Transportation and Communications

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roads and waterways
railways and steam-powered water transport
revival of the road: bicycles and motorcars

Over centuries, roads evolved in response to the movement of goods and people. They included narrow tracks linking farms to fields and those linking villages to each other and to local and regional markets; links between market towns and regional administrative and commercial centers; and major routes radiating from national capitals toward these regional centers and the frontiers. Differing natural conditions meant that the physical condition and carrying capacity of these routes varied considerably, as did the priorities and resources accorded to their maintenance by local users as well as administrative bodies. Everywhere, however, users incurred substantial "transaction costs" as a result of slow movement, dependent on horse traction. Furthermore, irregularity and the resulting need to maintain stocks of foodstuffs and essential raw materials, which were susceptible to spoilage, added-to-costs.

roads and waterways

In response to growing demand, from at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, increasingly efforts were made to improve road construction techniques, provide paved surfaces, and introduce more regular maintenance. The timing and nature of the decisions taken are intelligible only within particular geographical, political, social, institutional, and cultural contexts. Thus in Britain, improvement was to be funded primarily through private initiative by means of the creation of turnpike trusts—of which there were 1,037 by 1834—and the introduction of tolls. Elsewhere, classification of routes, the ordering of priorities, and supervision of construction by state engineers were more likely, with resources provided by a mixture of tolls, taxation, and obligatory labor service. With better road surfaces, carts and carriages could move more rapidly and carry heavier loads, with less wear and tear on both beasts and vehicles. Certainly less strain was imposed on the horses. Carefully selected for their particular functions, they represented a substantial investment. In an expansive economic situation, improved roads were a major factor in sustaining growth. Government interest was also encouraged by the desire to reinforce political centralization. Additionally, improved roads promoted changing perceptions of time and space as well as more positive attitudes toward travel. For official use, as well as for the convenience of the small minority who could afford to use the mail coach or a private carriage and able to take advantage of relays of horses, travel was becoming increasingly rapid. In France, where technical improvements in road construction and maintenance largely followed British models, the most effective road system in Continental Europe was created during the eighteenth century. Subsequently, with the exception of strategic routes, roads were neglected during the long and destructive wars of the revolution and empire until, with the coming of peace, work was resumed.

While these improvements were certainly welcomed, travelers continued to complain, especially about the marked deterioration in conditions once they moved away from privileged axes. In the uplands steep gradients frequently required the use of packhorses rather than carts. Although times varied considerably according to the season and weather, in 1827 it was still likely to take twenty-five days to transport goods from Paris to Marseilles at a cost of 14.50 francs a metric ton, even on relatively good roads. For somewhere between 32 and 36 francs "accelerated" transport might reduce the time taken to thirteen days. The range of transport services included large enterprises with heavy wagons and large teams of horses and offering regular departures; local carriers providing links with nearby market towns; and the hosts of peasants engaged in transporting their own produce or, during the agricultural quiet season, offering their services, together with horses or oxen, to whomever needed a cart and generally at very low cost.

There was a clear division of function between road and waterway transport. Road transport was generally preferred for innumerable short-distance movements, in the absence of navigable water, or else as a feeder to the waterways. In general it was more rapid and reliable and certainly offered greater flexibility than did carriage by water. High-value goods, which could bear the cost of transport, would be transported by road. However, waterways offered the only economic means of transporting such bulky products as cereals, coal,

and building materials as well as finished textiles and metallurgical products, glass, and pottery. Britain, an island penetrated by numerous waterways, and the Low Countries thus enjoyed considerable advantages. Nevertheless, conditions on the waterways and transport costs were extremely diverse. In part this reflected seasonal variations in the depth of water and in the strength of the current, whether movement was with or against the current, and, on the larger rivers and at sea, the direction of the prevailing winds. The existence of obstacles (including rocks, shifting sandbanks, bridges, and mill weirs) was another key factor. Transshipment was frequently necessary. Even minor rivers might be employed at least downriver and when water levels were high. On faster-flowing streams, where downriver movement alone was possible, boats were likely to be broken up on reaching their destination. As a result of differences in the conditions for navigation, the structure and capacity of boats varied considerably. Rivers were also the means of floating downriver the wood that served as the essential construction material and as a major source of fuel. In addition to numerous barges coming downriver, regions accessible to the sea attracted ships active in long-distance international trade and also played host to the numerous small coasters plying their trade between the large number of mostly tiny harbors.

In response to growing demand, the construction of canals offered a means of bypassing obstacles and of linking the various river basins in order to create more extensive networks. The excavation of reservoirs to improve water supply, the construction of locks to overcome gradients, and the provision of towpaths to make it easier to use horses to tow barges, all represented means of improving canal navigation. In France, where the rivers Seine, Loire, Saône, and Rhône carried the most traffic, much of the canal construction, beginning in the seventeenth century, was directed toward improving links between these river basins. In the south the Canal du Midi linked the Garonne River at Toulouse with the Mediterranean at Sète, transporting cereals from upper Languedoc, an area of surplus, to lower Languedoc, where deficits were common. Considered to be a technological marvel when under construction between 1665 and 1681, it ran for some 240 kilometers and included 74 locks. By 1840 Paris was linked to central France by the upper Seine and its tributaries and by the canals of Bourgogne and the Centre, with the east by the Marne-Rhine canal, with the coal fields of Belgium and the north by the Canal de Saint-Quentin and the Oise, and by the lower Seine to the sea. Lyon, at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône, served as the second major node in the French transport system. As late as 1829, with steam locomotion already in its early stages but with an uncertain future, the Becquey Plan assumed that economic change would continue to depend on substantial investment in the canalization of rivers and in canal construction.

In practice the waterways continued to suffer from major shortcomings. As a senior French government engineer pointed out: "the utility of canals is recognised along their length, but extends itself for only short distances from their banks. Immediately the merchandise transported by boats has to be re-loaded into carts, the unloading, the reloading and carting eliminates the economies offered by water transport" (quoted in Price, p. 45). Every lock represented a bottleneck. Propulsion, prior to the development of small and inexpensive steam engines, depended on horse or sail and in some cases even on human power and represented a major problem, especially against the current. The upper reaches of the Rhine were thus used primarily by downriver traffic, with the most active stretch of the river that between Mainz and Cologne. Gradually, in the early nineteenth century efforts were made to abolish the tolls charged by various cities along its banks and to clear the riverbed; from the late 1820s steamers were introduced to carry passengers and from midcentury tugs to tow barges. In northern Germany the Weser, Elbe, and Oder were used mainly by local traffic, while farther east the Vistula, even if closed by freezing for some three months each year, made possible substantial transports of rye and wheat. In both Germany and Russia the north-south flow of the major rivers limited their impact on both internal and international trade. By 1850 the various German states had constructed only 750 kilo-meters of canals to link the major river systems, while the navigable link established from the 1820s between the Baltic and Black Seas was often interrupted by adverse water conditions. Nevertheless, ports like Hamburg, Lübeck, Danzig, and the Russian Baltic port of Riga at the mouths of these rivers made important contributions to the export trades in grain, timber, flax, and hemp. In Italy the river Po and the Tiber below Rome carried substantial traffic; in Spain the Guadalquivir and the lower reaches of the Tagus, Duero, and Ebro were also used for navigation. Topography represented an insurmountable obstacle to significant canal construction, however. In much of Scandinavia slow construction of what would in any case be a low-density rail network would ensure that coastal shipping remained important throughout the nineteenth century.

In spite of the expense and frequent difficulty of movement by both road and water the gradual increase in the efficiency of the transport system reduced the cost and improved access to potential markets, as well as increasing the efficiency with which marketplace information was diffused. Thus, although they provided few of the "backward" linkages to industry—which, for example, would be created by railway demand for metallurgical products—improved road/water transport would have a substantial impact on economic conditions. Reductions in transport costs, and in effect of the prices paid by consumers, stimulated the expansion of demand for manufactured goods and the greater commercialization of agriculture, particularly in the already relatively favored areas of valley and plain. Urban centers at nodal points in communications networks, which performed key commercial functions, could be supplied more easily with the raw materials and foodstuffs necessary to their further development. Central to regional communications systems themselves, they were also the key elements in interregional and international trade. Even in the more isolated areas growing numbers of middlemen were active in the host of markets and fairs still made necessary by the slow and expensive communications that limited the zone of attraction of most small markets to something like a circumference of fifteen kilometers. Nevertheless, they drew in peasant farmers anxious to sell their produce and increasingly able to make purchases. Information on the prices of such key commodities as cereals and coal suggests that a gradual and piecemeal process of market integration was underway but also points at the continued fragmentation that remained a predominant characteristic of pre-rail economies. The survival of numerous dispersed small-scale iron producers was a further indication of the difficulties of access to both raw materials and markets, of poor diffusion of technical as well as market information, and the weakness of competitive pressures to innovate. In such situations railway construction would represent a response to the bottlenecks emerging within road/water transport systems as the economic development, to a large degree stimulated by their improvement, resulted in a further growth in the demand for transport facilities. Just to take one example, the Thames below, and especially in, London, was increasingly packed with colliers bringing coal from the northeast while nearby streets were congested with horses and carts.

railways and steam-powered water transport

A technical solution to these problems was being developed, however. Like the canals, the first railways were constructed as adjuncts to river systems and as means of replacing costly road transport. However, it rapidly became evident that in spite of considerable investment in the improvement of roads and waterways and substantial pre-rail reductions in the cost of transport, the railways offered considerable further advantages in terms of cost, speed, and regularity. This was especially welcomed in those areas that had previously lacked easy access to waterways or the sea. Rail construction would have a substantial market-widening impact. The cost reductions they allowed stimulated demand for a wide range of products. The growing integration of space would also result in greater regional specialization as the more resourceful producers benefited from comparative advantage. Together with the intensification of competition, they promoted the more efficient diffusion of information and stimulated technical innovation. Long-distance passenger transport moved virtually entirely to the railways, which offered cheaper, far more rapid, and more comfortable transport. The time taken for the coach journey from Paris to Lille in northern France had already been reduced from forty-eight hours in 1815 to twenty in 1845 as a result of road improvements and better coach design and horse breeding. Clearly more positive attitudes toward traveling had developed as a result. However, there were limits to what could be achieved by horse traction, and by 1855 the rail journey took only four hours and fifty minutes. The greater concentration of manufacturing processes also led to the deindustrialization of less well-endowed areas and to a process of ruralization as dispersed handicraft manufacture collapsed.

The injection of this new technology into the communications system had a substantial impact on road and waterway traffic, which underwent a relative decline in importance. The schematic model drawn by Norman J. G. Pounds (An Historical Geography of Europe, 1800–1914, Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1985, figure 9.1, p. 428) provides an effective representation of these trends. The statistical information available is extremely fragmentary, however, particularly for road and waterway transport. Table 1 therefore provides only an additional impression of trends.

Although the pre-rail forms of transport continued to move similar or even slightly greater volumes of freight, their share dropped considerably. Between 1851 and 1876, while the tonnage carried by French railways increased by around 1,590 percent, that carried by water and road rose by 18 and 19 percent respectively. In general traffic declined on waterways and roads running parallel to the railways while rising substantially on roads providing access to railway stations. It also needs to be borne in mind that rail construction was extended over at least a half-century, affecting repeated local and regional changes in road use.

Waterway transport of bulky commodities was also threatened. Operating in an area with relatively efficient waterborne transport, the Nord railway company in France nevertheless proved able, by means of competitive pricing, to attract a substantial part of the traffic in coal coming from Belgium and the departments of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais. This represented 44 percent of its goods traffic in the period from 1873 to 1884. Major coal

Transport of commodities in France, 1830–1914 (in thousand millions of metric ton-kilometer)
PeriodRoadCanalRailSea (coaster)Total
SOURCE: J.-C.Toutain, Les transports en France de 1830 à 1965 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968), p. 252

mining and metallurgical enterprises constructed both internal rail systems and spurs linking them to the external railway network. In the case of seaborne trade the railway was either complementary, in providing a means of penetration inland for seaborne people and goods, or else competitive, particularly with coastal traffic. International and especially transatlantic trade grew substantially in volume, reflecting both rising prosperity and substantial reductions in maritime freight costs resulting from improvements in the design and construction of both sailing and steam ships. Gradually, from the 1820s and 1830s, steamers entered coastal trade and from midcentury into longer-distance transport. Although as late as 1870 only 24 percent of British merchant tonnage and around 9 percent of that of France, Germany, and Italy was steam powered, the speed and carrying capacity of sailing ships was improved considerably. Increasingly, however, especially from the 1870s and 1880s and in long-distance trade, steam propulsion replaced sail, especially as more reliable and efficient engines reduced fuel consumption and larger iron—then steel—ships were constructed offering more cargo space. This growing maritime trade—and the shipbuilding that made it possible—was increasingly concentrated in the major ports, where infrastructure investment in docks, quays, and cranes had improved turnaround times for ships and which furthermore benefited from efficient rail links to wide hinterlands as well as rail tariff policies that sought to maximize traffic. There was intense competition between such ports as Le Havre, Antwerp, and Hamburg for a lucrative transit trade. The massive imports of raw materials and foodstuffs did much to keep down both the price of manufactured goods and the cost of living and thus to stimulate consumer demand.

From the 1860s through 1880s, on a selective basis, substantial investments also took place in the improvement of conditions for navigation on such major rivers as the lower Seine, Meuse, Rhine, Elbe, and even the Danube (where natural obstacles continued to deter users) as well as in the widening and deepening of canals, designed to allow the constant movement of high-capacity barges. Between 1873 and 1914 the length of canals and canalized rivers in Germany almost doubled, to 6,600 kilometers. In France and Germany governments favored this as a means of countering rail monopoly by providing an even cheaper means of transport for bulky commodities like coal and iron ore. Between the mid-1880s and 1905 the tonnage carried on French waterways grew by 73 percent, on Belgian by 114 percent, and on German by 274 percent. In the French case the relative decline in the significance of inland waterways was reversed as their share in goods traffic, which had fallen from 37 percent to 15 percent between 1851 and 1882, rose again to 21 percent by 1903. In less economically dynamic regions or where natural conditions made the cost of improvement prohibitive, waterways like the Loire or Vistula were largely abandoned and river ports decayed rapidly.

revival of the road: bicycles and motorcars

As had been the case with the development of the railway system, the revival of the road as a means of

transport was a response to the perceived shortcomings of existing rail/road transport facilities. The introduction of the bicycle and then of the motorcar were once again to transform transport conditions. Substantial investment in road improvement had continued because of roads' central importance to short-distance transport and in providing access to the railways.

In 1867, a Parisian blacksmith called Pierre Michaux probably produced the first commercial bicycle. By 1885 the modern safety bicycle had been developed. From the late 1880s its use rapidly spread as its cost fell. The bicycle offered both a means of getting to work and a leisure activity that enhanced personal liberty. By 1890 some five hundred thousand were in use in Britain. Michelin's invention of the detachable, inflatable tire in 1888 provided for a more comfortable ride. Typically, large numbers of producers entered the new industry before competition and overproduction eliminated the weakest.

Even more significant was the development of the internal combustion engine, invented independently by Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in the 1870s and 1880s. This provided a more compact, fuel-efficient power technology than that provided by steam and allowed the construction of lighter vehicles no longer dependent on rails. The automobile offered a flexible and rapid means of personal transport to luxury consumers anxious to escape from crowded, more "democratic" forms of transport. Initially, customized cars were

Annual expenditure on roads in France, 1815–1913 (in millions of francs)

assembled by skilled artisans in hundreds of metalworking and carriage-building workshops, some of which, like Peugeot, were pushed into diversification by intense competition among bicycle manufacturers. Again, only a small minority of these companies, including Peugeot, Opel, and Fiat, would survive growing competitive pressures. By 1907 there were some 150,000 vehicles in use throughout Europe, increasing to 600,000 by 1914. In France 91,000 vehicles were in use in 1913; in Germany there were 61,000 private cars and 9,700 commercial vehicles. Public transport was also affected. Thus, whereas in London in 1903 11,000 hansom and hackney cabs and 1 motor cab plied their trade, by 1913 there were already 8,000 motor cabs, and the number of horse-drawn cabs had declined to 1,900. Trucks and motorbuses were also making an appearance. As a result of better automobile design and the improvement of road surfaces, the reliability of vehicles and their capacity for long-distance movement also increased rapidly. A major new industry was in the making. In Europe's fragmented markets assembly-line production was slower to develop than in the United States. In 1914 Peugeot, the largest European producer, turned out only around 2 percent of the cars produced by Ford. Even at this stage, however, the burgeoning new industry substantially increased demand for aluminum, high-quality steels and alloys, and rubber and oil. Renault, Panhard et Levassor, and others were also already moving into the production of aircraft engines. In France by 1914 some 100,000 were employed in making cars and especially in related activities in garages and road maintenance. Soon World War I would provide a massive stimulus to production that heralded the postwar rebirth of road transport and, because motor vehicles offered greater convenience and flexibility at a competitive price, the gradual but accelerating decline of the railway. Although the process would take decades, particularly in the countryside, the age of the horse was also coming to an end.

See alsoAirplanes; Automobile; Cycling; Industrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second; Railroads; Trade and Economic Growth.


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——. "Transport and Communications." In The European Economy, 1750–1914: A Thematic Approach, edited by Derek H. Aldcroft and Simon P. Ville. Manchester, U.K., 1994.

Roger Price

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