1400 years ago, the Sui Dynasty in China completed one of the most impressive transportation projects of its, and in fact any time. By far the most advanced civilization on the planet at that time, the Chinese had managed to build a waterway that connected the imperial capitals of Beijing and Hangzhou, two cities over a thousand miles apart, with what we now call the Grand Canal. The canal instantly became a major artery in China’s transportation network, resulting in a boost for all the economies directly and indirectly connected to it, while also affording a degree of protection for China’s agricultural land, which had been under constant threat of flooding until then.
China wasn’t alone in building great structural achievements in the ancient world. Europe still boasts the network of roads and viaducts built by the Romans to supply and connect the Empire. Roads and waterways were the most favored ways to connect places right up until the advent of the railway and the steam engine, 1100 years after the completion of the Grand Canal. Rail networks have sprung up around the world, linking cities on different continents and providing a means of getting around the most congested cities. In fact, the development of railways and trains takes us all the way back to China, where the Shanghai Maglev train currently offers the fastest journey to passengers anywhere in the world, reaching a top cruising speed of 270mph. This record is unlikely to stand for long, however as in neighboring Japan, trains have achieved speeds of over 370mph in test runs.
The railway played a major part in the development of the United States, allowing the country’s expansion westward and the development of the continental interior. However, it was not the train that would come to be recognized as a symbol of America, but the car. The car was a natural way for Americans to get around their mostly rural, spread out country. Within a matter of decades, the US had built almost four million miles of road, with over 250 million cars driving around on them.
The last major revolution that took place in the world of transportation was the flight revolution. These days, at any given moment there are around 20,000 airplanes in the sky, with the busiest routes being London to Dublin and Hong Kong to Taipei, carrying about 5 million passengers each over the course of a year.
With the advent of commercial space travel, the boundaries of human transportation seem to continually get wider. Current projects underway aim to get travelers from London to Tokyo in under an hour. In theory, it could be possible to wake up in London every morning, go to work in Tokyo every day and then sleep in your bed in London every night. It won’t be daytime in Tokyo at the same time in London, of course but that is of little concern. What is of more concern is that it is likely to take us longer to actually get from our homes to the airport than it is to travel across the world. Shanghai’s Maglev train can indeed take you over great distances in a matter of minutes. But what is striking is that you board the train at Shanghai’s Pudong airport and within six minutes you are in the city of Shanghai itself. From there, it may well take you a couple of hours to cross the city and find your hotel. This is because we haven’t made enough advancements to get over the sheer number of people using our transportation networks these days. Shanghai is congested on its streets, highways, overland trains, subways, ports, ferries and airports.
That’s why technology has begun to focus again on getting people around as individuals. Inventions such as the ones you see at The Electric Rider are getting people from their homes to the subway stations, and then from the subway station to their destination. The bicycle, one of the most successful inventions in history for getting people from A to B, was invariably too big to take on buses and trains. That’s not the case with the new generation of technology. Once again, we are expanding the boundaries of travel.