Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Transportation Systems: Centralize or Decentralize?
What I hadn't fully appreciated was how the railroads tended to be a centralizing force in the development of the United States. The huge capital investments and the need to maximize the amount of freight carried on every train led to some cities growing to dominance as the railroad lines coalesced on regional hubs. Chicago is probably the best example of a city that grew from virtually nothing to a metropolis due to this centralizing effect. Farmers wanting to get their crops to market needed railroads. The railroads that fanned out west of Chicago provided just such a transportation network. The produce (especially grain) from the Western farms was then transported on trunk railroads to the East. Like Chicago, those cities which had some early advantage in the developing railroad network in a region tended to grow much more rapidly.
What new patterns will emerge next? Surely, we will continue to see changes. Perhaps these changes will span decades and hence be less immediately apparent. But it is impossible to imagine that we are now living in a static world. If I was trying to predict what the future patterns might be, I would put some of my money on watching innovations in transportation systems. No matter how much we move into the Knowledge Economy, we still need physical products and they have to arrive where we can purchase them.