Book review: A Brief History of Motion – Tom Standage

by @edent | #

Book cover with cogs and wheels on it.

Our society has been shaped by the car in innumerable ways, many of which are so familiar that we no longer notice them. Why does red mean stop and green mean go? Why do some countries drive on the left, and some on the right? How did cars, introduced only a little over a century ago, change the way the world was administered, laid out and policed, along with experiences like eating and shopping? And what might travel in a post-car world look like?
As social transformations from ride-sharing to the global pandemic force us to critically re-examine our relationship with personal transportation, A Brief History of Motion is an essential contribution to our understanding of how the modern world came to be.

I thoroughly enjoyed Standage’s The Victorian Internet, but I found this book to be somewhat unsatisfying. As a potted history of cars, it’s basically fine. It covers the important developments in urban transportation and some of the roads-not-taken. There’s a brief foray into some of the social changes brought about by cars – but it rarely goes beyond the surface and is curiously silent on a whole range of issues.

For example, we’re told about how the development of the rubber tire was critical to the success of the automobile, and how European manufacturers quickly adopted it. But where did that rubber come from? It doesn’t even mention in passing where Europe got its rubber from – nor the atrocities committed in obtaining it.

Similarly, when describing how the Nazis promoted the Volkswagen and the autobahn, the book blandly says “Although Hitler’s regime imposed strict controls in many areas of life, the roads were not one of them.”

Yes, that’s the perfect way to sum them up. They were a bit strict…

That said, the book is pretty good at detailing how the development of personal transport was used to cement segregation – in the development of suburbs, racism driving laws, etc. There’s a good discussion about how the prevalence of private transport helped with bus boycotts in America. As the book moves into electric cars, there is a brief mention of the cobalt mines which power this new revolution.

The section on the future of personal mobility is interesting. Looking at the way ride sharing apps and e-bikes are changing behaviour and urban landscapes. While there is a bit of good discussion on the unfulfilled hype behind autonomous vehicles, it’s annoyingly silent on the host of legal problems faced by Uber and the like.

As I said, it’s a good history of personal transport – with some all-too-brief diversions into the social and political problems they’ve caused.

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