Sunday, June 19, 2016

Transportation as communication

From The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions That Made Modern Europe 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning. The revolutions are: scientific, industrial American, French and Romantic.

Blanning's first chapter is communication and he leads that discussion with transportation. The ability for people to move about is the ability to transfer ideas. He provides some striking data illustrating just how expensive mobility was in terms of time, money and risk.
Four or six draught animals were needed to pull a coach and they had to be changed every 6 to 12 miles (10 to 20 km), depending on the condition of the roads. In England it was calculated that one horse was needed for every mile (1.6 km) of a journey on a well-maintained turnpike road. So, for the 185 miles (300 km) from Manchester to London, 185 horses had to be kept stabled and fed to deal with the seventeen changes required by the stagecoaches which travelled the route. Those horses in turn required an army of coachmen, postillions, guards, grooms ostlers and stable-boys to keep them running. As a coach could carry no more than ten passengers, fares were correspondingly high and out of reach for the mass of the population. A journey from Augsburg to Innsbruck by stagecoach, although little more than 60 miles (100 km) as the crow flies, would have cost an unskilled labourer more than a month's wages just for the fare.
Elsewhere in the text we glean that a 60 mile journey might take a couple of days. Today, making a 60 mile journey requires about an hour and would cost perhaps $10 for fuel and loaded costs compared to 48 hours and would cost about $1,200. 48X in time and 120X in costs. We've come a long way.

Blanning makes the point that roads in the UK were better than on the continent, the difference being that the building and maintenance of early roads was a centralized responsibility off-loaded locally and coercively. Coercion is not a particularly strong motivator for good work. England was an early adopter of private turnpikes. Private companies built and maintained roads with users paying a fare. The private turnpike model was an important transition to more effective transportation.

Increased mobility and communication were disruptive.
The turnpikes brought speed and mobility into a society previously characterized by their opposites. This was a culture-shock which many found upsetting - especially when the lower orders started to move out of their villages, on to the roads and into the towns, picking up insubordinate habits on the way. John Byng complained bitterly in 1781: 'I wish with all my heart that half the turnpike roads of the kingdom were plough'd up, which have imported London manners and depopulated the the country - I meet milkmaids on the roads, with the dress and looks of Strand mistresses, and must think that every line of Goldsmith's Deserted Village contains melancholy truths.' The reference to Goldsmith's poem is revealing, for it is an elegy for a lost world of rural innocence and harmony, from which the forces of modernization have banished the inhabitants to urban anomie and vice.

Among other disagreeable side-effects of the transport revolution to make contemporaries wonder whether it was all worth it were crime and congestion. Just as computers can solve crimes, but also allow more crimes to be committed, so did better roads both improve social control and create new opportunities for criminals. Turnpikes were places where hard cash had to be paid, so were frequently robbed. The more travellers there were on the roads, the more highwaymen appeared to make them stand and deliver. The legends surrounding Dick Turpin, hanged at the Knavesmire outside York in 1739, and his mare Black Bess, epitomized the new career opportunities offered by roads. As those roads now made it worthwhile to keep a private carriage, towns came to be plagued by traffic jams, especially London, where about a third of the 20,000 carriages paying tax in 1762 were kept. Faujas de Saint Fond revealed both phenomena when he he recorded that he had been reluctant to leave Sir Joseph Banks' house at seven in the evening, because that was a time when highwaymen were known to be very active. However, he was assured that, as it was Sunday, there would be safety in numbers, as so many Londoners would be returning home in their carriages from day-trips to the country.

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