Throughout history, humans have been limited by simple logistics – how to get from here to there? For thousands of years, venturing out of one’s village required braving wild and rugged terrain. Travel was inherently dangerous. Roads were rough and rudimentary, if there were any at all.
But our restless ancestors craved freedom of movement. They wanted to trade, to uncover new resources, or simply to know what was beyond the next hill. And so they forged ahead, traveling despite the dangers, passing on new ideas and trade goods, expanding their footprints and their impact.
As they explored further afield, people built better and better transportation networks to make travel safer and more accessible. The Romans opened up the world to people across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East by building the famous Roman road system, an engineering marvel so well constructed that it can still be traveled today. The most famous stretch, the Appian Way, was built in 312 BCE to get supplies to the battlefront during a war. The system worked so well that Rome continued to construct roads everywhere they conquered, until they created a vast and dependable transportation network that united a sprawling, disparate empire.
The primary objective was to maintain the empire’s might. Roman roads allowed soldiers to cover 20 miles a day, outpacing enemies to quickly subdue threats from within or defend distant borders. But Roman roads also opened up the empire to ordinary folk who had long been bound by geography. Diverse cultures interacted and spread new ideas, including an upstart religion from the far-flung desert of Galilee, whose persecuted followers fled along Roman roads to spread their beliefs – allowing Christianity to eventually grow into one of the world’s major religions and impact the course of history.
Roman roads were remarkably efficient. Engineers designed them to whisk travelers to their destination as quickly as possible, so they made them as straight as they could, taking the “as the crow flies” concept literally. Roman surveyors painstakingly charted the most direct route from one point to another. These roads pushed up steep hillsides, over rivers, and plunged down valleys to maintain their straight lines. To accommodate these obstacles, the Romans built small bridges and tunnels to keep roads going over water and through mountains. When the lay of the land forced engineers to divert the road, they used sharp turns and switchbacks to push the road back into alignment as soon as possible. One remarkable example is Fosse Way in Britain, which stretches 180 miles and only veers off course by a few miles the entire way, History.com reports.
Romans were also efficient when it came to construction materials: builders used whatever they could find nearby. To build a road, workers (primarily Roman soldiers) cleared the ground, dug a trench, built retaining walls, and lined the trench with large stones. Next, they added a layer of sand, cement, earth and mortar, and/or pebbles and packed it all down to create a solid base. They topped that with a layer of cement and broken tiles or crushed gravel. Last, they cut paving stones to fit and arranged them over the base layers. Like modern highways, the Roman roads included drainage systems, mile markers, and rest stops where travelers could grab a bite to eat and switch out their horses for fresh ones, much like filling up the tank of a car after buying a sandwich on the run.
A lesser-known but equally impressive ancient road system is the Inca Road, which reached its peak in the 15th century. In fact, one could argue that the 25,000-mile highway system is even more impressive than the Roman roads, since it was built without the use of the wheel, draft animals, or iron tools. To this day, this South American feat of engineering links modern-day communities throughout Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. After hundreds of years of use, locals continue to rely on it for everyday travel.
As with the Romans, the Inca needed a reliable, efficient road system to subdue and maintain their vast empire. Also in keeping with the Romans, Inca roads were arrow straight and expertly engineered with drainage ditches, substrates, and retaining walls to prevent erosion. Unlike the Roman roads, Inca roads soared to dizzying heights – over 16,000 feet above sea level. Inca engineers constructed surprisingly sturdy (but terrifying to the uninitiated) suspension bridges made of woven-grass ropes that connected roads across deep ravines.
The Inca Roads helped the Inca conquer their neighbours and dominate the region. Ironically, these same roads led to the Inca’s demise when a new conqueror, the Spanish conquistadors, used the roads for easy access into the heart of the Inca Empire.
Looking north, the USA was first united as a single entity not by roads, but by rail. The Transcontinental Railroad connected the east and west, slashing travel time across the continent from three or four months to a mere week. And the railroad cut out more than travel time; it also created a safe and reliable transportation option. Slogging across 3,000 miles of wilderness in a covered wagon was no way to travel. Just ask the Donner Party, whose infamous acts of cannibalism after being stranded in snow-covered mountains during the trek have become symbolic of the dangers of the trail. Not to mention countless travelers who suffered less dramatic – but far more common – ailments, such as dysentery and heatstroke.
Before the Transcontinental Railroad, pioneers who opted to skip the dangers of the trail had two other options, neither of which were optimal. Both involved a long sea voyage. Travelers could stay on the ship and sail all the way around the tip of South America, brave the notoriously rough seas around Cape Horn, and – if the ship made it around the Horn – eventually arrive on the west coast after a gruelling six-month journey. Or, travelers could sail to Panama and risk an overland hike to the Pacific, where a ship would take them to San Francisco. This route, while quicker, involved many, many mosquitos, and countless overland travelers succumbed to yellow fever and other tropical diseases.
As soon as the railroads connected the continent in 1869, pioneers suddenly had the option of going west without risking their lives. The Pacific coast was now accessible to everyone and westward expansion increased rapidly. Trade enjoyed a new boom as the east gained easy access to western goods. The unsung heroes of this complicated, high-risk success story were the thousands of Chinese immigrants who toiled at dangerous, backbreaking labour to create a revolutionary transportation solution.
The United States enjoyed another major transportation upgrade when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to create 41,000 miles of Interstate Highway. Ever since, Americans have enjoyed the freedom of the open road, unencumbered by traffic lights, stop signs, or other annoyances. But, as much as we enjoy – and our modern shipping depends on – Interstate travel, the system, like the Roman and Inca roads, was largely created for the defense of the nation. In fact, the full name given by Congress in 1956 was the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”
During WWII Eisenhower witnessed firsthand the advantages of the German autobahn and advocated a similar system for America to move troops and supplies quickly across long distances. Easy evacuations were another defense-related argument in favour of the costly Interstate system. The expansive new road network could help people escape a nuclear attack. This was, of course, the height of the Cold War, when such an attack was a grave concern. The nation had long envisioned a national highway system to improve road safety and efficiency so, with Cold War concerns knocking at the door, the time was ripe for Eisenhower to push through an overdue project.
Today, there is a new transportation system under serious consideration that could revolutionize travel as much as the railroads and Interstate system. Hyperloop is a groundbreaking idea that envisions whisking people from city to city in pods that speed through vacuum tunnels at 700 miles per hour using electromagnetic levitation. It is kind of like the science fiction version of your bank’s drive thru – but in this futuristic scenario, you are in the vacuum tube instead of your money.
Sound implausible? Some experts agree, insisting the concept is too dangerous or expensive to be feasible. But Congress is taking the possibility seriously; the U.S. House of Representatives’ Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council is expected to issue guidelines in the next six months to begin laying down regulatory framework for the emerging industry. Elon Musk and the companies Virgin Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies have pushed the development of the technology and insist the concept is viable. If these entrepreneurs have their way, commuters could cut a four-hour train or car ride down to a 30-minute hyperloop ride. Suddenly, getting from Washington D.C. to New York or from Los Angeles to San Francisco would be as convenient as crossing town, as if the map had been magically folded.
Virgin Hyperloop One has already accomplished a promising test run. “The company successfully operated a full-scale hyperloop vehicle using electric propulsion and electromagnetic levitation under near-vacuum conditions, realizing a fundamentally new form of transportation that is faster, safer, cheaper, and more sustainable than existing modes,” the company website reports. “The company is now working with governments, partners, and investors around the world to make hyperloop a reality in years, not decades.”
If Virgin Hyperloop One and its competitors manage to realize their goals, we could have an extremely efficient, convenient, carbon-neutral transportation system that will change the way we work and play. Taking into account how much we’ve managed to accomplish up to now – from paving the ancient world to uniting a continent through rail and road – it is easy to believe the sky is the limit for our next big transportation project.