Roads weren’t always for cars. In fact, highways were originally built for bikes! And now, as modern cities freak out over e-scooters, it’s worth looking back at when the roads were full of all kinds of things on wheels. How did early scooters, roller skates, and other new devices shape what we think of as the road today? And is it time to rethink how we design our cities now?
Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a history show about why people resist new things. I'm Jason Feifer. So let's start at the beginning. If you were a ninth century Scandinavian warrior, you'd likely use the word skjóta. It's an old Norse word that means to shoot or to throw. And etymologists think it's likely that skjóta evolved into the English word scoot. By the 1700 scoot meant to fly or to run. And what would you call something that flies or runs? By the 1820s the word answered this question by going from verb to noun, a scooter was a person who moves quickly. Then the word scooter seemed to transfer over to objects. In the 1840s, farmers were talking about planting corn using a scooter or a kind of plow. Over the coming decades a scooter also became a kind of boat, a train, all manner of DIY wooden vehicles that sent kids flying down streets or hills.
When an early version of the motorcycle came along in the late 1800s, they called it a motor scooter. Then around 1915, a new variety was added to the mix. It looked like the kid's toy. The thing we think of today as a basic kick scooter, a plank to stand on, some wheels underneath and a handle on top with a pole. But this new scooter had an engine. So it moved on its own with speeds up to 25 miles an hour. And instead of kids riding this thing around their neighborhoods, adults were taking it everywhere, to work, to the park, to go shopping. And so what were people supposed to call this thing? It was a kind of scooter, yes, but it went by lots of names, motor scooter, mon-auto, single passenger motor vehicle. Many people called it an Autoped, which was the name of the biggest brand of this single passenger motor vehicle. Kind of like saying Kleenex, when you mean tissue. And yet some people called this invention something scarier, something nefarious, something distrustful. They called it?
Voice Actor: The solo devil wagon.
Jason Feifer: Which, okay. Maybe that's not the most eloquent insult anyone's ever made, but keep in mind, the car was a fairly new thing at the time. And many people called that the devil wagon. So here was a motorized vehicle for one person, thus a solo devil wagon. And how might you use the phrase solo devil wagon in a sentence? Oh, like this.
Voice Clip (New...: "Solo Devil Wagon Taken Up in a Serious Way Might Add New Terrors to City Life"
Jason Feifer: That's a headline from the New York Sun in October of 1916. And the story is absolutely fascinating. It is the better part of an entire page. And the top contains this elaborate illustration of people's zipping around on their solo devil wagons. It's a vision of urban life, a top a pair of motorized wheels. You have a happy couple wearing their fancy hats and coats. And the man is holding a suitcase. The caption says, "The Autoped Elopement." You have a mustachioed man barreling past a heavyset woman who looks startled. And the caption says, "For the commuters." There's a fellow driving his solo devil wagon in one hand and pushing a baby stroller in the other. And the caption says, "Mr. Brooklyn will find them useful." You see kids writing this thing, a man reading a newspaper while riding it. Six people piled on top of each other, in which I guess is then technically a sixtet devil wagon. And the story underneath this illustration begins by just laying into this new invention and how terribly it resembles a children's toy. Here's from the story as it directly addresses the reader.
Voice Clip (New...: You of course would not be caught dead in the woods or smashed up on Broadway for that matter with your mangled frame, twisted up in a piece of soap box two which were attached two boxwood wheels from a roller skate. That would be indeed quite vulgar. Would it not?
Jason Feifer: Oh, yes. More vulgar than a woman showing her ankles, but let's say you do step onto a solo devil wagon. And let's say you don't crash it on Broadway. Why you still risk great embarrassment?
Voice Clip (New...: The first time you see a man riding on one, the inclination is to ask him why he is not at school and what he means anyway, by going about the streets, courting disintegration.
Jason Feifer: Oh, oh, oh, courting disintegration. Surely I would never do such a thing. Please, please carry on.
Voice Clip (New...: After one has seen two or three Autopeds living along Fifth Avenue or Riverside Drive bearing their rider serenely out of sight, the sensation of disapproval wears off and one begins to wonder how it would feel to ride on one of the contraptions.
Jason Feifer: Oh yes, yes. The sensation of disapproval we... Wait a second, what did you just say? It wears off.
Voice Clip (New...: Whatever mishaps one may have at first in getting started in the Autoped line, one soon masters the details of this new method of progression and finds that it has many pleasant experiences. One feels all the exhilaration of boy hood and the dignity and serious purpose of advancing age. After a while, one will convince oneself that one should Autoped for health sake.
Jason Feifer: Yes. This piece takes an unexpected turn. The New York Sun writer is aware of all the negative things that people are saying about the solo devil wagon, but they decide to try it anyway.
And he or she, the piece doesn't have a byline, sadly, so we don't know who wrote it, but the person actually comes to love this machine. And their description of writing is totally delightful.
She says it takes some getting used to, the machine was pretty jerky. So when you turn the handle to rev the engine, the whole thing lurches forward, it had the writer said, "The disposition of a bronco and the guile of an eel."
But in the end, the writer starts musing on all the different ways this motorized scooter can be useful. Salesmen can use it to get across town in a hurry. It can help commuters, shoppers, people coming home from the Opera. I have to say, my mind was blown reading this because typically the arc of great innovations goes like this. Something new is introduced, it freaks everyone out. They come to understand its value and it becomes so embedded in the world that people forget the innovation was ever controversial to begin with. But here we are at a moment that feels the opposite of that, because this is what people say about motorized scooters today.
Voice Actor: Electric scooters have descended upon cities across the country with some calling it scooter get it.
Voice Actor: An Oakland counselor is calling for all public electric scooters to be pulled from the city streets.
Voice Actor: The enraged citizens of San Francisco are policing them with other means, smearing the scooters with human feces, cutting their electrical lines.
Voice Actor: I think everybody should pick them up and throw them into the Bay. We should build like a little scooter island.
Jason Feifer: In case you aren't familiar with what's going on electric scooter companies like Lime and Bird are opening up shop in cities around the world. And they do this by like releasing hundreds of dockless scooters out into the wild.
The scooters can be rented via an app. You just walk up to a scooter wherever you find it, scan a QR code, ride it however long you'd like, and then leave it wherever you'd like, because someone else will come along and rent it a new. The scooters end up getting distributed around the city at random, which is definitely a weird site at first. And also as is sadly often the case with new forms of transportation, they also lead to occasional accident and death.
Many people love these things, but others are reacting with fury. Cities across America are banning them. Others are preemptively blocking them from coming in. And across Europe, France, Britain, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and more have passed laws to contain them in some way. This is the transit battle of the day, the city versus the scooter. But in the beginning, back in the early 1900s, when this invention was actually new, well, the reaction was more like that reporter in the New York Sun, people were like, "Hey, what's this thing. It's kind of cool."
Peter Norton: The Autoped was not a big problem for pedestrians.
Jason Feifer: That's Peter Norton, an associate professor of history in the department of engineering and society at the University of Virginia.
Peter Norton: And I can say that pretty confidently because I really searched the old newspapers for pedestrians complaints. And I've never seen a single item where a pedestrian complains about a motor scooter.
Jason Feifer: The motor scooters entrance into this world was generally smooth and uncomplicated. It's only now a full century later that the scooter is getting us all fired up. And so it's worth asking why, what happened back then? And what does it say about what's happening now?
Peter Norton has an answer to that, but it is a complicated one. To understand scooters is to understand cities and roads and to question exactly what roads are for. Because functionally speaking, the roads that scooters debuted on in 1915 are not the same roads that we use today, but maybe, just maybe. Today's scooters offer a lesson in what our roads should be tomorrow. So on this episode we are going to put scooters in their proper context. What is a motorized scooter for? Why do people love it and why do they hate it now? And what does all of this have to do with roller skates?
They are big questions. And the answer just might lead us to rethink how a city is designed, seriously. The humble scooter is about to get big and important and we'll get into it all right after the break.
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All right, we're back. So our goal here is to understand why scooters weren't controversial in the early 1900s and what that can tell us about the future of scooters now. But like I just said before the break that requires stepping back to ask some big, fundamental questions about transportation and roads. So let's get elemental here. Let's start by asking something so big and simple that it sounds dumb. So here it is. Where did roads come from?
Carlton Reid: So every road has probably had a much greater history than we think, it's going to be Mastodons.
Jason Feifer: This is Carlton Reid. And to be clear, what he's talking about here is not mastered on one of the preeminent metal acts of the early 21st century, but rather he's talking about Mastodons and ancient distant relative of the elephant.
Carlton Reid: Like the road between Detroit and Washington DC. That's a Mastodon because they found archeologists have found Mastodon paths where they know that the Mastodons were moving to and fro. They weren't going from Detroit, of course, to Washington DC, to the very local, but it was Mastodons making the first recognizable trails.
Jason Feifer: Carlton is a cycling historian and the author of many books, including one called Roads Were Not Built for Cars. And what he's saying here is one of the prevailing theories of the origins of roads. That large animals habitually walked in the same pathways over long periods of time, which created trails. Then native people started using the trails. And then once cities and towns were built, people often formalize these trails into roads. And that means our roads and the cities we built around our roads were really designed for an older type of usage. Roads were for people and for people walking or playing or talking or selling stuff, or riding an animal. This is true even up to the late 1800s and early 1900s. People would mill about in the street. They'd cross wherever they pleased with no concept of looking both ways to make sure it was safe. There were no stop signs or speed limits or traffic lights. Here's Peter Norton again.
Peter Norton: People felt about the street a lot like they feel about say a crowded city park today, where your job, if you go to the park is to do what you want really. It's just that you're not supposed to get in other people's way or to endanger others.
Jason Feifer: But then very rapidly things began to change. For a few decades from the 1880s to like the 1920s, tons of different modes of transportation started hitting the streets. It was like a crazy free for all. An innovation bonanza on wheels. You had bicycles, electric railways, jitneys, cars and more.
Peter Norton: Lots of new things were happening frequently on streets and on sidewalks. And there was always a lot of disagreement about them.
Jason Feifer: It forced people to rethink who the roads were for and what they were for. And it made them pick sides. Hell, it made them write angsty poetry like a teenager. No, for real, here's an actual poem that ran in the Chicago News in 1889.
Voice Clip (Chi...: He went to cross the Boulevard when something fouled his keel, he backed himself just half a yard and grazed the bikers wheel. He heard a mighty warning shout. He tried to clear the track or run the leap a wheel about just missed a horseless hack. He hears a yell and starts to flee, but stumps and calmly waits, a hoop, a fall failed to see the kid on roller skates.
Jason Feifer: Now, this is the context into which scooters were introduced. A chaotic streetscape and a world of constant innovation, but the scooter actually comes along towards the end of this stretch of time. And if you want to really appreciate the world the scooter was introduced to, you need to take a little tour of the old time streets. So here is what we're going to do. I'm going to walk or well roll you through these moments, three new things on wheels. So you can get a good sense of what people of the time were seeing and how they were reacting. Then we'll come back to scooters and really appreciate what the scooter meant to people back then and what it can mean to us today. All right, let's get into it. Here is the first of three.
Voice Actor: The bicycle.
Jason Feifer: Yes, the bicycle. This is a deep rich subject, and we've already done a Pessimists Archive episode on the bicycle already. So we're not going to retread that ground. See what I did there. You should go check out the episode, but people thought the bicycle would lead to crazy physical deformities and loosening morals. Okay, you know what? I can't resist here is one of my favorite criticisms that we included in the old episode from the New York Times, 1894.
Voice Clip (New...: Not that every bicycle rider is a person of unsound mind. Well, that is to say at the time of the beginning of the fatal practice. Still there is not the slightest doubt that bicycle riding if persisted in leads to weakness of mind, general lunacy and homicidal mania.
Jason Feifer: Compared to that, Lance Armstrong was a saint, but this is not where we're going with the bicycle today. For our purposes of understanding transportation right now, I want to talk about something we didn't get into in that old bicycle episode. It's about how the bicycle shaped the road as we know it. So consider the early 1800s, there was no car, there was no bicycle. The only way to get from city to city was by horse-drawn stagecoach, traveling along these long unpaved roads. And the government had not built these roads, by the way, it hadn't even occurred to anyone that this would be the government's job. Instead, segments of roads were generally created and maintained by locals and sometimes funded by fees that the drivers would have to pay to drive along them. And then something revolutionary happens.
The passenger train is invented. England starts building out train lines in the 1830s. And America follows in the 1840s. And now you've got these fast locomotives going from city to city. And if you're going from Detroit to Washington DC, and you're not a Mastodon, then taking the train is suddenly way more appealing than a day's long horse ride along a bumpy road. People were like, screw these old roads. They're about as useful as a musket. So they stopped using them and stopped maintaining them. And the roads that connected America's and England's cities quickly became dilapidated and covered in moss. Decades past like this. And then the bicycle arrived. In the 1870s the bicycle was the hot new thing. It was speedy inexpensive and quickly became the play thing of the rich.
Carlton Reid: This is the red Lamborghini, the red Tesla of the day were these bicycles.
Jason Feifer: That's Carlton Reid again. And what do Richmond want with their flashy new rides? Ooh, ooh, I know, they want to use them to compensate for some sort of embarrassing deficiency. Oh, and something else, I guess.
Carlton Reid: They wanted to take their bicycles somewhere to go very fast on them.
Jason Feifer: Right. They want to ride them really fast. But these rich cyclists of the 1870s couldn't find anywhere to ride their bicycles fast because city roads were stuffed with people and the country roads had been left to rot ever since the train came along. So they hatched an idea.
Carlton Reid: Farmers thought if these roads as there roads, these are our little country roads. Cyclist came along and said, no, actually these are national infrastructure. This isn't for farmers, this is for everybody.
Jason Feifer: The cyclist began a decades long lobbying campaign to establish the concept of national transport arteries. They called it the Good Roads Movement, and they hired people to push lawmakers and campaigned using a group of well-funded cycling magazines.
The whole point was to make roads that would be fun to bicycle on, but couched in the language of national interest. And it worked sort of, cities added bike lanes and States, and eventually the federal government agreed that it was the government's job to maintain these roads. But this took a few decades. And by the time the government was on board, the bicycle had become affordable enough so that the average person could buy it. And so the rich totally lost interest in cycling. Instead, they moved on to a new technology that could go even faster, the car. And they brought all their lobbying money over to the new auto industry, which was able to help transform these country roads into the highway system we know today. Which is to say that, yes, the highways we use today were originally created for bicycles. So, all right, that is our first story of what happened as all these new forms of transportation hit the streets. Our second story is about something a little less familiar than the bicycle, it's called?
Voice Actor: The herdic.
Jason Feifer: Never heard of the herdic. Neither had I, but if we were alive in the 1880s, we would have seen them everywhere. They were like an early version of the yellow cab, but from a time before cars, here's Peter Norton to explain.
Peter Norton: So at the time, the main thing in the 1880s that you could get as somebody going around town would be a horse-drawn street car. Usually just called a horse car or an omnibus, which would be off of rails and pulled by horses. And these things were slow. They were designed to carry a larger number of passengers and therefore, because they were horse-drawn, they went slowly. The genius behind the herdic was it would carry a smaller number of people much more quickly and in more comfort.
Jason Feifer: And how did it do that? Because the herdic was, well, you know how like a Roman chariot was basically a bucket on two wheels attached to the backside of a horse. The herdic was sort of like that except instead of a bucket it had a little enclosed carriage with seats, still two wheels. And in comparison to every other form of transportation for hire the herdic was smaller and more nimble and speedy. A herdic could weave around obstacles, getting you from here to there in fast comfort. And a lot of people loved it for this, but others were just annoyed because once the herdic was created, the streets were full of them.
Peter Norton: A lot of people said, these are terrible. They're serving a high end market. They're not serving the low traffic routes. They're cutting into the business of the omnibuses and the horse cars on their most profitable routes. And then abandoning the less profitable routes, which is making it harder for the omnibuses and the horse cars to make ends meet.
Jason Feifer: Also, people were annoyed because the herdic just seemed to be everywhere. Running a herdic was a good business. And lots of people got in on it because the herdics could outmaneuver most things on the streets. The drivers would go blazing down the road, which earned the drivers a reputation for being reckless and lawless. That sediment is captured really well in this 1885 story from the Boston Globe, which okay, you know what? I just love how nuts this story is. I want to let it unfold for you as it did for the readers in 1885. It's like a little piece of theater. So, all right, sit back, grab your popcorn, we begin with the herdic.
Voice Clip (Bos...: It moved to the right and left among the cars gliding between the dashers of the horse cars and then threading its way toward the entrance of the Boston Theater with surprising speed. When it arrived opposite The Globe Theater, a big policemen blocked away and held up his club. The drivers smiled and kept on. "Stand back, I tell you." Said the policemen, "or I'll run you in."
"Ho ho." Said the driver, "run me in, will you? Run me in? Well, that's funny, very funny, ho ho ho." Mad, I think his order had been defied, the policemen went tearing down the street to arrest him, "You all wanted my man come with me." He made a good aim for the driver shoulder and brought his hand down with a big flourish. It passed through the herdic man's body as if it had been air and his arms swung back with momentum and hit an inoffensive newsboy in the face, causing him to go off sniffling and wondering what he had done to give so much offense. "Hmm, that's funny." Mused the officer, "Very queer indeed, I guess I smoked too much, fell the same way once before, wife said was the beer. I know better, it's that old pipe, we'll leave off now."
Jason Feifer: Unexpected turn at the end there, right? It's basically a keystone cop routine, but with the added hilarity of substance abuse. So let's review what we've just learned about the herdic. The existing transportation services at the time were bulky and often impractical. So then a smaller, more nimble service came along to meet consumers' needs. They quickly flooded the streets, which was jarring on its own, and they weren't always the most neighborly, which caused a lot of fury aimed at operators of this new mode of transportation. And they also disrupted existing businesses, which caused a lot of anxiety. Does this sound a little familiar?
Peter Norton: It's a beautiful illustration of the fact that what we've been seeing going on in our urban mobility with Uber, with Lyft, with dockless bikes, with dockless scooters, we've been around this tour before, we had it with the herdic.
Jason Feifer: Of course, the herdic would eventually yield to other forms of transportation. Remember that story about the drunk cop from the Boston Globe in 1885, 25 years later in 1910, the same newspaper ran another story about herdics this one headlined, "Boston's surviving herdic." It was about George Harris, the city's last herdic driver who the paper calls "A genial colored man from the South."
The story makes no mention of how herdic were once portrayed. Instead, it treats them as a romantic novelty, an object from a simpler era. And it describes the surviving driver as a happy man with a stable of regular customers. When he's not on the job, the paper says that he "Spreads the morning paper on his knees and enjoys life to its full." How quickly we all move on.
All right, time for our final short story about new wheels hitting the streets during this time, this one you'll be a lot more familiar with it, It's?
Voice Actor: The roller skates.
Voice Actor: This is roller skating, America's favorite fun sport, a wholesome year round recreation. One of our truly great all American participants sports.
Jason Feifer: That's from a video by the Rollerskating Foundation of America. And it was made in what we often think of as roller skating's heyday, the 1950s. But that was actually just a resurgence of roller skating. The original boom happened much, much earlier, both in Europe and the US and there's actually quite a lot to the first rise and fall of roller skating. So let's back up all the way to.
Rhonda Cann: It came from the Dutch because they ice skated. They skated the canals and they wanted to do something like that in the summertime. They used their ice skates and attached rollers to those ice blades. So technically the first roller skates were inline skates, not quads that in lines.
Jason Feifer: That's Rhonda Cann director of The National Museum of Roller Skating. And what she's talking about happened in the 1700s. The earliest surviving roller skate is from 1760, but the invention didn't really take off past these board overheated Dutch people, because the skates were hard to ride and impossible to turn.
A full century later in 1863, a New York businessman named James Plimpton added the necessary final touch by building a version of the roller skate that we know now, four wheels, easy to turn basically straps onto your foot. And with that, the roller skate was off to become the all-American sport for everyone. Well, not for everyone.
Rhonda Cann: What we find is that the roller rinks, especially in Europe like in the late 1800s, some of them were the size of a football field. And people would go to skate, they would meet their spouse at the roller rink. They would get married. It was not unusual for people to get married on roller skates. And then when they started having children, when the children got old enough, they would bring the kids to the roller rink and they would skate as a family, but it was a very classy thing to do. We find pictures and the men wore suits, top hats, the women wore elegant dresses with hats and gloves. They carried a parasol in some cases, it was a very elegant thing to do. So there was a pretty strict dress code. There was also a strict behavior code. So if you didn't comply with those things, you were asked to leave.
Jason Feifer: It doesn't take much reading between the lines to see what's going on here. Right? Roller skating had become a hobby for the rich and the rich put in all these barriers like dress codes and rules of behavior in order to maintain exclusivity over their NFL sized roller skating meeting habitats. So what happens next? Well, of course, the world starts chipping away. I read through a lot of newspaper articles from the 1800s about roller skating and want to take you through a little tour of them because they nicely capture the evolving hysteria. First roller skating became seen as objectionable, even immoral. Here's a piece from the Washington DC Evening Star in 1885 describing the early roller skating rinks.
Voice Clip (Was...: They were attended by staid and orderly people, including ministers, deacons, and church members. And on one occasion, the good folks astonished their friends, and in fact, themselves by skating a waltz figure during lent. It did not awake to the enormity of the offense until some of the newspapers began to write them up.
Jason Feifer: And what were those newspapers writing? Well, here's from the Lowell Sun of Massachusetts also in 1885.
Voice Clip (Low...: Does it improve a young girl's modesty or morals to fall in a heap on a skating rink floor in the gaze of hundreds with perhaps her feet in the air and her clothes tossed over her head? Is it good for her proper training to see other females in such plight?
Voice Actor: Have you no decency rollerskating women, have you no shame?
Jason Feifer: Meanwhile, other religious leaders were concerned about how much time people were spending rollerskating, which of course meant time away from church. So what happened next? I can only infer from the newspapers because as best I can tell, no historian has studied this in detail, but it seems that at some point, some of the barriers to getting inside the roller skating rink were broken down. And then now please hear hold onto something as I say this awful thing, the original high society skaters began skating with the rabble. That caused even more of a stir among religious leaders like pastors in Pennsylvania, who were thinking about forbidding their flock from strapping on wheels. Here's from the Philadelphia Times, also in 1885.
Voice Clip (Phi...: This motion has been instigated in one or two instances by unfortunate episodes. In which young girls belonging to religious families have formed the acquaintance of Rascals at the rinks and been led astray.
Voice Actor: Here, there'll be Rascals.
Jason Feifer: Soon a clampdown began. New York state considered a law that would have banned young women from attending roller skating rinks at night. Doctors got it on the action declaring that women and children will become deformed if they keep roller skating. As is summarized here in the Chicago News, also 1885.
Voice Clip (Chi...: It's devil days are liable to deformities of the limps and other functional arrangements. Concerning the rollerskate, there is unfortunately a little risk of exaggerating its evils. Although of only comparatively recent introduction, its effects upon the carriage and gate and upon the anatomical development, especially of growing children are already quite marked.
Jason Feifer: In the face of this, the rollerskating industry tried to promote its own health claims. I found this ad in the Standard of London in 1890 for something called the Olympian Club Roller Skating Rink. And it's basically just a long list of all the ways that roller skating is a miracle cure. For example, the ad says that it cures dyspepsia. It also cures headaches, rheumatism, helps you sleep better at night, gives you a good appetite. And for real, "Beats, all medicine."
Quick, someone called Gwyneth Paltrow, Goop should start selling $5,000 roller skates immediately. Anyway, the whole mess led to a big bust in the rollerskating industry. Newspapers started to report on the declining business and eventually it seems rollerskating left the rink entirely and started moving outside where yes, it became yet another thing on wheels, suddenly inserted into the evolving streets.
Washington DC considered banning rollerskates from sidewalks in 1907 for example, but were afraid of the consequences. They suspected that if they push the roller skaters off the sidewalks, they'd just move out onto the streets, which could get even more dangerous. Which I'm going to guess is exactly what happened. So there we are, the bike, the herdic and the roller skates.
Three examples of new wheels hitting the streets during a time when it wasn't entirely clear what the streets were for, or what they should look like, or who should maintain them. And what comes next? Oh yes, it is time to finally return to the invention we began with and we'll get to it right after this break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So like I said before the break, we're looking at a moment of great transition on the road. A time of oh, what the hell? Let's throw something on wheels and see what happens. And so now that you've seen this moment unfold with the bike, the herdic, and roller skates, it's time to turn our attention back to.
Voice Actor: The scooter.
Jason Feifer: Or let's remember, as they were often called.
Voice Actor: The Autoped.
Jason Feifer: Here's Peter Norton again, to get us situated.
Peter Norton: The Autoped's brief period of relative success is very significant. So it was really getting sold from about 1915 to about 1921. And that was a nice little niche for it in the sense that Model T comes along in 1914 and it's proliferating. However, the first world war was a damper on supply of motor vehicles.
Jason Feifer: So this is a world where cars exist, but you wouldn't have seen them all over the streets yet. That clears the way for the Autoped. At first, our motorized scooter thing arrives as a little novelty. The Boston Post in 1916, for example, ran a photo of a guy riding two Autopeds at once one foot on each, along with the caption, "Anyone having a picture of a man riding three Autopeds will please send it in."
But in New York, a street car strike in 1916 gave the Autoped more of a purpose. People started taking them to work and newspapers got a kick out of running photos of women on these things. One headline was quote, "More than street car strike needed to stop this girl shopping tour." Because hey, there's nothing like a little drive by condescension.
Soon people around the country started using the Autoped to get around too. And were cities annoyed by these things? Yeah, sometimes. In 1915, the City Council of Natchez, Mississippi held a meeting about whether the chief of police could restrain anyone on a scooter. And here is what the mayor said.
Voice Actor: I too have had to step lively to get out of the way of scooters. I have adopted the method of getting as close to a wall or fence as possible when I hear a scooter coming, I'd remain perfectly still until the danger is over. I recommend this method gentlemen.
Jason Feifer: A few other papers ran stories about how dangerous or reckless the scooter was, but that seemed to be it. Like Peter said, it's hard to find any real sustained resistance to these things. And why was that? Well, the technology sucked.
Peter Norton: The Autoped had a pretty heavy and not very powerful gasoline engine mounted over the front wheel, and you stood up on it and it pulls you along. You can go maybe 20 miles an hour. You could go a little faster if you could deal with the vibrations. It's pretty noisy, not particularly cheap, about $100.
Jason Feifer: And $100 in 1915 is about $2,500 today. So how's that for a sales pitch? Buy the Autoped, it's heavy, noisy, expensive, and vibrates like hell. This was never going to be a thing that the masses could afford, let alone that they'd want. Also, once the automobile parts shortage was solved, cars weren't all that much more expensive. By 1925, a Model T was going for $300 and it was clearly more practical than the Autoped.
But cars would come to play an even larger role in determining what stayed on the roads and what went away. Because remember, although cars are starting to hit the streets, we are still in a world in which roads are a free for all.
Peter Norton: There weren't a lot of rules. There were more customs than rules. You were to keep to the right. There were no center lines, no lane markings, no traffic signs, just direction signs and advertising signs. But no rules, no stop signs, no speed limits, no traffic signals.
Jason Feifer: The assumption was just that drivers would look out for pedestrians and if a vehicle hit a pedestrian and the case went to court, the judge almost always sided with the pedestrian. But getting hit by a bicycle or a herdic, or a scooter, or roller skate was one thing, getting hit by a car was another. And as more vehicles crowded onto the roads, more people were dying in the streets. Cities would see multiple deaths a week, if not a day. And that was new and scary. And it started a different conversation.
Peter Norton: That difference really causes a big legal crisis who belongs in the street and who has priority? At first, the law being a pretty conservative thing that tends to look to tradition. The law favored the pedestrian over the motorist, but the automobile interest groups really worked very hard to change that.
Jason Feifer: The automobile lobby knew that cars could never really take off unless the roads were cleared out. So they went on a sustained campaign to define roads as the place for cars. They got laws passed and also said about changing culture. For example, an auto industry group set up this free wire service for newspapers. So a reporter could just send some basic details of a traffic accident off to them.
And then the auto industry group would write the story and then send it back so that the paper could run it just in full. Thereby raising awareness that pedestrians needed to stay out of the roads. And also you know where this comes from?
Voice Actor: I'm afraid I'm going to have to give you a ticket.
Voice Actor: A ticket, for what?
Voice Actor: Jaywalking.
Jason Feifer: I mean, if you answered, oh, that comes from a 1966 episode of Batman, then I don't know how to help you. But what I meant was, do you know where the concept of jaywalking comes from? It's a thing the auto industry came up with to try to shame people into staying off the streets. At the time the word jay, meant basically what the word hick means today. It was a country bumpkin.
So the auto industry ran all these ads showing people walking in the streets with messages that say, don't be a jaywalker. As in hey, don't act like some dummy from the country who just wandered out into the middle of the road, and it worked. The sustained effort ended the era of open streets. Horses were replaced, bicycles were pushed aside, and for many decades almost completely disappeared.
Roller skates and scooters became things for kids and only in certain spaces, and the car came to own the road. Our movements around cities became defined by how we accommodate cars, which makes sense, right? The car came along at the end of decades of transportation innovation. At a time when people were actively trying to figure out how to move around with more efficiency and safety.
Society was asking a question. And at the time, the car was the answer. But now a century has passed. The consequences of that decision have played out and not everyone loves what happened. Here's Carlton Reid again.
Carlton Reid: Because in most cities, motorists are just a tiny minority. We've given over cities to a tiny minority of people and assumed that's a societal good.
Jason Feifer: So here is where scooters once again, enter our story. Because think of it, the conversation in 1915 and the conversation today are not actually all that different. In both time periods, cars and scooters were sharing the streets. In both times, people were questioning what the roads were for. And in both times the city street had not kept up with the technological changes.
In 1915, cars were new and killing pedestrians, because people were walking around in a world that hadn't adapted to this new form of transportation. And in 2019, scooters are new, well for the second time, and they too are leading to strife in the occasional tragic accident, because the rules just aren't clear about where to ride them, or how to ride them, or how they should interact with everything else on the road. But you know what is clear? What's clear is that scooters are wanted and to Peter Norton, that says something important.
Peter Norton: These innovations both 100 years ago and now are occurring as city densities are increasing. So people are trying to figure out ways to move around that aren't so space demanding the way say an automobile is. And I think the scooter may be a symptom of a city that hasn't been serving that kind of nimble efficient, low spatially demanding mobility need.
And I say that because I was a guest faculty member in the Netherlands last year, and at the beginning of this year. And you almost never see a scooter there. This has something to do with regulations, but it also has to do with the fact that the cities are designed such that you don't really need them.
Jason Feifer: And if you've ever been to Amsterdam, you understand what he means here. To say that Amsterdam is bike-friendly is to really undersell the word friendly. There are bicycle lanes everywhere. There are multi-level bicycle parking garages overflowing with bicycles. In this city, bicycles have a place, so nobody needs a scooter.
Peter Norton: So I would take that be a lesson of this as well, that the scooter is a resort that people take up when the alternatives are as poor as they typically are in American cities in particular.
Jason Feifer: Here's a thing I like to do. As I think about a problem, I try to remember to work backwards from facts. What are the indisputable facts on the ground? Not the facts as we'd like them to be, but the facts as they are. What can we learn from reality? And right now the facts on the ground are that people really like using these scooters. You put them into a city and people immediately adopt them.
They intuitively understand the role that scooters can play in their lives. And that should tell you something, you cannot dispute this. So if you accept the basic fact that people like scooters, then you must ask the next logical question. What is the problem here? The problem isn't the scooter. The problem is that the city hasn't already solved for the problem that the scooter is addressing. This does not seem to be the way that many cities are thinking.
What I see is a lot of protection of the status quo and a demonizing of the people who push against it. And to be clear, are scooter drivers sometimes bad stewards of the streets? Yes, they sure are. Scooters are left lying around in the middle of sidewalks, or they're being used to zip through crowds, or they're darting through traffic or whatever. Come on guys, stop that. This is a repeat of something that happens throughout history, where the first adopters of a new technology are obnoxious about how they use it.
Remember the cyclists invading the farmers country roads, or the herdics flying past police officers? New tech leads to new culture, which leads to culture clashes. But you know what will not solve this problem? Banning scooters, that'll just exacerbate the problem. So if we want to really solve the problem, we may need to think not about protecting the status quo, but about entirely appending it.
Carlton Reid: We've got to reshape our cities. Just as motorists came along and reshaped cities after trains came along, people after us will reshape cities and go well, this is where the scooters go, this is where the bike go, this is where people go. Oh, I'm going to give one lane to cars. And that's the way the future's going. The car will get gradually more and more squeezed out. We find that hard to imagine now, but lots of European cities have absolutely done it. So it's coming whether you like it or not.
Jason Feifer: Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn uses this phrase that I love. "It's permanent beta." He means it about people. If you want to be an entrepreneur, think of yourself as a constant work in progress. You're a product that never leaves beta, but that doesn't just apply to people. It applies to the world. The world we have created is just a product in permanent beta. It must be modified. It's shape is not final.
To think otherwise, is to fundamentally misunderstand the lesson of the road. Today, we often act like innovation was supposed to stop in the early 1900. We tried out herdics and highways for bicycles and jitneys and trolleys and whatever else, and then the car came along and we're like, that's it, that's all we need. But of course that's not right. Bicycles re-emerged, scooters re-emerged, rollerskates turned into rollerblades, turned into hoverboards and more will come.
More inventions will come. Not all will transform our world and I'm looking at you there to segue, but some inventions will change everything. That's inevitable. The question we've asked all along is what is the road for? And you know what? I think we've been answering it all wrong. The road isn't for any one kind of usage, or any one kind of transportation, or any one kind of vehicle.
It's not for horses versus cars versus scooters versus the unimaginable next thing on wheels. The answer is the roads are for us, all of us. So now we should ask ourselves, where are we going? And how are we getting there? And that's our episode. But of course, that's not all I've got for you. I have one more way that the scooters of yesterday intersect with the scooters of today, and this one is personal.
I'll tell you all, but first some news about me. I've launched a new podcast called Hush Money that I'd love for you to check out. It's a show about how money can make life awkward. In each episode, my co-host Nicole Lapin and I pick a tricky question about money and life, like who pays on a first date? Or should you give your friend a loan? Or should you work with family and fire your family?
We debate the questions then bring on a celebrity judge to decide who's right. It's super fun. And we hope it gets people talking about the stuff they're often too uncomfortable to talk about. So check it out. The podcast is called Hush Money. Now, as for the podcast you just heard right now, have you subscribed to Pessimists Archive wherever you get your podcasts? If not, please do it so you won't miss an episode and leave us a review too.
You can also follow us on Twitter at @pessimistsarc that's pessimists A-R-C, where we're constantly tweeting out the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. Or visit our awesome new website where we are building an actual archive of great, crazy old pieces of written pessimism from the past, searchable by innovation. Check it out pessimists.co.
We also love hearing from listeners. So drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. A huge thanks to Peter Norton, Carlton Reed, Rhonda Can, and Andrew Raven, the actors you heard reading our archival material were Brent Rose.
Brent Rose: I really like mountain bike a lot, and I have the scars and broken ribs to prove it.
Jason Feifer: You can find him at brentrose.com. And we also heard from Gia Maura.
Gia Maura: I have to admit, I really want an e-scooter.
Jason Feifer: You can find her at giamaura.com. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the foundation at ckf.org/tech. The Pessimists Archive team this episode included Louis Anslow and Chris Cornelis. We were recorded by Charlie Culbert at deGrasse Sound and sound edited by Alec Bayless. Our webmaster is James Stewart.
And now back to scooters, remember that 1916 New York Sun story I opened this episode with? I told you that the writer described the motor scooter of the day as having quote "The disposition of a bronco and the guile of an eel." And I have to say those words really hold up. While I was working on this episode, I traveled to Minneapolis for work and got to ride one of these things for the first time, because the scooter companies aren't allowed in New York where I live. So I hopped on one and... Okay, here we go.
Oh yeah. I recorded myself. Is this working? I am stepping on the Lime scooter a little bit and press the gas and, no, it's not working, woo, woo. It was not graceful. Two women laughed at me on the sidewalk. And now as you continue to hear me struggle, let me read for you the full description of riding a scooter from 1916. "In your frenzy, you give the handles a twist and then fall all over yourself and meet your spats coming back. The Autoped has the disposition of a bronco and the guile of an eel. However, take heart of grace and go to it, for one has been one neck and two legs and is likely to come away with some of them."
That folks is a masterpiece of writing. I felt every word of it, though, for what it's worth, you do get the hang of the scooter pretty quick. And after that, for me, at least it became my favorite way to get around town. Seriously, you have to try it. All right, that's all for this episode. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. My name is Jason Feifer and we'll see you in the near future.
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