A Horse of a Different Character
I’m a big fan of history. In planning we have to draw on our history as a nation and from human civilization to reflect on where we come from to know where we are going. Recently, I went to a symposium of sorts about autonomous vehicles and heard from experts about how soon these vehicles will hit our streets and the expected changes that will come with them, depending on the reception. In an ideal world, these vehicles are like carshares that can be collectively owned and shared between people, or a fleet owned by rideshare giants like Uber, Lyft, Via, etc. Think personal rapid transit that gives door-to-door service using roads.
One of the most interesting conversations at the meeting is how these vehicles and the idea of a shared fleet will impact current land and right of way uses. Being the fan of history that I am, I look back to think forward. The last big revolution of vehicular movement for individual transportation was probably the transition from horse to the car. Unfortunately, but also fortunately, (I was excited to roll up my sleeves and do some research/ glad that someone else was thinking about this too) for me someone had already looked into the relics from our horse-reliant past. This mental floss article explains each of these in detail, but essentially these urban relics are:
- Carriage Houses
- Horse walks (horse staircases)
- Auction Houses
- Horse blocks (to give us short people a much-needed boost)
- Hitching posts and tethering rings
- Horsecar tracks
Then there are the indirect impacts that are needed to feed the horses and deal with their waste like barns or grain silos to house their feed. As these are living creatures, waste collection and ways of dealing with manure and urine became important as well. Each animal produced 22 pounds of manure a day on average, I mean just imagine the… puns!! And the sanitary conditions, that’s important too! Y’all (I) thought snow is an issue when clearing streets, but imagine the equine alternative. I digress, but there were whole initiatives to deal with this including inviting farmers to come and collect the manure for free or would collect and sell the manure on their own. Then there are the jobs related to horse care like blacksmiths, stable people, veterinarians, trainers, carriage drivers, etc. The horse flu epidemic (the Great Epizootic) in the 1870’s left many horses dead in the streets. Cities didn’t have the capacity to deal with the carcasses so they were just left to rot. It sure puts those special parking arrangements into perspective, doesn’t it?
Many of these items have direct parallels in our modern world. Stables = our parking garages, Carriage Houses = car ports/ home garages, horse walks = car elevators, troughs and fountains= gas stations, auction houses are pretty much the same but require way more impervious surface. Horse blocks have been built into our current vehicles. Hitching posts and tethering rings= on-street parking. Horsecar tracks are actually quite useful nowadays as many cities are reviving streetcar systems and make an easier transition from current status to autonomous vehicles for transit.
The waste problem also has parallels. Instead of physical manure, the effects have been much less tangible over the past decades. Our environment has still suffered, but at a different cost to air quality and climate change versus piles of excrement. Jobs related to driving- especially specialized drivers with commercial driver’s licenses such as bus drivers and operators, freight truck drivers, streetcar operators (especially for heritage lines) and associated car care employment may soon have to adapt to the new trends or be retrained entirely. Dealing with abandoned cars in the streets is an issue that we’ve learned to deal with through towing companies, but what will happen when an AV vehicle fails and breaks down in the street? Tow trucks will likely still exist, but what will they look like as the vehicle designs change?
The Future is Now…
How I see it, our future can be predicted this way as well. Our concept for garages will need to change. There may not be a use for personal garages in the future, so we’ll likely absorb them as part of our living spaces. This is happening now. Watch HGTV for a hot second and there they are converting a garage to a ‘man-cave’ or a “she-cave”. Gas stations will die out for charging stations as we go electric, and they should adapt to become entertainment centers or community gathering spaces that do more than just gas up your vehicle. On-street parking can be traded for more green space or space allocated to alternative modes of transportation, or both (pervious bike lanes) to accomplish environmental goals. Our car stables (parking garages) will also need some rethinking and I have some ideas… which I’ll share in a future post, but it serves to be our biggest opportunity. The spaces are unfit for housing, but have other uses that they could easily transition to in order for cities to meet their goals and accommodate growth.
With the average age of a personal car hitting over 10 years old, it may be a while until we see a wholesale overhaul of our surface transportation system. The road ahead is not going to be easy, it will involve tradeoffs and lessons learned, but if we take a cue from the past, we can avoid and make up for some of the mistakes we made with the horseless carriage.
Christine E. Mayeur, AICP is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and hobbies, interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grassroots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems and environmental solutions that meet the needs of all users.