Friday, March 28, 2008

Back to the Future

There have always been visionaries who boldly predicted what life would be like, in a brighter future. And perhaps all of us enjoy fantasizing about such things.

Remember "The Jetsons"? I was all for a future where everybody putt-putted around in levitating space cars, taking the direct route landing on rooftops. Bye-bye traffic jam!

Imagine going back 100 years, to the year 1908.

What was "transportation reality" back then?

Motor vehicles - cars, trucks, and motorcycles - had been around, at least in small numbers, for 15 years or so. But they were still a novelty; most people got around in streetcars, or by horse-drawn transportation. Or walking. Or maybe on a bicycle. The "safety bicycle" - and the pneumatic bicycle tire - had revolutionized society, by providing quick and efficient transportation to individuals. Millions were built and sold.

Intercity travel was mostly by rail, or by animal power, or by boat if there were a waterway between Point A and Point B.

I found an interesting post card image from 1907. It is Liberty, New York, "Main Street looking North, in the near future."

Their brave new world consisted of current transportation modes, plus a monorail and various airships. (I like the flying barrel!) Not quite "The Jetsons," but moving in that direction.

100 years ago, science-fiction writer Jules Verne had recently left his mark, and H.G. Wells was very popular, with books like War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.

How would those 1908 people react, if you took the Time Machine back to their era, and described the reality of transportation, 100 years in the future?
- People travel from city to city in "airplanes" that go 500 miles per hour. (Fantastic!)
- A vast network of paved roads connects cities both large and small. (Wonderful!)
- Railroads are still around, but mostly used for freight, rather than passenger transportation. (Okay.)
- People travel from place to place in privately-owned automobiles that are reliable, easy to operate, and very comfortable, with nice seats and even climate control. (Wow!)
- Public transportation - the equivalent of your streetcars - operates in the larger cities, but most people prefer their private automobiles. (Well... okay... I can understand that.)
- Bicycles are still around, but most people use them for occasional recreational riding, not for transportation. (Hmmmm...)
- Because of the abundance of private automobiles, people no longer live close to where they work. Many live 10, 20, or even 30 miles away. They have NO transportation options other than automobile. (Absurd!)
- Most automobiles have 4 to 6 seats. Some even have 8 or 10. But 100 years from now, in the cities, most automobiles are carrying only the driver. (Huh? What's with that?)
- Twice a day, five days a week, the impressive network of paved roads becomes congested with automobiles as many people use them simultaneously. Cars that will go 100 miles per hour are barely moving in what we call "bumper to bumper traffic." People don't like it, and complain, but don't do much more than complain. (Eeewwwww!)
- Most of this vast population of automobiles burn petroleum-based fuel, which has become precious due to its scarcity. And in many cities, thousands or even millions of car engines result in a cloud of black, unhealthy air pollution. We call it "smog." We don't worry much about it; that's the price we pay. (WHAT?!!) (The 1908 people would identify with the pollution - heating and manufacturing would've created a similar cloud of unhealthy air.)
- Thousands of people are killed every year, in high-speed accidents involving those automobiles. We don't worry much about it; that's the price we pay.

Would our ancestors have been comfortable with that scenario? Would it seem utopian? Would they have done things differently - policy and planning -wise - to change anything?

In this observer's opinion, living close to my destinations and riding a bicycle is a model that has not been improved upon, in 100 years.

What will transportation be like in 2108? (I still like levitating space cars! But in the meantime... the bike is the best thing going.)

"The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."
- Susan B. Anthony, 1896

(And men, too!)

No comments: