Bicycles vs Cars vs Trains: Interesting Trends via Google Books Ngram Viewer

ngram bike vs car vs train image

Image: Screenshot of Google NGram Viewer for "Bicycle, Car, Train, Bus"

This morning, my Twitter stream was quickly filled with tweets about this new tool from Google that allows one to search for words within the large Google Books collection. Called the Google Books Ngram Viewer, the tool has proven to be an interesting way to get a feel for how culture has changed throughout the past 200+ years, or more specifically, how that changing culture has been documented in the books written during this time.

Curious to see if this tool could shed some light on the issues I and fellow TreeHugger's might be interested in, I generated a few NGrams for some of the buzzwords and topics we cover here.


  • Not surprisingly, the usage of the term "Environmentalism" was largely non-existent during the first half of the 20th century, but grew as a concept from the 1960s and 1970s, which is when the first Earth Day was held. The word has become much more common throughout the last 30 years as the environmentalism movement has continued to grow.

  • Peak-Oil-Ngram.jpg
    Image: Screenshot of Google NGram Viewer for "Peak Oil"
  • Peak Oil is a modern concern, but the idea generated a spike during the 1940's, after which the term fell off during the care-free oil burning days of the 1950's and '60s. As global oil supply gained greater attention form the public in the 1970s, the term re-entered the literature of the time and has reached new highs in the past 30 years.

  • Global Warming vs Climate Change is an interesting way to assess how often these two terms are being used. UPDATE: I should have played around with the date range more, because this ngram is much more interesting when you look at the usage between 1945 to 1985. As James, the reader that sent this in, says, this helps to "debunk the whole "Global Cooling" was all anyone was talking about in the 1970's" argument you sometimes hear from global warming deniers.

  • Alternative Energy is another term that seems to have only come into frequent usage once the US faced a serious oil crisis in the 1970s. Unfortunately, you can get a sense of how this enthusiasm waned politically and culturally during the later half of the 1980s and 1990s. Thankfully, you see it's beginning to rise again.

  • Who wins in a battle of transportation? Here's the ngram for "Bicycle vs Car vs Bus vs Train".

Which ngrams should we look at next?

Robin Sloan has a nice list going, such as when Africa overtook Asia in book mentions and other interesting literature-related trends.

Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic has many other interesting NGram comparisons, such as "Radio vs Television vs Internet", "Coffee vs Tea" and "Pen vs Sword".

Try the tool yourself and post your interesting graphs in the comments below.

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