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  • Urban Transport and Mobility in Technology and Culture
  • Peter Norton (bio)

In the quest for a more sustainable future, we have much to learn from relatively sustainable practices of the past. In January 2020, Technology and Culture published "Sustainable Urban Mobility in the Present, Past, and Future," by Frank Schipper, Martin Emanuel, and Ruth Oldenziel.1 The authors distilled the conclusions of a series of workshops in the history and future of sustainable urban mobility, culminating in the publication of A U-Turn to the Future?—a collection that questions the neglect of valuable experience from historical efforts to find less energy-intensive urban transportation.2 In its interest in the future and in a usable past (the practical application of history), the article at first appears to be a departure from the typical contribution. A closer look, however, reveals that it unites diverse threads of scholarship that have been developing in Technology and Culture since the 1960s, and that are worth pursuing more deliberately in the years ahead.

The study of transportation as a field within the wider realm of technology and society has been so completely reconceived in recent decades that the vocabulary has had to change too. Scholars of transportation had attended primarily to vehicles, hardware, invention, commerce, and production. But for most people, most of the time, transportation includes but is not confined to vehicles. It is more personal, subjective, and experiential. It encompasses means of getting around that are of little commercial significance but still of great importance by other worthy measures. It is rich in a kind of inventiveness that has been excluded from conventional definitions of invention. [End Page 1197] It is dense in its interconnections with matters of culture, power, gender, and race. As a word, transportation, with its inherited legacies, was inadequate to the job of accommodating such more inclusive perspectives. Hence scholars turned to mobility as a more inclusive and versatile alternative.3 This development is still evolving and perspectives are diverse; even among its scholars, usages of mobility and mobilities vary widely. Technology and Culture has had an important place in this creative reimagining of transportation studies, as the work reviewed here demonstrates.

When Technology and Culture was established in 1959, urban mobility was the subject of intense controversy in the United States. An attack on car-centric urban modernism, best exemplified by Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was already well underway. Nevertheless urban mobility was practically absent from the journal until 1967, when W. David Lewis reported on a conference on technology and urbanization jointly hosted by the Society for the History of Technology and the Organization of American Historians in Cincinnati.4 Work presented there included papers by Roy Lubove on "Urbanization, Technology, and the Historian" and by Sam Bass Warner on "Transportation and the City." According to Lewis, Warner cautioned the audience against historically naïve notions of progress and advised them to look beyond vehicles and artifacts of urban transportation to consider "altered living patterns, the shifting locations of economic, occupational, and residential complexes, the results of the increasing physical mobility of working-class and immigrant groups, and so on."

Slow to adopt Warner's advice, contributors to Technology and Culture wrote about inventors and artifacts in the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in the United States. But in his 1977 study of street railways, Michael Massouh warned that history is "not merely the chronicle of heroic accomplishment, nor is it merely the story of hardware."5 Though Massouh's interest was in inventors, he included dead ends and failed innovations. In 1976 Ruth Schwartz Cowan was already proposing much more illuminating ways of investigating technology, integrating the social with the technical. Until then, the tables of contents may have left readers wondering why "and Culture" was included in the journal's name. In articles published in 1976 and 1979, Cowan introduced gender into technology history, bringing attention to matters of users, class, and power.6 Articles featuring inventors and inventions continued, but no longer to the exclusion of sociotechnical studies.7 [End Page 1198]

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pp. 1197-1211
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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