Pollution – Why we replaced horses with automobiles

Henry Ford never said people wanted faster horses, “what they wanted was less horseshit” (Flowers, 2014). It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the general point. The lesson of this post is that too much of anything can be bad, and we need to look at the whole asset life-cycle system taking into account the positive and negative benefits.

For thousands of years horses were the preferred mode of transportation, and during the 19th and 20th centuries, the horse continued to be regarded as one of the most remarkable prime movers on the planet and pretty much ruled 19th century urban life and rural culture (Nikiforuk, 2013). The only other options for the general population were oxen, bicycles or walking. Unfortunately, the growing need for horses caused waste that overtook the local support structures at the time and produced a massive negative impact on society and the environment. As with everything around sustainability, there is a lot of complexity and interconnections.

Benefits of Horses during the 19th and 20th Centuries

First, horses could deal with the dreadful dirt “roads” that existed during this period. Keeping in mind that the U.S. of 1903 had 27,000 miles of muddy dirt tracks roads (Motavalli, 2017).

Second, horses were an extremely cheap and highly effective user of “energy.” Horses energy inputs was around five acres of hay and grain per horse, and their outputs (traction) achieved an efficiency of 15 to 20 per cent or more than triple that of a coal-fired machine (Nikiforuk, 2013).

In 1894 it was observed that horses are not only:

“self-feeding, self-controlling, self-maintaining and self-reproducing, but they are far more economical in the energy they are able to develop from a given weight of fuel material, than any other existing form of motor.”

(Nikiforuk, 2013)

Third, the use of horses also provided ancillary jobs like stable owners, feed producers, trainers, veterinarians, road cleaners etc..

Fourth, horses maintained a deep relationship with rural and farmlands, which at the time was critical. Apologies, that still is critical, but at that time there was a true integrated and symbiotic relationship.

Increasing Dependency on Horses during the 19th and early 20th Centuries

In 1840 in North American around four million horses were employed for agricultural work and travel. There were only 18,269,453 inhabitants in North America in 1840 (Statistics Canada, 2015 & Wikipedia 2, 2019). By 1900 there were more than 24 million to plow fields, pull street trolleys, carriages and city vehicles. There were 81,522,168 inhabitants in North America in 1900 ( Wikipedia 3, 2019 & Wikipedia 4, 2019).

Horses provided almost one-third of North America’s energy needs. For every three people there was one working horse in the U.S., whereas now there are 1.3 people for every car (Nikiforuk, 2013). By 1890 New Yorker’s took an average of 297 horse-car rides per person a year, whereas today they hail an average of 100 cab rides (Motavalli, 2017).

Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning. All transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses. London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world. Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.

(Tarr & McShane, 1997)

However, anything growing in large numbers begins to cause issues, and horses were no exception in causing huge, waste, environmental, health and social challenges

Special thanks to Paul Martin and Patrick Debal for the following image and content from a LinkedIN post (https://www.linkedin.com/posts/paul-martin-195763b_things-to-ponder-on-a-thursday-few-realize-activity-6775861208101867520-WqGt)

“Few realize that we adopted the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle in part as an environmental response to the disastrous use of horses in major urban areas – and that gasoline was originally a useless waste byproduct of making kerosene for lamps.

But transitions are hard… even ones as obviously beneficial as getting rid of horsesh*t and dead horses from the streets of major cities.

Electric vehicles (EVs) and ICE vehicles were neck and neck in sales until about 1911- around the time that the electric starter signaled the beginning of the end for the “chauffeur”.

It took 100 yrs to invent a battery significantly superior to lead-acid to make an EV resurgence possible. And it took the willingness of mobile electronics to pay $3000/kWh to get those new lithium ion batteries to scale.”

Growing Challenges with Horses

Due to the increase in numbers, and the nascent state state of social, health and infrastructure maturity, the following challenges evolved (Nikiforuk, 2013):

  • A horse would dump between 20 and 50 pounds of manure a day on the streets along with a gallon of piss… if you add 500 horses per square mile, that is a lot of “waste”;
  • In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds / 1200~ metric tons of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of (Burrows & Wallace, 2006).
  • The tonnes of manure pounded and pulverized into dust attracted rodents and flies;
  • The result was an ever-present layer of manure that clung to shoes, traveled in the wind and seeped into the water supply;
  • One wild government estimate of the time estimated that 95% of all disease-carrying flies bred in horse dung;
  • Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure (Davies, 2004).
(Kohlstedt , ND)

Besides the issue with horse excrement, other issues occurred (Hayden, 2016):

  • Dead horses often clogged city streets;
  • In New York City in 1880, 15,000 horses died on the streets, or 41 dead horses a day (which had to be removed);
  • Some place to stable the 100,000+ horses that operated within New York, and food to feed them;
  • On a per capita basis, 19th century horse-drawn vehicle accident rates were similar to those of the automobile in the 20th century.

So the problems then included flies, disease, smell, dried manure dust, soaked manure mire, cruelty to horses and horse related traffic deaths (Flowers, 2014).

With its flies and smells and muscle, “the horse was in your face and it began to make people feel uncomfortable, and that was a factor in getting rid of it” (Nikiforuk, 2013).

The transition from horse to automobile was a logical and sustainable choice at the time.

So the question becomes, did we replace one prime mover that caused intolerable pollution (horses) with another (carbon-based vehicles)? One can argue that the impact of the pollution and waste was far more apparent and in your face with the horse… though as climate change continues to impact human life on earth it does beg the question. This post will not debate that last point, but as shown below from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) 2017 OPEC World Oil Outlook, the transportation sector (road) uses a lot of oil. For context, road transportation uses around 24 Millions of Barrels per Day (mb/d).



Both horses and automobiles have held the position of being the “remarkable prime movers on the planet.” However, as with anything, more is not better and often causes new problems as demonstrated by both. Automobiles replaced horses largely because of pollution, and now automobiles are one of the leading cause of the planet’s Co2 pollution and other serious problems. We have to look at things systemically and from an asset life-cycle perspective to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.


For a more detailed investigation on the impact of transitioning from horses to automobiles I would recommend reading Brandon Keim’s article “Did Cars Save Our Cities From Horses?Nautilus listed in the references.


Wikipedia 4. “Population of Canada.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_of_Canada

Wikipedia 3. “1900 United States Census.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1900_United_States_Census

Wikipedia 2. “1840 United States Census.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1840_United_States_Census

Statistics Canada. Censuses of Canada 1800s (1806 to 1871). Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, 26 Aug. 2015, www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/98-187-x/4064809-eng.htm

Flowers, Erik. “No One Said They Wanted Faster Horses, They Wanted Less Horseshit.” Hello Erik, 1 June 2014, www.helloerik.com/no-one-said-they-wanted-faster-horses-they-wanted-less-horseshit

Chiu, Imes. The Evolution from Horse to Automobile: a Comparative International Study. Cambria Press, 2008.

Wikipedia 1. “Flogging a Dead Horse.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flogging_a_dead_horse.

Kohlstedt, Kurt. “The Big Crapple: NYC Transit Pollution from Horse Manure to Horseless Carriages.” 99% Invisible, 99percentinvisible.org/article/cities-paved-dung-urban-design-great-horse-manure-crisis-1894/

Tarr, Joel and Clay McShane, “The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth Century American City,” in Raymond Mohl, ed., The Making of Urban America (New York: SR Publishers, 1997), pp. 105–30.

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Davies, Stephen. “The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894 | Stephen Davies.” FEE, Foundation for Economic Education, 1 Sept. 2004, fee.org/articles/the-great-horse-manure-crisis-of-1894/

Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Superfreakonomics. Allen Lane, 2010.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. “The Big Shift Last Time: From Horse Dung to Car Smog.” The Tyee, The Tyee, 6 Mar. 2013, thetyee.ca/News/2013/03/06/Horse-Dung-Big-Shift/

Carlisle, Stephen. “We Traded Carriages for Cars – Let’s Embrace the next Disruption.” The Globe and Mail, The Globe and Mail, 16 May 2018, www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-commentary/we-traded-carriages-for-cars-lets-embrace-the-next-disruption/article29782316/

Winton, Alexander, and Nicholas Gilmore. “Get A Horse! America’s Skepticism Toward the First Automobiles | The Saturday Evening Post.” The Saturday Evening Post, 9 Jan. 2017, www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2017/01/get-horse-americas-skepticism-toward-first-automobiles/

Schlenoff, Daniel C. “The Motor Vehicle, 1917 [Slide Show].” Scientific American, 1 Jan. 2017, www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-motor-vehicle-1917-slide-show/

Hayden, Wallace. “HISTORY: From Horse to Horsepower.” News-Herald, 3 Nov. 2016, www.thenewsherald.com/news/history-from-horse-to-horsepower/article_28d9c9fc-9a94-50c7-9363-9631e26697f5.html

Massaioli, Robert. “Tesla and Horses: What Did People Actually Say? – Robert Massaioli – Medium.” Medium.com, Medium, 10 Apr. 2016, http://medium.com/@robertmassaioli/tesla-and-horses-what-did-people-actually-say-3c53169d9bc

Keim, Brandon. “Did Cars Save Our Cities From Horses? – Issue 7: Waste.” Nautilus, 7 Nov. 2013, nautil.us/issue/7/waste/did-cars-save-our-cities-from-horses

“The Death of the Internal Combustion Engine.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 12 Aug. 2017, www.economist.com/leaders/2017/08/12/the-death-of-the-internal-combustion-engine

Loerzel, Robert. “Before the Car Was King.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 7 Feb. 2015, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-chicago-auto-show-early-cars-flashback-0208-jm-20150207-story.html

Motavalli, Jim. “When Will Electric Cars Really Take off? Maybe We Should Ask a Horse.” MNN – Mother Nature Network, Mother Nature Network, 10 Oct. 2017, www.mnn.com/green-tech/transportation/blogs/horses-horsepower-rocky-transition

Kinney, Thomas A. The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America.Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004

“Introduction: Transportation in America and the Carriage Age.” The Educational Programming Guide for Going Places, Sept. 2007, parkcityhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Teacher-Background-Information.pdf

Morris, Eric (2007). “From Horse Power to Horsepower.” ACCESS Magazine, 1 Apr. 2007 – 1(30), 2-10. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6sm968t2

Joel A. Tarr, “The Horse: Polluter of the City,” In The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution In Historical Perspective, ed. Joel A. Tarr (Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1996).

Larsen, Lawrence H. “Nineteenth-Century Street Sanitation: A Study of Filth and Frustration.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 52, no. 3, 1969, pp. 239–247. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4634439

Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). 2017 OPEC World Oil Outlook. October 2017. Available from: https://www.opec.org/opec_web/flipbook/WOO2017/WOO2017/assets/common/downloads/WOO%202017.pdf. Page 118, Figure 3.11 Sectoral oil demand in the OECD, 2016 and 2060.

Oil demand distribution by sector worldwide 2016 | Statistic. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/307194/top-oil-consuming-sectors-worldwide/


Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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