July 25, 2024

The argument over the location of automobiles in cities might appear to be a new one; however, it was going on long before the first car was invented.

For a better understanding of how we can better understand, let’s examine some of the roads in Paris in the years when the French Revolution was in full action and when all “cars” were still horse-drawn. In the past, speeding carriages that were crowded in urban areas could prove deadly and brought up the same fundamental questions that automobiles do today, including the importance of orderly behavior and traffic control as well as the freedom of access to as well as the rights of access.

A pamphlet that is anti-car

In 1790, a lone Parisian published a pamphlet that had an intriguing title for the time, “A Citizen’s Petition, or A Motion against Coaches and Cabs.” The 16-page document is a moral treatise, police autobiography and a motion for legislative consideration, because it also includes proposals to be presented at the French National Assembly.

It is not known much about its writer, other than that he could have been an affluent citizen, perhaps an ophthalmologist – since it states that he owns “a coach, a cab and four horses.” However, are all he’s willing to “sacrifice on the altar of the country” and is enraged by the brutality and inhumanity of drivers who travel through the city and is disgusted at his own “idleness and sloth of the rich.” Attracted by the ideals associated with the Enlightenment and praising the contribution of the Revolution, He asks: What’s the point of freedom of the press as well as religious tolerance, and the elimination of prisons in state institutions in the event that “one cannot go on foot without being exposed to perpetual danger?” In fact, in a time when the universal rights of human beings were announced in Paris, people were being killed by automobiles and motorbikes, despite the total lack of concern of the legislature. The author of the pamphlet, therefore, suggested the idea of “fulfilling” the work of the Revolution by preventing coaches from being used in Paris.

In 1790, one year following that year’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” 1790, the political climate in Paris changed in a variety of ways. In the city, however, the dominance exercised by the drivers of coaches over pedestrians remained the same.

Congestion in Paris

The car that is hurriedly moving around is a poetic image that can be traced to the crowded streets of Paris between the 18th and 17th centuries. The vehicle is featured in works by Paul Scarron and Abbe Prevost, as well as be seen in Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux’s famous satire about the collision of a cart and the coach. A gloomy “embarrassment” is depicted:

A coach’s wheels strike an unicycle at an intersection,

Then, accidentally, the two are thrown into stale water.

Soon enough, a maniacal taxi is trying to speed past

The embarrassment is not just the first,

Within a few minutes, twenty more coaches are soon to join the long line

The first two wins before doubling to more than a score and then nine.

If “embarrassments” or “strife” (as traffic jams used to be referred to) incited the fiction writers, they were also inspired by the regular fact of those roads of the Ancien regime.

Nicolas Guerard, The Pont-Neuf as seen through the streets of Dauphine engraving 18th century. This engraving showcases the numerous methods of transportation employed by Parisians in the Age of Enlightenment. In the foreground can be two cars, a sedan chair, and riders riding on horseback, as well as a cart pulled by horses. It is important that the artist decided to portray this chaotic scene on one of Paris’s most modern sidewalks. Library of the Decorative Arts/BNF

There are not many city chronicles, police memoirs, or travel tales that don’t mention a shower of dust, clouds of mud, and the roar of iron-rimmed vehicles disrupting the peacefulness that is occupied by the mentally ill or roads closed by a car or a cart maneuvering around the tightest corner.

The car that is the most wanted

What seems to be radically new from the written works of the latter part of the 18th century is the concept of the car that killed. This is apparent in the writings by Louis Sebastien Mercier and Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne and in an unidentified pamphlet, which dates was published in 1789 and is entitled “The Assassins, or A Denunciation of the Tyrannically Abusive Nature of Cars.” In the booklet, the author is adamantly against the whiskies, phaetons, English-style phaetons devils, cabs and others since these light vehicles were specifically designed for urban traffic and thus “as fast as eagles.”

Engraving of a “devil” to illustrate the entry of the Sellier-Carrossier (

The argument is that the highwaymen who would kill a tourist for money are the killers of the highway. However, in Paris, the assassin is “the one who, without passion and without need, suddenly flings open the doors of his household, rushes like a madman toward a thousand of his fellow men and presses them, with all his might, with a fast cab and two steeds.” This is the social conflict between cars and pedestrians, which his text exemplifies.

The coach-riders and pedestrians of Paris

Tangibly, the second text reveals two opposing trends that recurred through the whole 18th century.

One of the reasons was the dramatic growth in horse-drawn traffic in Paris due to the ever-growing demand for food and goods. With 700,000 people living there in the city, it was already a hungry stomach… According to Daniel Roche, the rise in traffic can be attributed to the increase in the number of passengers. In the 17th century, the carriages used for travel were mostly coaches of nobles and royalty. Then, the growing middle classes of officers, merchants, and bankers, as well as priests and master artisans who had previously traveled by mule, on foot, or at the very least riding on horses, began to make use of smaller and more efficient carriages.


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