortment of electrified antique automobiles. While this move might well warm the hearts of the readers of this blog, and could certainly improve the public's appreciation of the benefits of electric-powered vehicles, it would also deprive the city of one of its signature attractions, while dis-connecting us from a vital element of our past. It also turns out that there is a huge population of horse-lovers across the nation, who also want to make certain that these animals are treated with the respect and dignity which they need and deserve. They are aghast though, that a rich real estate developer can donate a million dollars to the cause and thereby slyly manipulate the feelings of the public for the purpose of private gain, and exploit our concern for the welfare of the vulnerable in this way. It has been anticipated that the positive sentiments of lovers of electric and antique cars, will also help in forcing this transformation to happen.
We know that Circuses and Rodeos have, for some time, been under close scrutiny, due to their handling and mis-handling of the critters under their jurisdiction. For many years they were able to fend off these concerns but, as time goes by, there is more and more sensitivity to these issues. Historically, It has been difficult to stir people's sympathy for “dumb” animals, when there is so much mistreatment of members of our own species, which goes unnoticed. There is also the reality, that a visit to one of these popular entertainment attractions is often accompanied by a nice steak dinner or a couple of hot dogs. Yet, since so many of us have pets, that are often treated far better than we treat each other, that this entire question has been clouded by conflicts and distinctions between beasts, that are accepted by some, but not all. Meanwhile shelters are filled with unwanted former pets who are exterminated in droves every day. Should supporters of electric vehicles be happy about being used this way, to advance another agenda, one largely fueled by a wealthy real estate magnate's preferences, that has nothing whatsoever to do with sane transportation?
Bikes, electric-assisted or not, workhorses, pedicabs, trains and electric cars are all considered marginal forms of travel in this society. As such, I think, their fans need to try to be as supportive of one another as possible. Gasoline-powered automobiles, motorcycles, trucks and buses dominate our roads to an extraordinary degree. They are as archaic as horses and far more poisonous and dangerous. EVWorld presents compelling evidence every week that the technologies needed to replace these outmoded forms of transport are already there, in spite of everything. Getting them on the road is job #1, but at any cost? The ability of existing manufacturing and fueling establishments, no matter how out of date their products are, to persist and to discourage or demolish anything that threatens their hegemony, is obvious from the facts. It is true that we can't abandon these fossil-fueled dinosaurs suddenly, just because they have lived far past their time. We need them still and the campaign to replace them is still not powerful enough to insert itself into the picture without encountering enormous resistance. “Alternative Transportation” is still that, something to be hoped for, even wished for, but still slightly out of reach for almost everyone. It should be unacceptable though, to set one form of unusual mobility, horse carriages, against another, electric cars. We need them both, and much more, like electric-assist bikes, to get past the place that we have been stuck in for too many decades.
Inertia is the enemy of movement and it is the primary goal of those with the greatest stake in the status quo to make certain that as little innovation or fresh thinking happens as possible, since this threatens their hold on what amounts to their marketplace. It is not just automobiles that are involved either. There was a time, decades ago, when it was decided that low-platform buses were needed and technologically possible. It was not just that they were easier for the old and the infirm to mount, although that was a powerful motivation to get the job done, it was the need to speed up the loading and unloading functions in order to make this a more popular way to travel, faster with fewer delays. So a contract was given out and a lot of money provided to do the research and bring us closer to this goal.
So, who was given the job of bringing forth this advance? General Motors of course, the same folks who formerly proved so effective at replacing our urban rail transportation systems with their new generations of diesel-powered buses. Since these lumbering beasts were forced to compete with all of the private vehicles on the road for space, and endure the same delays that heavy traffic imposed, rather than having their own right-of-way as streetcars did, this was the best technique possible to convince people to invest in automobiles. It came as no surprise to many that GM, with all of its technological and engineering genius, could somehow not get the job done. Years of research and development produced nothing of value and years were lost in that pathetically-doomed program. Meanwhile the fox turned the chicken-house into their McMansion.
It is evident that, in Europe and Asia, there has been a different path chosen. Electric-powered light rail is in increasing use throughout those parts of the world and the average car is about half the size of what we have been accustomed to using here. In many parts of the less well-developed world though, there is the fervent desire to leapfrog into the present and shed their identity as backward or “Third World” countries by promoting the use of automobiles on their roads. This tragic tendency is also being actively promoted by auto and petroleum companies as well of course. In one striking example of this, there was a policy adapted in Jakarta, Indonesia, some years ago, to destroy the pedicab industry, regarded as a colonialist relic. In one moment, the entire fleet of vehicles was seized and dumped into the surf, to serve as domiciles for the local homeless aquatic wildlife. Now that countries as large as China have been bitten by the same bug, we are speeding towards a future where all roadways will be as impassable as the freeways of Southern California, as many are already. Tragically, much of this is being done largely to ratify the policy of providing advantages to elites, eager to display their alleged superiority. This policy will freeze car traffic as effectively as it freezes social classes.
A country like Vietnam, that once was covered in bicycles, is now filled with motorbikes and soon automobiles. The desire of the leaders of any country to provide a ladder to improved status and the comforts and advantages that it brings, is evident everywhere. As was the case with Monarchies and their courts, ruling a society is impossible without cultivating a subset of those seeking their piece of the pie. Rewarding them with useful and conspicuous tools and toys, that broadcast their success in cultivating their advantages, is crucial. Handfuls of billionaires proves that there is room at the top and relatively effortless transportation for the many, demonstrates the alleged kindness and decency of the leadership towards those clinging to the bottom of the class structure. This illusion of progress is even better than a free pass to the movies and does, it is true, go a long way towards quieting dissent and fueling ambition.
Of course giving out lollipops does not provide real nutrition, or other than fleeting pleasure, so these empty palliatives can only go so far towards building real, long term, beneficial change. That can not happen until we stop settling for symbolic improvements in our lives and prospects, and generate enough consciousness to recognize when we are being played. We can go far, as the saying goes, but we will need to do it together, not only by thinking for ourselves but also by caring for each other, while we work on figuring out who our real friends are.
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