Annual Conference of T2M
International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T2M)
Verkehrshaus der Schweiz, 05.11.2009-08.11.2009, Luzern

Bericht von: Stefan Sandmeier, Historisches Seminar, Universität Basel

Every kind of movement of people, goods and information through space and time consumes energy. Therefore, the history of traffic, transport and mobility is interwoven with the history of energy sources. This relation and the different kinds of innovation connected to it defined the theme «Energy and Innovation» of the 7th annual conference of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T2M). On four days, historians, sociologists, transportation planners and engineers discussed a great variety of issues related to the topical framework. The Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne with its large exposition and its well-equipped conference centre proved an ideal place to host this interdisciplinary discourse. The locomotives, cars, ships and airplanes on display made the notions of energy and innovation tangible and thus ideally counterbalanced the more abstract talks and discussions.

In his introductory lecture, PATRICK FRIDENSON (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales Paris) emphasized the importance of historical perspectives on the topics of energy and mobility. Historians, he argued, had to ask about path dependent developments and locked-in situations like the oil-driven development of modern mobility or the lock-in of the combustion engine in cars. Historical analysis could also show that paths can be altered. As a driving force for such change Fridenson identified social, political and economical currents that could induce innovation. Especially socio-economic factors such as consumer behaviour and the emergence of niche markets could play equally vital roles in innovation processes as could technical developments or the need for infrastructures. Neither of them should therefore be underestimated, as Fridenson exemplified on the cases of the developments of hybrid cars and the A380 airplane.

The environmental historian CHRISTIAN PFISTER (University of Bern) took up the thread of energy, innovation and society in his keynote speech. He outlined the history of western civilization as a history of progressing technical abilities to find new energy resources and exploit them efficiently. Social, cultural and economical developments such as the shift from agricultural to industrialized society are in his view closely connected to Schumpeterian innovation cycles related to energy: The invention of bridle and harness enabled people to use the power of animals to plough their fields more effectively. Growing crop yields led to population increases and subsequently to societal transformations. Similarly, the invention of the steam engine made possible large-scale mining of iron ore and coal, two important incentives of industrialization. As the most recent example of this «energy-drives-innovation»-mechanism Pfister mentioned the shift from coal to oil as main energy source after 1950 and the changes this triggered for industrial production, transport and consumption. His notion of energy as the main source of innovation was challenged, though: several speakers from the audience argued that energy could only be one of many different factors for such comprehensive developments as industrialization. Nevertheless, Pfister made a strong cause for his belief that historians should take energy and its effects into account when trying to explain innovation – especially in the fields of technology and transportation.

With 150 participants from 21 countries, this years’ conference happened to be the biggest T2M meeting to date. 80 speakers in 24 parallel sessions contributed to an abundance of talks and discussions. Embracing the conference theme, several sessions explored the interrelations of mobility, energy and innovation from different angles: Problems of energy consumption caused technical innovation in transport systems such as railways or airplanes. The political and economical implications of different fuels were discussed as well as forms of mobility depending only on the energy produced by their users like bicycles and pedestrians. Some sessions were concerned with political, economical or touristic aspects of transport systems and infrastructures. Others focussed more on social and cultural aspects of mobility such as «car culture at the European periphery», the phenomena of «mobile cocooning».

One particularly interesting session from this social and cultural field was dedicated to unintended consequences of early automobility. Traditionally, the boulevards, streets and squares of cities were places where people worked and met. Traffic was a part of this mélange, but not the all-dominating aspect it became with the appearance of cars and motorbikes during the first decades of the 20th century. Although cars were a privilege of the upper classes, it was not only the poor who were hostile to them as MASSIMO MORAGLIO (University of Torino) demonstrated on some cases from northern Italy. With their speed and their «unhealthy fumes», cars not only shunted working people and playing children from «their» streets but also the bourgeois who had to find new ways to promenade. In this particular context, the shared contempt for these new means of transport united people across all social classes.

The «perils of automobility» were at the centre of MIKE ESBESTER’s (University of Reading) talk: He portrayed the attempts of the British car industry, automobile associations and authorities to create «safe and responsible road users». Their message that «motoring is not dangerous and accidents can be prevented» was brought to the public by way of traditional educational measures (schooling of car drivers and pedestrians alike, leaflets and posters). More imaginative were ideas like creating board games and printing cards that could be collected by kids. Adults were addressed on milk bottles or beer mats. The cause for all these efforts was rather profane though: It was easier and cheaper to invest in road safety training than to change road design or invest in technical safety measures on the cars.

Relating to the topics of both previous speakers, BARBARA SCHMUCKI (University of York) traced «innovations at the crossroads» through the years. Engineers and planners tried to confine pedestrians to sidewalks and wanted to discipline their movements across streets. Between 1920 and 1970, written signs, Zebra crossings, guard rails, different types of blinking beacons and traffic lights were invented. But still, people seemed not to respond to this kind of «education» in the intended way. Although the physical safety measures were complemented with educational programmes in the media, Schmucki concluded that all these efforts were futile. They failed because they did not take into account the basic incompatibility of pedestrians and the modern, car-centred road design optimised for fast traffic flows.

Reflecting the stormy development the field of transport and mobility has undergone during the past two centuries (and mirroring the geographical distribution of T2M members), a majority of the presented papers covered 19th and 20th century subjects from Europe and North America – only few talks took notice of earlier periods of transport history or of issues concerning Africa and Asia. Nonetheless, one session comparing pre-industrial forms of road transport in Europe, Russia and China, came quite close to bridge both these gaps while a second featured two talks on tourism in the Arab world and Iran.

Another of the few shortcomings of this conference was the seeming lack of reflection on theoretical and methodological matters of transport history. However, the third keynote speech at the close of the conference hinted at these topics. Transport planner KAY W. AXHAUSEN (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich) compared approaches used by transport and spatial planners and historians. According to Axhausen, what sets planners and historians apart is their understanding and use of models: While historians deconstruct and contextualize past developments and try to understand them en detail, planners want to gain oversight. They construct models in order to generalize the factors contributing to a problem and to simulate future developments of that problem.

Although this thinking in generalized terms and models has its merits, it has its dangers too: Despite the achievements of modelling and simulation, models only are mathematical approximations of real-world problems – they have to simplify the problems in order to provide oversight. As was pointed out in the following discussion, they can deal with quantifiable things, but they do not satisfactorily take into account «soft» factors such as cultural and psychological circumstances. Planners tend to forget this and sometimes put too much store in their models. Axhausen argued that with their work of analyzing historical data and contextualizing (planning) actions of the past, historians could «confront models with the real world» and thus act as a corrective to the planners’ somewhat over-optimistic use of models.