Issue 569 to

SPUR's exhibition How We Move encourages visitors to add to our taxonomy of transportation modes.

How We Move: From Camels to Cable Cars

Urbanist Article

We humans have long exhibited an innate need to classify and categorize all we encounter. The process helps us to better grasp the complex relationships between objects. It’s an impulse that can be traced back to our earliest ancestors, when knowledge of what plants we could and could not eat (and from what animals we should or should not immediately flee) would trigger an appropriate response – and determine our ability to survive.

There is increasingly more stuff in our world and as such, more to categorize. Today, everything from biological organisms to hot peppers have been classified, and often by more than one method. Library resources, as one basic example, can be classified by at least four distinct systems across the English-speaking world alone.

How We Move (an exhibition at the SPUR Urban Center in San Francisco that will travel to SPUR San Jose later this year), applies a similar level of classification to modes of transportation. Creating a taxonomy of transportation modes is not a new concept, of course. One admirable example, created by the University of Sydney’s David Levinson, features an exhaustive taxonomy of land-based passenger transportation, that aimed to “differentiate things that were qualitatively different rather than quantitatively different.”

SPUR strives to establish a compromise between the qualitative and the quantitative (and by no means claims to be exhaustive). Stressing representation rather than comprehensiveness, this proposed classification presents an inventory of modes that will get us from A to B.

The taxonomy also strives to elevate similarities of use and form to the forefront by grouping comparable modes into “mode families.” As shuttle vans, school buses and employer shuttles are all effectively, buses, they are grouped in the same “family.” Shoes, roller skates and snowshoes, while all physically distinct, represent an evolution of the human foot, which is, through the use of these things, able to move faster and easier over a variety of terrains. This grouping structure of mode families creates cohesion between particular modes, even when those modes might be split by the rigidity of the established taxonomy. Camels, mules, howdahs and horse-drawn carriages all inhabit the same mode family (domesticated transport) despite being used to accommodate various passenger capacities.

As a result, SPUR’s proposed taxonomy eschews transportation genealogy and complicated categorical systems in favor of simple explanation. The classification aims to be accessible, inclusive, easy to understand — and fun.


Special thanks to the Yerba Buena Community Benefit District for making this exhibition possible.