Henry Ford never said people wanted faster horses, “what they wanted was less horseshit” (Flowers, 2014). It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the general point. The lesson of this post is that too much of anything can be bad, and we need to look at the whole asset life-cycle system taking into account the positive and negative benefits.
For thousands of years horses were the preferred mode of transportation, and during the 19th and 20th centuries, the horse continued to be regarded as one of the most remarkable prime movers on the planet and pretty much ruled 19th century urban life and rural culture (Nikiforuk, 2013). The only other options for the general population were oxen, bicycles or walking. Unfortunately, the growing need for horses caused waste that overtook the local support structures at the time and produced a massive negative impact on society and the environment. As with everything around sustainability, there is a lot of complexity and interconnections.
Benefits of Horses during the 19th and 20th Centuries
First, horses could deal with the dreadful dirt “roads” that existed during this period. Keeping in mind that the U.S. of 1903 had 27,000 miles of muddy dirt tracks roads (Motavalli, 2017).
Second, horses were an extremely cheap and highly effective user of “energy.” Horses energy inputs was around five acres of hay and grain per horse, and their outputs (traction) achieved an efficiency of 15 to 20 per cent or more than triple that of a coal-fired machine (Nikiforuk, 2013).
In 1894 it was observed that horses are not only:
“self-feeding, self-controlling, self-maintaining and self-reproducing, but they are far more economical in the energy they are able to develop from a given weight of fuel material, than any other existing form of motor.”(Nikiforuk, 2013)
Third, the use of horses also provided ancillary jobs like stable owners, feed producers, trainers, veterinarians, road cleaners etc..
Fourth, horses maintained a deep relationship with rural and farmlands, which at the time was critical. Apologies, that still is critical, but at that time there was a true integrated and symbiotic relationship.
Increasing Dependency on Horses during the 19th and early 20th Centuries
In 1840 in North American around four million horses were employed for agricultural work and travel. There were only 18,269,453 inhabitants in North America in 1840 (Statistics Canada, 2015 & Wikipedia 2, 2019). By 1900 there were more than 24 million to plow fields, pull street trolleys, carriages and city vehicles. There were 81,522,168 inhabitants in North America in 1900 ( Wikipedia 3, 2019 & Wikipedia 4, 2019).
Horses provided almost one-third of North America’s energy needs. For every three people there was one working horse in the U.S., whereas now there are 1.3 people for every car (Nikiforuk, 2013). By 1890 New Yorker’s took an average of 297 horse-car rides per person a year, whereas today they hail an average of 100 cab rides (Motavalli, 2017).
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.(Tarr & McShane, 1997)
However, anything growing in large numbers begins to cause issues, and horses were no exception in causing huge, waste, environmental, health and social challenges
Growing Challenges with Horses
Due to the increase in numbers, and the nascent state state of social, health and infrastructure maturity, the following challenges evolved (Nikiforuk, 2013):
- A horse would dump between 20 and 50 pounds of manure a day on the streets along with a gallon of piss… if you add 500 horses per square mile, that is a lot of “waste”;
- In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds / 1200~ metric tons of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of (Burrows & Wallace, 2006).
- The tonnes of manure pounded and pulverized into dust attracted rodents and flies;
- The result was an ever-present layer of manure that clung to shoes, traveled in the wind and seeped into the water supply;
- One wild government estimate of the time estimated that 95% of all disease-carrying flies bred in horse dung;
- 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 (Davies, 2004).
Besides the issue with horse excrement, other issues occurred (Hayden, 2016):
- Dead horses often clogged city streets;
- In New York City in 1880, 15,000 horses died on the streets, or 41 dead horses a day (which had to be removed);
- Some place to stable the 100,000+ horses that operated within New York, and food to feed them;
- On a per capita basis, 19th century horse-drawn vehicle accident rates were similar to those of the automobile in the 20th century.
So the problems then included flies, disease, smell, dried manure dust, soaked manure mire, cruelty to horses and horse related traffic deaths (Flowers, 2014).
With its flies and smells and muscle, “the horse was in your face and it began to make people feel uncomfortable, and that was a factor in getting rid of it” (Nikiforuk, 2013).
The transition from horse to automobile was a logical and sustainable choice at the time.
So the question becomes, did we replace one prime mover that caused intolerable pollution (horses) with another (carbon-based vehicles)? One can argue that the impact of the pollution and waste was far more apparent and in your face with the horse… though as climate change continues to impact human life on earth it does beg the question. This post will not debate that last point, but as shown below from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) 2017 OPEC World Oil Outlook, the transportation sector (road) uses a lot of oil. For context, road transportation uses around 24 Millions of Barrels per Day (mb/d).
Both horses and automobiles have held the position of being the “remarkable prime movers on the planet.” However, as with anything, more is not better and often causes new problems as demonstrated by both. Automobiles replaced horses largely because of pollution, and now automobiles are one of the leading cause of the planet’s Co2 pollution and other serious problems. We have to look at things systemically and from an asset life-cycle perspective to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
For a more detailed investigation on the impact of transitioning from horses to automobiles I would recommend reading Brandon Keim’s article “Did Cars Save Our Cities From Horses?” Nautilus listed in the references.
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