Manure crisis of 1894 to traffic congestion today – technology is the answer

As I drive to work each day and sit in peak hour traffic patiently waiting for my turn to move ahead a metre, I can’t help but think this is a complete waste of time and fuel, but yet I endure it day after day. This is not the first time the changes to our society and the growth of our cities gets to breaking point where we need to stop and find a solution.

A classic example of this is a problem that was getting steadily worse about a hundred years ago, so much so that it drove most observers to despair. This was the great horse-manure crisis.

Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning. All transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses. London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world. Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.

The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere. In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of.*

In 1898 the first international urban-planning conference convened in New York. It was abandoned after three days, instead of the scheduled 10, because none of the delegates could see any solution to the growing crisis posed by urban horses and their output.

The problem did indeed seem intractable. The larger and richer that cities became, the more horses they needed to function. The more horses, the more manure. Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure. Moreover, all these horses had to be stabled, which used up ever-larger areas of increasingly valuable land. And as the number of horses grew, ever-more land had to be devoted to producing hay to feed them (rather than producing food for people), and this had to be brought into cities and distributed by horse-drawn vehicles. It seemed that urban civilisation was doomed.

Of course it wasn’t, with the invention of the automobile and the commercialisation of the motor vehicle by the likes of Henry Ford the manure crisis was adverted.

I can’t help but think as I continue to sit in growing traffic congestion that we are not too far off a global gridlock that will stifle our economic progress – this is the essence of Bill Ford’s focus on how we can use technology in our cars to help us work smarter, which will lead to reduced congestion on our roads. His famous grandfather Henry Ford once said before he invented the Model T:”If I had asked people then what they wanted they would have said faster horses”. This is an interesting statement as today we would say we just need more roads, but the answer lies in technology. We just need to think creatively.

Take a moment and watch this TED talk and hear some of the creative ideas Ford are exploring for our cars of the future.

Yours in technology to reduce peak hour traffic,

Belinda

* See Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999].