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Urban Mass Transit

, 200 pages

34 halftones

June 2010



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Urban Mass Transit

The Life Story of a Technology

Technological choices depend on, and are part of, contests over political power, as the history of mass transit vividly illustrates. From horse-drawn omnibuses to subways to light rail, this volume highlights the technological and social struggles that have accompanied urbanization and the need for an efficient and cost-effective means of transportation in cities.

Post depicts mass transit as a technology—rather, as a technological system—that provided an essential complement to industrialization, urbanization, and, ultimately, to the rise of consumer culture. He begins his narrative with the omnibus and horsecar in the 1830s and takes it to the renaissance of urban mass transit at the turn of the 21st century. Post focuses on innovations in the United States as well as worldwide developments.

At the heart of the story is the streetcar, a conveyance that played a central role in the development of all U.S. cities and towns. For generations of Americans, streetcars were essential to everyday life. Once dominating the urban landscape in towns and cities throughout the United States, the streetcar has all but disappeared. Post traces its evolution and demise, debunking the urban myth that the downfall of the electric streetcar was directly attributable to the corporate malfeasance of General Motors and others from the automotive world.

Post concludes with a meditation on the prospects for mass transit in a postmodern society that must face up to the contradictions of privatized mobility and the reality of dwindling natural resources.

Robert C. Post is a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books on the relationship between technology and culture, including Street Railways and the Growth of Los Angeles, The Tancook Whalers: Origins, Rediscovery, Revival, and High Performance: The Culture and Technology of Drag Racing, 1950-2000, which was also published by Johns Hopkins.

" Urban Mass Transit is meant to be a short introductory text, but readers thoroughly familiar with the subject will also find it both enjoyable and useful, for Post has made interesting observations about how and why transit developed in the ways in which it did which many of us may have not thought of before."

"Post has done an excellent job, using stories, photographs, sketches, and facts to construct a fascinating historical account of innovation. An appealing work for the general public as well as students and others with interests in public transportation."

"A useful overview for those seeking a better understanding of the history—and future prospects—of urban mass transportation in the United States."

"[An] enjoyable read... that... belongs in most public transportation reference libraries."

" Urban Mass Transit then works on three levels. For newcomers to the topic, it offers a basic introduction. For those who think they know the field, it offers complications and ideas for future studies. And those who do not much care about streetcars can still learn from Post's more general ideas about how to study the history of technology. Though the book questions the concepts of progress and success, it is an example of both."

"Well-illustrated and engagingly written... historians of technology, urban sociologists, and trolley aficionados will all make new discoveries while reading it."

"For a casual student of transportation history, this is the ideal book to put many of the small parts of information picked up over the years into a more cohesive whole. However, it would also make an excellent text for a college survey course on urban transportation history."

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