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Author explores the history of transport in a new book


First rule of road safety: don’t dress like a chicken! Author explores the history of transportation in new book – as it is revealed that farmers once tried to sue for damages by having their animals hit by cars

  • Tom Standage explores the history and possible future of movement in a new book
  • Invention of the bicycle raised fears that riders would develop a ‘bicycle face’
  • Farmers in France let chickens run in front of cars to demand compensation


by Tom Standage (Bloomsbury £20,272 pp)

The traffic jams in 17th-century London were so bad that one writer compared the carriages to ‘mutton pies in a cook’s oven, you can hardly put a post in them’. Modern American rush hours are no better. Some commuters avoid them by leaving home before dawn and sleeping in the office parking lot for a while.

It is a theme of this book that there is nothing new under the sun, especially on the roads. You might think Elon Musk invented the electric car, but they’ve been around since the 1890s.

Some of the ads were aimed at female drivers, who were thought to be incapable of handling more complicated engines – indeed, Henry Ford bought his wife Clara an electric car instead of one of his own T-models.

Tom Standage explores the history and possible future of movement in a new book (file image)

But every new mode of transport has its problems. The invention of the bicycle raised fears that riders would get an ugly “bicycle face” from traveling at such high speeds. In 1913, the French newspaper Le Figaro published a story about chickens raised specifically by farmers to run in front of cars so that they could claim damages of five francs.

The most interesting sections of this book cover the early history of wheeled transportation, all the way back to the invention of the wheel, circa 3500 BC.

Within a few centuries, this had resulted in the dead being buried in wheeled “wagon graves” to symbolize that the deceased was being transported to the afterlife.

The Romans rode on the right in their carriages, in part because a right-handed driver (like most, of course) had to sit on the left to reach both horses with his whip, and wanted to be near the center rather than the edge of the road so that he could see oncoming traffic.

Once Tom Standage hits the 20th century, his day job as deputy editor of The Economist gives the book its flavor — a serious assessment of how urban planning evolved, how tax changes affected what types of fuel were used, and so on.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOVEMENT by Tom Standage (Bloomsbury £20,272 pp)

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOVEMENT by Tom Standage (Bloomsbury £20,272 pp)

The next big step could be the widespread adoption of self-driving cars. Emphasis on ‘can’ – there is still a long way to go.

In a 2004 competition to judge AVs (autonomous vehicles), one entry had to be withdrawn before the start because it started driving towards spectators, while another came to a stop after being confused by its own shadow.

In San Francisco, AVs have come loose while descending the American city’s famously steep hills, mistaking the road ahead of them as an impassable object.

Elsewhere, the disturbances included a man dressed in a chicken suit to promote a restaurant – the AV did not recognize him as a pedestrian.

Then there are the increasingly popular e-scooters. They are usually limited to 8 mph or so. This doesn’t sound very fast, but as Standage points out, it’s exactly the same speed as the average achieved by cars in central London today.


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