“Twentieth Century Transportation,” by E. S. Yates, c. 1910.
Cities have historically been centers of transportation. In the pre-industrial era, most cities developed along trade routes, often near rivers, lakes, and oceans. The 19th century “transportation revolution” created new avenues of travel, trade, and communication, making cities more important economically and socially.

The steam ferry, successfully commercialized by Robert Fulton, allowed for faster journeys on water. States built canals – man-made rivers, to link the various parts of the country and create new markets for their cities. The Erie Canal, connecting the Hudson
to Lake Erie, became the most important of the many canals built in the 19th century. It solidified New York City’s hold on the commerce, trade, and manufacturing of the Great Lakes region, while creating a series of cities along its path from Albany to Buffalo.


Rush hour traffic stymies Atlanta downtown
connector, 1998.

During the second half of the 19th century, the railroad tied the country together in fundamentally new ways. New cities, such as Atlanta and Chicago, grew rapidly as they became central to the evolving transportation system. Railroads connected previously isolated regions, increasing the importance of cities as centers of manufacturing and marketplaces for the goods of the hinterlands.

The lithograph “Twentieth Century Transportation” (circa 1910) was created when cities were still increasing in power and influence in the United States. It pictures most of the modes of transportation of that time: the railroad, streetcar, and ship and, in their infancy, the truck, automobile, blimp, and airplane. The automobile was the plaything of the rich in 1910, but a decade later it would begin its rise to transportation domination, transforming the city and leading to its decentralization. Unlike the subway, streetcar, and railroad, which brought people downtown, the car seemed destined for the open road leading out of town. The automobile created the modern suburb, with its easy-to-reach office parks and shopping centers set alongside the modern highway. One may question the long-term economic and environmental viability of the automobile in an era of global warming and high gasoline prices, but the car continues to draw people away from the city’s center.

Opening of LaGuardia Airport, October 15, 1939.