Monday, May 28, 2012

The Horseless Age

In my last post, I wrote about Futurama, an exhibit sponsored by General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair. Futurama was Norman Bel Geddes vision of an America of 1960, fully connected by interstate highways. That vision became reality.

But visionaries have always been with us. I recently came across an editorial written in 1896 in the first publication that exclusively focused on the automobile. The magazine was called The Horseless Age and the publisher was a man named E.P. Ingersoll. He was a tireless reporter and promoter of all things automotive. In the fifth issue of Volume 1 of his journal, he penned an editorial with the very sedate title of "Effects on Land Values and the Distribution of Population."  But what he wrote was an insightful analysis of things to come.

The first thing that caught my eye when I read his piece was that it was the trolley and bicycle that began the movement of people to the suburbs - even before the advent of the automobile. When this editorial was written, there were essentially zero automobile companies in the U.S.  Any cars that were being purchased were imported from France and then only by the wealthy. It was this same trend to the suburbs that was illuminated in the Futurama exhibit forty-five years later. 

Ingersoll clearly understood the impact of transportation systems on land values. What Ingersoll didn't state was that it was the cost of transportation and not just its availability that drove land values. I think of the falling home prices today in the outer exurbs as people respond to high fuel costs by trying to move closer to the urban centers. The problem, of course, is that their homes are worth less than they owe on them, essentially trapping them in the exurbs.

Finally, I think Ingersoll deserves credit for not mincing words about congestion in the cities. He understood that the poorest people in the cities could never afford their own cars and hence would remain locked in the slums. Today, the poor are still locked in the slums of cities and run-down neighborhoods. They might have a car but if they do, it is usually very old and in very poor condition. Their upward mobility is close to zero.

Ingersoll's editorial isn't that long. I repeat it here verbatim:

"One of the most interesting phases of speculation called up by the motor movement relates to its probable effect on land values and distribution of population.

 In the aggregate the constant tendency of land values is to increase as population increases, and there is no reason to believe that this tendency, now very strong in this country, will be checked for some time to come. Every mechanical improvement introduced adds to land values, which may be considered as the capitalized value of civilization.

 But while the general tendency to increase will in all human probability remain unchanged, local changes are bound to result from the general introduction of motor vehicles as the have resulted from the introduction of other improvements in locomotion.

The trolley car has opened the suburban property, and by connecting rural towns has made populous streets where before were farmers' houses.

The bicycle has had a similar effect upon land values, pushing the line of possible residence near business centers further out, and hence making such outlying sites more desirable and more valuable.

The slight depreciation which these new agencies of locomotion have caused in the case of land devoted to industries injuriously affected by them is but a sign of the stimulating effect in other directions. The bicycle and the trolley depressed the prices of certain grades of horses and this has undoubtedly depressed the values of some lands devoted to raising such grade of horses, though this depression is apt to be quickly relieved by putting the land to more profitable uses.

Country hotel sites have in many sections been given additional value from the fact that they are frequented by bicycle riders seeking rest and refreshments on their outings.

The general adoption of the motor vehicle will intensify these tendencies. It will make suburbs easier of access, improve the trade of country hotels in many places, and still further depress the business of horse-raising. Much of the land now used for horse-raising and growing horse feed will in process of time find other uses more in harmony with the trend of progress.

The establishing of new factories will stimulate the growth of population locally, as has been observed in the case of the bicycle industry, but there is not the slightest hope that the motor vehicle will relieve the congestion of cities; for the congested districts are inhabited by the very poor, who cannot afford to buy a vehicle of any kind."

Note: The Horseless Age remains in publication today but its name was changed around World War I to Automotive Industries. You can read all the early volumes of the magazines on Google Books.

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