Urban Pollution-Many Long Years Ago


Writing in Appleton’s Magazine in 1908, Harold Bolce entitled his article “The Horse Vs. Health.” In a thoroughgoing assault he blamed most of the sanitary and economic problems of the modern city on the horse and essayed to calculate the savings if all horses were replaced by automobiles and motor trucks. His figures were arrived at by an intriguing formula. According to Bolce, twenty thousand New Yorkers died each year from “maladies that fly in the dust” created mainly by horse manure. He estimated the monetary value to the community of these people’s lives, plus the cost of maintaining hospitals to treat them, and laid the entire bill on the withers of the inoffensive horse. To this sum he added the cost of street cleaning and rubbish disposal. He also attributed a higher urban cost of living to the failure to use speedy motor trucks, instead of horses, in transporting goods. Finally he computed and added the costs of traffic congestion and reached a total of approximately one hundred million dollars as the price that New York City paid for not banning the horse from its streets. What fed Bolce’s indignation was not so much hate of horses, perhaps, as dedication to progress. The horse, he maintained, represented one of the last stands of brute animal strength over applied science and, as such, had to go—Americans could no longer afford “the absurdities of a horse-infected city.”

While no city ever took such drastic action as banning horses completely from its boundaries, many cities did eventually forbid them the use of certain streets and highways. But in the long run the horse’s opponents triumphed without recourse to legislation. The number of horses in cities dropped sharply as the automobile and the motor truck rapidly gained popularity, although the number of horses in the nation stayed high until the 1920’s (there were 20,091,000 horses reported in the 1920 census). As this happened, the benefits promised by motor-vehicle enthusiasts seemed to be initially realized. Streets were cleaner, particle pollution resulting from ground-up manure and the diseases thereby produced were diminished, the number of flies was greatly reduced, goods were transported more cheaply and efficiently, traffic travelled at a faster rate, and the movement of people from crowded cities to suburbs was accelerated by the automobile. Events appeared to justify the spokesmen for the advantages of the motor vehicle over the horse.


And yet, as current difficulties resulting from the massive use of the automobile attest, the motor vehicle’s proponents were extremely shortsighted in their optimistic faith that their innovation would not only eradicate the urban health problems created by the horse but would also avoid the formation of new ones. As the number of automobiles proliferated and such cities as New York and Los Angeles experienced smog conditions that were a serious hazard to public comfort and health, it became apparent that the automobile, too, was a major obstacle to humane metropolitan existence.

Are the problems of noise and air pollution created by thousands of cars and trucks “worse” than those for which the horse was responsible? It is impossible to answer flatly. Altered environmental and demographic conditions in the city today, when judged beside those of a century or so ago, make specific comparisons between the horse and the automobile as polluters difficult at best. Aside from the disagreeable aesthetic effect created by horse manure, its chief impact upon public health seemed to come from wind-blown manure particles that irritated respiratory organs; from the reservoir furnished by the manure for disease spores, such as those of tetanus; and, most critically, from the fact that horse dung provided a breeding ground for the fly, proven by medical science to be the carrier of thirty different diseases, many of them acute. The pollution created by the automobile, on the other hand, is also aesthetically displeasing; and while it has not yet been firmly linked to any specific disease, it has primarily a chronic effect on health. The pollutants released by the internal-combustion engine irritate people’s eyes and lungs, weakening their resistance to disease and worsening already present health problems. The immense number of automobiles in cities today has produced environmental difficulties that, unless soon dealt with, will generate problems that will dwarf those produced by horses in the cities of the past.

But the narrowness of vision of the early automobile advocates and their conviction that their machines would make urban life more tolerable, can be understood not as their failing alone. Most Americans, when informed of some technological advance that promises to alter their lives for the better without social cost, rush to embrace it. Second thoughts come later. Witness the apprehensions voiced presently over nuclear power plants after an initial flush of enthusiasm based on the hope that this cleaner and more efficient method of generating electricity would free us from dependence on dirty fossil fuels. We are only now learning to weigh the biological and other costs of new inventions with some caution. The career of the automobile has been one element in our education. Horses may be gone from city streets, but the unforeseen problems created by their successors still beset us.