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Nathaniel Bullard

A New Era of Transportation Transformation

Not since the years following the Civil War have Americans faced such civilization-defining change.


Photographer: Graham Walzer/Bloomberg

One of the best books I read during my two weeks’ holiday was Robert J. Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War,” which has great relevance to today's conversation about the future of transportation. Gordon’s central idea is that the drivers of economic growth in the 100 years after the Civil War were civilization-defining transformations. Water and sewer systems, rail lines, public transportation, communications, and (perhaps most profoundly) the automobile connected cities, regions and eventually the entire country.

In 1870, rural dwellers who were not farmers made up the largest share of the population. By 1890, the urban population was bigger; a decade later, the urban population was larger than both nonfarm and farming rural populations. That trend has continued: The farm population has decreased from 40 percent in 1880 to less than 2 percent in 2010. The internal combustion engine and the automation it brought to farming also helped grind the farming population to a minimum; that same engine boosted the population beyond cities but not on farms.