The Geography of Transport Systems

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The Silk Road and Arab Sea Routes (Detailed PDF map)

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Roman Road Network, 200 AD

The Grand Canal System

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Early European Sailing Ships

Early European Maritime Expeditions, 1492-1522
(Detailed PDF map)

Colonial Trade Pattern, North Atlantic, 18th Century

Turnpikes in Great Britain, Late 18th and Early 19th Century

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Major Canals Built

Bridgewater Canal, Manchester, 1767
(Google Earth Placemark)

Erie Canal, New York, 1829
(Google Earth Placemark)

Completion of the Transcontinental Railway, 1869

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Clipper Ships

Impacts of Maury’s Navigation Charts on Sailing Time, 1850s

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An Early Steamship, The Great Britain, 1845

Geographical Impacts of the Suez and Panama Canals
(Detailed PDF Map)

Effects of the Suez and Panama Canals on Travel Distances (in nautical miles)

Maritime Journey from Britain to Australia, 1788-1960

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Evolution of the Railway Network, 1850-1913

Share of the Population in Agriculture, Early Industrial Countries, 1820-1910

Telegraph Receiver, 1844

Chapter 1 - Concepts (PowerPoint)

Historical Geography of Transportation - Part I

Author : Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

NOTE: Parts of this section have been removed because of their inclusion in the textbook "The Geography of Transport Systems" published in June 2006 by Routledge.

1. Transportation in the Pre-Industrial Era (pre 1800s)

Efficiently distributing freight and moving people has always been an important factor for maintaining the cohesion of economic systems from empires to modern nation states. With technological and economic developments, the means to achieve such a goal have evolved considerably. The historical evolution of transportation is very complex and is related to the spatial evolution of economic systems. It is possible to summarize this evolution, from the pre-industrial era to transportation in the early 21st century, in five major stages, each linked with specific technological innovations in the transport sector.

Before the major technical transformations brought forward by the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century, no forms of motorized transportation existed. Transport technology was mainly limited to harnessing animal labor for land transport and to wind for maritime transport. The transported quantities were very limited and so was the speed at which people and freight were moving. The average overland speed by horse was between 8 to 15 kilometers per hour and maritime speeds were barely above these figures. Waterways were the most efficient transport systems available and cities next to rivers were able to trade over longer distances and maintain political, economic and cultural cohesion over a larger territory. It is not surprising to find that the first civilizations emerged along river systems for agricultural but also for trading purposes (Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, Ganges, Huang He).

Because the efficiency of the land transport system of this era was poor, the overwhelming majority of trade was local in scope. From the perspective of regional economic organization, the provision of cities in perishable agricultural commodities was limited to a radius of about 50 kilometers, at most. The size of cities also remained constant in time. Since people can walk about 5 km per hour and that they are not willing to spend more than one hour per day walking, the daily space of interaction would be constrained by a 2.5 km radius, or about 20 square kilometers. Thus, most rural areas centered around a village and cities rarely exceeded a 5 km diameter. The largest cities prior to the industrial revolution, such as Rome, Beijing, Constantinople, or Venice never surpassed an area of 20 square kilometers. International trade did exist, but traded commodities were high-value (luxury) goods such as spices, silk, wine and perfume, notably along the Silk Road.

Under such conditions, it was difficult to speak of an urban system, but rather of a set of relatively self-sufficient economic systems with very limited trade. The preponderance of city-states during this period can a priori be explained by transportation, in particular the difficulties of shipping goods (therefore to trade) from one place to another. Among the most notable exceptions to this were the Roman and Chinese empires, which committed extraordinary efforts at building transportation networks and consequently maintained control over an extensive territory for a long time period.

The economic importance and the geopolitics of transportation were recognized very early, notably for maritime transportation since before the industrial revolution, it was the most convenient way to move freight and passengers around. Great commercial empires were established with maritime transportation. Initially, ships were propelled by rowers and sails were added around 2,500 BC as a complementary form of propulsion. By Medieval times, an extensive maritime trade network, the highways of the time, centered along the navigable rivers, canals, and coastal waters of Europe (and also China) was established. Shipping was extensive and sophisticated using the English Channel, the North Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean where the most important cities were coastal or inland ports (London, Norwich, Königsberg, Hamburg, Bruges, Bordeaux, Lyon, Lisbon, Barcelona, and Venice). Trade of bulk goods, such as grain, salt, wine, wool, timber and stone was taking place. By the 14th century galleys were finally replaced by full fledged sailships (the caravel and then the galleon) that were faster and required smaller crews. 1431 marked the beginning of the European expansion with the discovery by the Portuguese of the North Atlantic circular wind pattern, better known as the trade winds [Hugill, 1992]. A similar pattern was also found on the Indian and Pacific oceans with the monsoon winds.

The fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantium Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), to the Turks in 1453 disrupted the traditional land trade route from Europe to Asia. Europe was forced to find alternate maritime routes. One alternative, followed by Columbus in 1492, was to sail to the west and the other alternative, followed by Vasco de Gama in 1497, was to sail to the East. Columbus stumbled upon the American continent, while Gama found a maritime route to India using the Cape of Good Hope. These events were quickly followed by a wave of European exploration and colonization, initially by Spain and Portugal, the early maritime powers, then by Britain, France and the Netherlands. The traditional trade route to Asia no longer involved Italy (Venice) and Arabia, but involved direct maritime connections from ports such as Lisbon. European powers were able to master the seas with larger, better armed and more efficient sailing ships and thus were able to control international trade and colonization. By the early 18th century, most of the world's territories were controlled by Europe, providing wealth and markets to their thriving metropolises through a system of colonial trade.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the quantity of freight transported between nations was negligible by contemporary standards. For instance, during the Middle Ages, French imports via the Saint-Gothard Passage (between Italy and Switzerland) would not fill a freight train. The total amount of freight transported by the Venetian fleet, which dominated Mediterranean trade for centuries, would not fill a modern cargo ship. The volume, but not the speed of trade improved under mercantilism (15th to 18th century), notably for maritime transportation. In spite of all, distribution capacities were very limited and speeds slow. For example, a stage coach going through the English countryside in the 16th century had an average speed of two miles per hour; moving one ton of cargo 30 miles (50 km) inland in the United States by the late 18th century was as costly as moving it across the Atlantic. The inland transportation system was thus very limited, both for passengers and freight. By the late 18th century, canal systems started to emerge in Europe, initially in the Netherlands and England. They permitted the beginning of large movements of bulk freight inland and expanded regional trade. Maritime and fluvial transportation were consequently the dominant modes of the pre-industrial era.

2. The Industrial Revolution and Transportation (1800-1870)

It was during the industrial revolution that massive modifications of transport systems occurred in two major phases, the first centered along the development of canal systems and the second centered along railways. This period marked the development of the steam engine that converted thermal energy into mechanical energy, providing an important territorial expansion for maritime and railway transport systems. Much of the credit of developing the first efficient steam engine in 1765 is attributed to the British Engineer Watt, although the first steam engines were used to pump water out of mines. It was then only a matter of time to see the adaptation of the steam engine to locomotion. In 1769, the French engineer Cugnot built the first self-propelled steam vehicle, along with being responsible for the first automobile accident ever recorded. The first mechanically propelled maritime vehicle was tested in 1790 by the American Inventor Fitch as a mode of fluvial transportation on the Delaware River. This marked a new era in the mechanization of land and maritime transport systems alike.

From the perspective of land transportation, the early industrial revolution faced problems over bottlenecks, as inland distribution was unable to carry the growing quantities of raw materials and finished goods. Roads were commonly unpaved and could not be used to effectively carry heavy loads. Although improvements were made on road transport systems in the early 17th century, such as the Turnpike Trusts in Britain (1706) and the development of stagecoaches, this was not sufficient to accommodate the growing demands on freight transportation. The first coach services had speeds of about 5.5 miles per hour in the 1750s.

From the 1760s a set of freight shipping canals were slowly built in emerging industrial cores such as England (e.g. Bridgewater Canal, 1761) and the United States (e.g. Erie Canal, 1825). These projects relied on a system of locks to overcome changes in elevation, and thus linking different segments of fluvial systems into a comprehensive waterway system. Barges became increasingly used to move goods at a scale and a cost that were not previously possible. Economies of scale and specialization, the foundation of modern industrial production systems, became increasingly applicable through fluvial canals. Physical obstacles made canal construction expensive, however, and the network was constrained. In 1830 there were about 2,000 miles of canals in Britain and by the end of the canal era in 1850, there were 4,250 miles of navigable waterways. The canal era was however short-lived as a new mode would revolutionalize and transform inland transportation appeared in the second half of the 19th century.

Steam railway technology initially appeared in 1814 to haul coal. It was found that using a steam engine on smooth rails required less power and could handle heavier loads. The first commercial rail line linked Manchester to Liverpool in 1830 (distance of 40 miles) and shortly after rail lines began to be laid throughout developed countries. The capital costs to build railway networks was enormous and often left to the private sector. They included rights of way, building, maintenance and operating costs. By the 1850s, railroad towns were being established and the railways were giving access to resources and markets of vast territories. 6,000 miles of railways were then operating in England and railways were quickly being constructed in Western Europe and North America. Railroads represented an inland transport system that was at the same time flexible in its spatial coverage and that could carry heavy loads became available. As a result many canals fell into disrepair and were closed as they were no longer able to compete with rail services. In their initial phase of development, railways were a point to point process where major cities were linked one at a time by independent companies. Thus, the first railroad companies bore the name of the city pairs or the region they were servicing (e.g. the Camden and Amboy Railroad Company chartered in 1830). From the 1860s, integrated railway systems started to cohesively service whole nations with standard gauges and passenger and freight services. The journey between New York and Chicago was reduced from three weeks by stage coach to 72 hours by train. Many cities thus became closely interconnected. The transcontinental line between New York and San Francisco, completed in 1869, represented a remarkable achievement in territorial integration made only possible by rail. It reduced the journey across the continent (New York to San Francisco) from six months to one week, thus opening for the Eastern part of the United States a vast pool of resources and new agricultural regions. This was followed by Canada in 1886 (trans-Canada railway) and Russia in 1904 (trans-Siberian railway).

In terms of international transportation, the beginning of the 19th century saw the establishment of the first regular maritime routes linking harbors worldwide, especially over the North Atlantic between Europe and North America. These routes were navigated by fast Clipper ships, which dominated ocean trade until the late 1850s. Another significant improvement resided in the elaboration of accurate navigation charts where prevailing winds and sea current could be used to the advantage of navigation. Composite ships (mixture of wood and iron armature) then took over a large portion of the trade until about 1900, but they could not compete with steamships which have been continually improved since they were first introduced a hundred years before. Regarding steamship technology, 1807 marks the first successful use of a steamship, Fulton's North River / Clermont, on the Hudson servicing New York and Albany. The gradual improvement of steam engine technology slowly but surely permitted longer and safer voyages. In 1820, the Savannah was the first steamship (used as auxiliary power) to cross the Atlantic, taking 29 days to link Liverpool to New York. The first regular services for transatlantic passengers transport by steamships was inaugurated in 1838, followed-up closely by the usage of the helix, instead of the paddle wheel as a more efficient propeller (1840). Shipbuilding was also revolutionalized by the usage of steel armatures (1860), enabling to escape the structural constraints of wood and iron armatures in terms of ship size. Iron armature ships were 30 to 40% lighter and had 15% more cargo capacity.

The main consequence of the industrial revolution was a specialization of transportation services and the establishment of large distribution networks of raw materials and energy.

3. Emergence of Modern Transportation Systems (1870-1920)

By the end of the 19th century, international transportation undertook a new growth phase, especially with improvements in engine propulsion technology and a gradual shift from coal to oil in the 1870s. Although oil has been known for centuries for its combustion properties, its commercial use was only applied in the early 19th century. Inventors started experimenting with engines that could use the cheap new fuel. Oil increased the speed and the capacity of maritime transport. It also permitted to reduce the energy consumption of ships by a factor of 90% relatively to coal, the main source of energy for steam engines prior to this innovation. An equal size oil-powered ship could transport more freight than a coal-powered ship, reducing operation costs considerably and extending range. Also, coal refueling stages along trade routes could be bypassed. Global maritime circulation was also dramatically improved when infrastructures to reduce intercontinental distances, such as the Suez (1869) and the Panama (1914) canals, were constructed. With the Suez Canal, the far reaches of Asia and Australia became more accessible.

The increasing size of ships, the outcome of advances in shipbuilding, imposed massive investments in port infrastructures such as piers and docks to accommodate them. Ship size grew dramatically, from the largest tonnage of 3,800 gross registered tons (revenue making cargo space) in 1871 to 47,000 tons in 1914. Accordingly, ocean freight rates dropped by a factor of 70% from 1840 to 1910. The harbor, while integrating production and transshipping activities, became an industrial complex around which agglomerated activities using ponderous raw materials. From the 1880s, liner services linked major ports of the world, supporting the first regular international passenger transport services, until the 1950s when air transportation became the dominant mode. This period also marked the golden era of the development of the railway transport system as railway networks expanded tremendously and became the dominant land transport mode both for passengers and freight. As the speed and power of locomotives improved and as the market expanded, rail services became increasingly specialized with trains entirely devoted to passengers or freight. Rail systems reached a phase of maturity.

Another significant technological change of this era involved urban transportation, which until then solely relied on walking and and different types of carriages (mainly horse drawn). The significant growth of the urban population favored the construction of the first public urban transport systems. Electric energy became widely used in the 1880s and considerably changed urban transport systems with the introduction of tramways (streetcars), notably in Western Europe and in United States. They enabled the first forms of urban sprawl and the specialization of economic functions, notably by a wider separation between the place of work and residence. In large agglomerations, underground metro systems began to be constructed, London being the first in 1863. The bicycle, first shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, was also an important innovation which changed commuting in the late 19th century. Initially, the rich used it as a form of leisure, but it was rapidly adopted by the labor class as a mode of transportation to the workplace. Today, the bicycle is much less used in developed countries (outside of recreational purposes), but it is still a major mode of transportation in developing countries, especially China.

This era also marked the first significant developments in telecommunications. The telegraph is considered to be the first efficient telecommunication device. In 1844, Samuel Morse built the first experimental telegraph line in the United States between Washington and Baltimore, opening a new era in the transmission of information. By 1852, more than 40,000 km of telegraph lines were in service in the United States. In 1866, the first successful transatlantic telegraph line marked the inauguration of an intercontinental telegraphic network. The growth of telecommunications is thus closely associated with the growth of railways and international shipping. Managing a rail transport system, especially at the continental level became more efficient with telegraphic communication. In fact, continental rail and telegraphic networks were often laid concomitantly. Telecommunications were also a dominant factor behind the creation of standard times zones in 1884. From a multiplicity of local times, zones of constant time with Greenwich (England) as the reference were laid. This improved the scheduling of passenger and freight transportation at national levels. By 1895, every continent was linked by telegraphic lines, a precursor of the global information network that would emerge in the late 20th century. Business transactions became more efficient as production, management and consumption centers could interact with delays that were in hours instead of weeks and even months.

Copyright © 1998-2008, Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dept. of Economics & Geography, Hofstra University. For personal or classroom use ONLY. This material (including graphics) is not public domain and cannot be published, in whole or in part, in ANY form (printed or electronic) and on any media without consent. Permission MUST be requested prior to use.