Stephen Bayley

How we did the locomotion: A Brief History of Motion, by Tom Standage, reviewed

This journey through ground transport in all its forms fails to impart the pain and pleasure of travel — or provide any insight into where we are going next

The three-wheel self-driving ‘dream’ car of the future — as imagined in 1961. Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Audi will make no more fuel engines after 2035. So that’s the end of the Age of Combustion, signalled by a puff of immaculately catalysed smoke from polished chrome exhausts designed by fanatics in Ingolstadt. But some say the age of motion itself will have shuddered to a halt before then.

A trope of the New Yorker is a cartoon showing cavemen inventing the wheel, a companion to the other trope of desert island castaways. The adventure promised by the wheel and the limitations of boring stationary solitude are ineffably linked. Since Homo erectus left Africa 1.75 million years ago, without wheels, moving our bodies through space has been a defining characteristic of civilisation.

The urge to travel may be, as the biochemist Charles Pasternak says, very nearly innate. But this primal need could be reaching its historical conclusion. Crossrail, if it is ever finished, will be the end of something old, not the start of something new. The Covid crisis proved what had long been suspected: mass commuting is wastefully stupid.

Tom Standage is the deputy editor of the Economist. His subject here is the history of ground transport in all its forms. It is vast and compelling territory to cross. Not for nothing is there a semantic ambiguity about machines that move you: motion and emotion are close.

Instead of the keys to the Thunderbird for your 21st birthday, you now get, Standage suggests, a Lyft subscription

Yet progress in transport types was slow until railways made speed a consumer experience. Smoothness was an innovation too. Reading was impossible in a horse-drawn carriage because the vibrations were so severe. The railway was categorically different. Passengers could enter a reverie on a train journey, numbed by gentle, repetitive sounds — something which Freud noticed and analysed.

And the new railway networks required synchronised timekeeping to avoid collisions, since cities kept different times.

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