Author explores the history of transport in a new book

First rule of road safety: don’t dress as a chicken! Author explores the history of transport in a new book – as it’s revealed farmers once tried to claim compensation by getting their animals to be hit by cars

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


by Tom Standage (Bloomsbury £20, 272 pp)

Traffic congestion in 17th-century London was so bad one writer likened the coaches to ‘mutton pies in a cook’s oven, hardly can you thrust a pole between’. Modern U.S. rush hours are no better. Some commuters avoid them by leaving home before dawn and sleeping for a while in the office car park.

It’s 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 ads targeted women drivers, who were thought incapable of dealing with more complicated engines — indeed Henry Ford bought his wife Clara an electric car, rather than one of his own Model Ts.

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

But every new mode of transport has its problems. The invention of the bike raised fears that riders would develop unsightly ‘bicycle face’ from travelling at such high speeds. In 1913, the French newspaper Le Figaro carried a story about chickens specifically bred by farmers to run out in front of cars, to allow them to claim five francs’ compensation.

The most interesting sections of this book deal with the early history of wheeled transport, right back to the invention of the wheel, circa 3500 BC.

Within a few centuries this had led to the dead being buried in wheeled ‘wagon graves’ to symbolise the deceased being transported into the afterlife.

The Romans drove their carriages on the right, partly because a right-handed driver (as most were, of course) had to sit on the left to reach both horses with his whip, and wanted to be near the middle rather than the edge of the road so he could see oncoming traffic.

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

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

The next big step might be the widespread adoption of driverless cars. Emphasis on ‘might’ — there’s still a long way to go.

In a 2004 competition to assess AVs (autonomous vehicles), one entry had to be withdrawn before the start as it began driving towards spectators, while another came to a halt after becoming confused by its own shadow.

In San Francisco, AVs have come unstuck when descending the U.S. city’s famously steep hills: they mistake the road rising in front of them for an unpassable object.

Elsewhere, the glitches have included a man dressed in a chicken suit to promote a restaurant — the AV failed to recognise him as a pedestrian.

Then there are the increasingly popular e-scooters. They tend to be 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 these days in central London.

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