Transportation & 'Animal Restoration'

The Heritage Foundation’s Ronald Utt is going all Jonathan Swift on the Obama administration.

Incensed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s recent comment that federal “livability” initiatives are about “finding a way to coerce people out of their cars," the senior research fellow has a modest proposal of his own: “animal restoration.”

“A full-throated, back-to-the-past policy could offer certain unique benefits to those who yearn for yesteryear,” Utt writes on the foundation’s Web site. “Specifically, this retro approach to transportation would mean restoring animals — notably horses and oxen — to a central role in America's transportation system.”

Satire aside, policy planners at the Department of Transportation should certainly keep the lessons of yesteryear in mind. It's worth noting that the motor vehicle — both truck and automobile — were introduced in part to solve two problems LaHood is grappling with today: urban congestion and pollution.

More than 50,000 horse-drawn wagons hauled 250,000 tons of freight through Chicago each day by 1914. Much manufacturing was concentrated in urban centers, and dense distribution networks based on horse pace collided with swelling urban populations. That led to scenes like this, from 1909 Chicago:

Somehow, I don't think this is the Obama administration's vision of a livable future. For one, I see no bicycles in this picture.

Beneath all those feet and hooves and wheels was a lot of ... well, horse manure. By the early 20th century, artificial fertilizers were on the scene, which meant lower agriculture demand for big city horse byproducts. So, where to put the poop became a health issue for cities.

The truck, in particular, changed the urban landscape, allowing for much larger distribution networks and helping to encourage the development of a real interstate road network funded by federal dollars as early as the 1910s. That contributed to the growth of suburbia from the 1920s on.

Trucks were also the clean technology of the day, eliminating a health hazard — equine emissions.

And, Utt would be glad to note, their was no government coercion or mandate involved. In fact, there was as much resistance to change then as you'll find in some quarters today. It took a few decades (and a collapse of the rail system in the First World War) for the motor truck to overtake the horse truck.

If you want to read more about America's journey from horse to highway, click here for an article published in the centenary edition of Traffic World in 2007.

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