Miles per oat

What Happened on 23rd Street, NYC, 1901

“A World of a Different Color,” my review of Ann Norton Greene’s Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, appears in the 30 November 2008 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Jennifer Schuessler, my editor, has also posted to Paper Cuts, the NYTBR blog, about the uncanny parallels between anti-car diatribes today and anti-horse diatribes a century ago, as reported by Greene. Another tidbit from Greene’s book that might be of interest to Streetsblog readers: it was late-nineteenth-century bicycle culture that paved the way, as it were, for the displacement of horse by automobile, “by advocating an increased role for the state and national government in what had been the largely local responsibility for road funding and road building” (p. 259).

Diatribes, of course, need not be fact-based, whether they be anti-car or anti-horse. Were horses really as dangerous as cars? In his recent treatise Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt notes in passing that

in the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities, although there were far fewer people and far fewer vehicles). (p. 9)

Fearful if true! While reading Greene’s Horses at Work for my review (as well as a book on the same topic, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr), I was on the lookout for evidence to confirm or refute Vanderbilt’s statistics, which he sources to a 1992 book titled Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and the Vehicles That Used Them.

As it happens, McShane and Tarr agree with Vanderbilt that horse-drawn vehicles were dangerous, writing that “Per vehicle, nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles caused more accidents than motor vehicles would later, an appalling accident toll, at least in New York City” (p. 54). Not all accidents are fatalities, though, so this isn’t complete vindication.* And it turns out that Greene disagrees with Vanderbilt. She writes:

Few accident statistics predate the earliest twentieth century, and much evidence is anecdotal. . . . The cited dangers of horse-driven traffic must be understood within the context of nineteenth-century traffic control, of which there was none. Cities did not institute systems of traffic police and mechanical signals until the twentieth century. . . . New York City gave right of way at intersections to north- and southbound vehicles, mandated signaling by drivers, forbade stopping and parking except in designated areas, and limited speeds to five miles per hour for business vehicles and eight miles per hour for passenger ones. Speed limits could not be enforced because there was no way to measure speed anyway. Since the streets were congested, speeding was rarely an issue. It is hard to imagine that horse-drawn vehicles traveling two to five miles per hour were dramatically more dangerous than heavy metal cars and trucks traveling ten to forty miles an hour.

So maybe horses are innocent after all. Clearly there is room for further research. If you’d like to see some nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles in action, the Library of Congress offers video of traffic in New York’s Herald Square in 1896, near New York’s Dewey Arch in 1899, and on South Spring Street, Los Angeles, in 1897. On the verge of the twentieth century, there’s “What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York,” in which, against a background of equine transport, a young woman has an adventure with a street grate that prefigures Marilyn Monroe (but with sturdier and more abundant undergarments). There are also two movies of traffic in New York’s Broadway in 1903, a very long film of San Francisco’s Market Street in 1905, and for good measure here’s some footage of the Place de l’Opéra in Paris in 1900. Alas, in none of this documentary footage are the horses wilding. In the absence of any death and dismemberment, I found myself noticing that New York City streets seemed much more expansive then that now. It took a moment for me to figure out why, but then it came to me: there wasn’t any curbside parking. You can pause a horse at the side of the street while you make a delivery, but you can’t leave it in harness unattended for any serious length of time. It’s a living animal. So here’s an easy proposal for returning spaciousness to New York’s streets: restrict parking to stables.

* UPDATE (Dec. 2): In a comment added below, author Clay McShane has written in to say that the accident statistics in his and Joel Tarr’s book are in fact for fatalities, not merely casualties, and that the major issues are kicking and biting.

Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Cross-posted from the University of Michigan Press blog.

"Twilight of the Books," an essay of mine published in The New Yorker on 24 December 2007, has been honored by inclusion in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson. When The New Yorker published my essay, I posted on my blog a series of mini-bibliographies, for anyone who wanted to dig into the research behind my article and try to answer for themselves whether television impaired intellect or whether literary was declining (here's an index/overview to all these research posts). A month or so ago, when the University of Michigan Press, the publisher of The Best of Technology Writing 2008, invited me to write about my essay for their blog, I was afraid I didn't have any more to say. Also, alas, I was under deadline. But I have a breather now, and looking over my year-old notes, I realize that there were a couple of categories of research that I never posted about at the time, because the topics didn't happen to make it into my article's final draft.

This research tried to answer the questions, Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world? and Do video games impair academic performance? I still think the questions are very interesting, though I must now offer my summaries with the caveat that they are somewhat dated. In fact, I know of some very interesting research recently published on the first question, some of which you can read about on the blog On Fiction. I'm afraid I haven't kept up with video games as closely, but I'm sure there's more research on them, too. I hope there is, at any rate, because when I looked, I found very little. (By research, in all cases, I meant peer-reviewed studies based on experimental or survey data, and not popular treatments.)

A few words of introduction. The historian Lynn Hunt has suggested in her book Inventing Human Rights that in the eighteenth century, the novel helped to change Europe's mind about torture by encouraging people to imagine suffering from the inside. As if in corroboration, some of the research summarized below suggests that the brain responds less sympathetically when it is perceives violence through electronic media. As you'll see, however, there is some ambiguity in the evidence, and the field is highly contested.

1. Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world?

  • In a summary of pre-2006 research, John P. Murray pointed to experiments in the 1960s by Albert Bandura, showing that children tend to mimic violent behavior they have just seen on screen and to a number of studies in the early 1970s that found correlations between watching violence and participating in aggressive behavior or showing an increased willingness to harm others. In 1982, a panel commissioned by the Surgeon General to survey existing research asserted that "violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior," and in 1992, a similar panel commissioned by the American Psychological Association reported "clear evidence that television violence can cause aggressive behavior." One mechanism may be through television's ability to convince people that the world is dangerous and cruel, in what is known as the "mean world syndrome." Murray claims that a twenty-two-year longitudinal study in Columbia County, New York, run by Huesmann and Eron, which was begun under the auspices of the Surgeon General's office, has linked boys' exposure to television violence at age eight to aggressive and antisocial behavior at age eighteen and to involvement in violent crime by age thirty; in fact, a 1972 study by Huesmann et al. did link boys' exposure at eight to aggressive behavior at eighteen, but the 1984 study cited by Murray linked violent crime at age thirty to aggressive behavior at age eight and said nothing about exposure to televised violence. In an unrelated study, when television was introduced in Canada, children's levels of aggression increased. [John P. Murray, "TV Violence: Research and Controversy," Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. L. Rowell Huesmann, Leonard D. Eron, Monroe M. Lefkowitz, and Leopold O. Walder, "Stability of Aggression Over Time and Generations," Developmental Psychology 1984. For a synopsis of Huesmann's 1972 study, see Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006, p. 208.]
  • A longitudinal study of 450 Chicago-area children was begun in 1977 when the children were between six and eight years old, and continued in 1992-1995, when they were between twenty-one and twenty-three years old. As children, the subjects were asked about their favorite television programs, whether they identified with the characters, and how true-to-life they thought the shows were. Fifteen years later, it emerged that watching violent shows, identifying with aggressive characters of the same sex, and believing that the shows were realistic correlated with adult aggression, including physical aggression. The effect was present even after controlling for such factors as initial childhood aggression, intellectual capacity, socioeconomic status, and parents' level of emotional support. (Note that in the opinion of the researchers, the Six Million Dollar Man was considered a "very violent" show, and that the heroine of the Bionic Woman was considered an aggressive character.) [L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard D. Eron, "Longitudinal Relations between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood, 1977-1992," Developmental Psychology, 2003. Cf. Kirsh , p. 209.]
  • In a 2006 textbook about the relation between media violence and aggressive behavior, author Steven J. Kirsh notes that a 1994 meta-analysis of the link between television violence and aggression estimated the size of the effect to be r = .31. "The effect sizes for media violence and aggression are stronger than the effect sizes for condom use and sexually transmitted HIV, passive smoking and lung cancer at work, exposure to lead and IQ scores in children, nicotine patch and smoking cessation, and calcium intake and bone mass," Kirsh wrote. A 2004 meta-analysis found that the correlation between video game violence and aggressive behavior was r = .26. To put the effect sizes in perspective, Kirsh notes that they are greater than the link between testosterone levels and aggression, but weaker than the link between having antisocial peers and delinquency. In surveying the research on video games, Kirsh makes the point that there is little research as yet, and that most of it was done in what he calls the "Atari age," when the games were fairly innocuous; almost no one has experimentally tested the effects on children and teens of the new-generation, highly realistic and gory first-person shooter games. [Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006.]
  • In a 2007 summary of research, three scientists asserted that there was "unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts," and noted that the link between television violence and aggression had been proved by studies in both the laboratory and the field, and by both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Video games were not as well documented, but in the opinion of the scientists, the preliminary evidence suggested that their effect would be similar. Playing violent video games has been shown to increase physiological arousal. Measurements of skin conductance and heart rate show that people have less of an aversion to images of real violence, if they have previously been exposed to violent television or violent video games. Measurements of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fRMI) allow researchers to look with new precision at the magnitude of brain processes that occur at particular times and at the activation of specific regions of the brain. A 2006 study by Bartholow et al., for example, showed that exposure to violent video games reduces aversion to scenes of real violence, as measured by a blip of voltage that typically occurs 300 milliseconds after sight of a gory image. A 2006 study by Murray et al. (see below) showed that violent scenes of television activated parts of the brain associated with emotion, memory, and motor activity. Yet another 2006 study, by Weber et al., showed that while players were engaged in violence during a video game, a brain region associated with emotional processing was suppressed, and one associated with cognitive processing was aroused, perhaps in order to reduce empathy and thereby improve game performance. In a 2005 study by Matthews et al., chronic adolescent players of violent video games scored the same as adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders on a test designed to assess a brain region responsible for inhibition and error correction. Attempting to explain the results of the various studies under review, the authors write: "Initial results suggest that, although video-game players are aware that they are engaging in fictitious actions, preconscious neural mechanisms might not differentiate fantasy from reality." [Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, and Bruce D. Bartholow, "Media Violence and Social Neuroscience," Currents Directions in Psychological Science, 2007.]
  • While a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device monitored their brain activity, eight children watched a video montage that included boxing scenes from Rocky IV and part of a National Geographic animal program for children, among other clips. The violent scenes activated many brain regions that the nonviolent scenes did not, mostly in the right hemisphere. These regions have been associated by other researchers with emotion, attention and arousal, detection of threat, episodic memory, and fight or flight response. The authors of the study speculate that "though the child may not be aware of the threat posed by TV violence at a conscious level . . . a more primitive system within his or her brain (amygdala, pulvinar) may not discriminate between real violence and entertainment fictional violence." In the activation of regions associated with long-term memory, the researchers saw a suggestion that the television violence might have long-term effects on the viewer. [John P. Murray, etal. "Children's Brain Activations While Viewing Televised Violence Revealed by fMRI," Media Psychology, 2006.]
  • In a 2005 study, 213 video-game novices with an average age of twenty-eight were divided into two groups, and one group spent a month playing an average of 56 hours of a violent multi-player fantasy role-playing video game. Participants completed questionnaires to assess their aggression-related beliefs before and after the test month, and were asked before and after whether they had argued with a friend and whether they had argued with a romantic partner. The data showed no significant correlation between hours of game play and the measures of aggression, once the results were controlled for age, gender, and pre-test aggression scores. The authors note that there might be an effect too small for their study to detect, and that adults might be less sensitive to the exposure than children or adolescents. [Dmitri Williams and Marko Skoric, "Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game," Communication Monographs, June 2005. Andrea Lynn, "No Strong Link Seen Between Violent Video Games and Aggression," News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 9 August 2005.]
  • A 2007 book presented three studies of video-game violence's effect on school-age children. In the first study, 161 nine- to twelve-year-olds and 354 college students were asked to play one of several video games—either a nonviolent game, a violent game with a happy and cartoonish presentation, or a violent game with a gory presentation—and then to play a second game, during which they were told they could punish other player with blasts of noise (the blasts were not, in fact, delivered). Those who played violent games, whether cartoonish or gory, were more likely to administer punishments during the second game; playing violent games at home also raised the likelihood of punishing others. Children and college students behaved similarly. In the second study, 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more often the students reported playing violent video games, the more likely they were to have hostile personalities, to believe that violence was normal, and to behave aggressively, and the less likely they were to feel forgiving toward others. The correlation between game playing and violent behavior held even when the researchers controlled for gender and aggressive beliefs and attitudes. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In the third study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, about their exposure to violent media, beliefs about the world, and whether they had been in fights. Students were asked to rate one another's sociability and aggressiveness, and teachers were asked to comment on these traits and on academic performance. In just five months, children who played more video games darkened in their outlook on the world, and peers and teachers noticed that they became more aggressive and less amiable. The effect was independent of gender and of the children's level of aggression at the first measurement. Screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too; they only became more aggressive, however, when the content they saw during the screen time was violent. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

2. Do video games impair academic performance?

  • In a 2004 survey of 2,032 school-age children, there were statistically significant differences in print and video-game use between students earning As and Bs and those earning Cs and below. On average, A-B students had read for pleasure 46 minutes and played video games for 48 minutes the previous day; C-and-below students had read for pleasure 29 minutes and played video games for 1 hour 9 minutes. Television watching seemed constant between the groups. [Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005, page 47.]
  • A 2007 book presented results of a study in which 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In a related and similar study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, and screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here's a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article "Twilight of the Books":

Notebook: "Twilight of the Books" (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER's Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

What’s your Thoreau speed?

In Walden, Thoreau proposed a modification of the traditional formula for calculating speed. Instead of merely dividing the distance traveled by the time it took to cross it, Thoreau proposed reckoning also the cost of the ticket. Imagine, he writes, that he and a friend both want to go from Concord to Fitchburg.

I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first. The distance is thirty miles; the fare ninety cents. That is almost a day’s wages. I remember when wages were sixty cents a day for laborers on this very road. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; I have traveled at that rate by the week together. You will in the mean while have earned your fare, and arrive there some time to-morrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day. And so, if the railroad reached round the world, I think that I should keep ahead of you; and as for seeing the country and getting experience of that kind, I should have to cut your acquaintance altogether.

The thought experiment provided the donnée for a children’s book published in 2000, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D. B. Johnson.

There’s no reason to distrust Thoreau’s math. A healthy adult could walk thirty miles in a day. According to a 2007 study, people in cities walk in the range of 3 and 4 miles per hour. Thirty miles is a long day’s walk, but it’s feasible. Nonetheless, I remember that when I first read this passage in Walden, I admired the cleverness but didn’t think it could possibly be true nowadays. After all, in a week I could earn the fare for an airplane ticket that would take me to California, and I couldn’t walk there in a month, I don’t imagine. (I made this innumerate estimate, of course, long before the price of oil skyrocketed, taking airplane fares with it.)

Lately I’ve started to wonder about cars, though. I have a new bike, and it seems quite often that cars make a great show of passing me, only to have me catch up at the next stop light. (When I bike in the city, I wait at stop lights, by the way, so this isn’t about the bonus that accrues to outlaws.) When driving, too, now that I’m bike-conscious, I’ve noticed that we may pass a biker in Manhattan, only to have him pass us when we get off the expressway in Brooklyn. Do cars actually reach their destinations faster than bikes? And even if the simple speed of cars is higher, is what we might call their Thoreau speed higher?

The concept of Thoreau speed was reprised in the social critic Ivan Illich’s 1974 book Energy and Equity, a critique of transportation. Illich writes that

The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only three to eight per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.

Unlike Thoreau’s numbers, Illich’s aren’t the sort you can look up on a railroad timetable or check against your own pedometer, and Illich doesn’t give his sources. So I was skeptical of his algebra, too, when I read it. But there is an awful lot of high-quality data readily available on the internet. . . .

According to Pat S. Hsu and Timothy R. Reuscher, Summary of Travel Trends: 2001 National Household Travel Survey (U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, December 2004), in 2001, the most recent year whose statistics are available, the average length of a weekday trip in a vehicle was 9.75 miles and a weekend trip 10.22 miles. The average time spent driving on a weekday trip was 64.79 minutes, and on a weekend trip 52.39 minutes. That means that the average speed on weekdays was 9.02 miles per hour and on weekends 11.70 miles per hour.

Right away, then, it’s apparent that the simple speed of cars is about that of bikes. It’s higher than that of walkers, but only by a factor of three or four.

Now what happens if you add in the time it takes to earn the cost of the ride, as Thoreau and Illich think you ought to? According to the Federal Highway Administration, the average annual miles driven by a vehicle in 2001 was 11,078. According to Your Driving Costs: How Much Are You Really Paying to Drive? (AAA, 2008), estimates of the average cost per mile of driving a car vary according to annual total mileage and the size of the vehicle, but for an average-size sedan (i.e., not an SUV or a minivan) that goes 10,000 miles a year, the average per-mile cost is 71.0 cents. This is an awfully convenient statistic for our purposes. Since this AAA number includes fuel, maintenance, tires, insurance, license, registration, taxes, depreciation (“the difference between new-vehicle purchase price and estimated trade-in value at the end of five years”), and financing charges, there’s no need to fiddle around trying to research gas prices or the actual cost of buying a car. Returning to the average trips from the Federal Highway Administration, it now appears that the cost of an average weekday trip is $6.92 and of a weekend trip $7.26.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage of an American in 2005 was $18.62. (I realize I’m using driving statistics from 2001, cost-of-driving statistics from 2008, and wage statistics from 2005, but in each case these are the most recent numbers I could find. Sorry!) Therefore, on average, the cost of a weekday car trip sets an American wage-earner back 22.3 minutes, and a weekend trip sets him back 23.4 minutes. From here it’s easy to recalculate the speed of those trips including the time it takes to earn the cost of taking them. The Thoreau speed of an average trip is 6.72 miles per hour on weekdays, and 8.09 miles per hour on weekends.

So the Thoreau speed of a car exceeds the speed of walking by only a factor of two. If hidden costs of cars such as car-related injury, death, pollution, and global warming were included, it might well be a tie.

At this point in my calculations, I Googled to find out the average speed of bicycles, and I discovered, serendipitously, that I’m not the first person to try to do this math. What’s more, I’m not even the first person to invoke Thoreau and Illich while doing so; someone named Brad Morgan invoked them in 1991. And a fellow named Ken Kifer has made a much more thorough assessment of the costs of driving. Kifer has also assessed the costs and the Thoreau speed of bicycles, into the bargain. He estimates the Thoreau speed of cars as between 4.8 and 14.4 miles per hour, and the Thoreau speed of bicycles as between 8.9 and 14.8 miles per hour. Though beaten to the punch, I’m posting anyway, because my sources and method are different yet I end up confirming Kifer’s conclusion: When costs are factored in, cars are not faster than bikes and only twice as fast as walking.

No forwarding address

Reading the chapter on cemeteries in Dell Upton’s Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (Yale, 2008), I learned that eternal rest beneath a headstone was originally the exception not the rule:

Burying grounds were commons in the traditional sense. Anyone could use them but no one could own them or appropriate them for their exclusive use. They were places to return the dead to dust, not to preserve and celebrate them. By law and custom, public burying grounds were a kind of consecrated waste-disposal plant, processing the abandoned cadaver after the soul of the deceased had gone on to another realm. As an English judge noted, in deciding a case in which a family sought to bury one of its members in an iron coffin that would slow or prevent decomposition, a graveyard was “not the exclusive property of one set of persons, but was the property of ages yet unborn. . . . All contrivance, therefore, to prolong the duration of the body, was an act of injustice, unless compensation was made for such encroachment.”

In such a cemetery, bodies were buried willy-nilly, one grave overlapping another. “When a new tomb is dug, an old one is laid open; and one body that has been slumbering a few years in peace, is removed from its resting place to make room for another,” wrote a horrified nineteenth-century reformer. Once the earth had done its work, graves were reopened to provide space for subsequent users. In European cemeteries and some American ones the skeletal remains were removed to charnel houses. In the light of its grisly function and high religious purpose, the cemetery was, in theory, a “garden of equality,” a place of “modest simplicity.”

Long before America was founded, though, the simplicity began to be undermined by elites, who insisted on privatizing a few spots for themselves. The rest of Upton’s book is not so morbid, by the way; it’s about early American urban design, and ranges from street noise to office architecture, with special attention to Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New York.