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Transportation Infrastructure

Transportation Infrastructure

As world populations have grown over thousands of years, so has the need for improved systems of transportation. As a result, people have modified their environment by building transportation infrastructure to make movement faster and easier.


5 - 8


Engineering, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies


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Canals have been used as to transport goods over water since ancient times. Although overland and air transportation have largely overshadowed canal shipping routes, they remain an important part of transportation infrastructures around the world.

Photograph by Remi BENALI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Morgan Stanley

Since the development of the world’s earliest civilizations, people have needed to move themselves and their goods from one place to another. As world populations have grown over time, so has the need for better and more advanced systems of transportation.

Transportation is the movement of goods and people from one place to another. In ancient times, people crafted simple boats out of logs, walked, rode animals and, later, devised wheeled vehicles to move from place to place. They used existing waterways or simple roads for transportation. Over time, people built more complex means of transportation. They learned how to harness various sources of power, such as wind, steam, and combustion, to move barges, ships, trains, automobiles, and airplanes. These new means of transportation required people to change their environments by building transportation infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure is the underlying system of public works designed to facilitate movement.

Past peoples, such as the ancient Egyptians, built ports in coastal areas for bringing and receiving goods. They also adapted internal natural waterways using dams or other means, to make them navigable. Ancient people also constructed artificial waterways called canals to move goods from place to place. Canals continued to be an important part of transportation infrastructure in societies around the world, particularly in Europe and China during the Middle Ages. Canal building in the United States reached its peak during the mid-1800s, but in other places, such as the Netherlands, canals are still an important part of the transportation infrastructure.

Overland travel has also changed over time. Historic civilizations, including the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans, built roads and highways out of earth and stones to connect cities and rural areas. Roadbuilding in Europe and elsewhere improved during 1600s and 1700s, with increased trade and better vehicles.

With the development of the steam locomotive in the early 1800s, people began to build railways to take advantage of train travel, particularly in the United States and Britain. By the mid-1800s, workers had constructed around 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) of railroad track in England and Wales. In the United States, by 1900, there were more than 320,000 kilometers (200,000 miles) of track. Also during the mid-1800s, people developed means of building railways underground. The world’s first subway line was opened in London, England, in 1863. Subways are still an important part of transportation infrastructure in many of the world’s largest cities.

Automobile ownership became widespread by the mid-1900s, particularly in the United States and Europe, and people with cars soon demanded better roads. These roads would allow them to move away from cities and the need for mass transportation. Communities and governments rebuilt their roads, and major highway systems developed over time. European countries were the first to develop highway systems. In the United States, public demand from the 1930s to the 1950s led to government funding of the massive U.S. interstate roadway system.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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