In our last post, we started building a model for how to think of a region’s geography with three major factors: population density, ease of transport, and natural resources. Here, we will discuss the second factor, ease of transport.
We’ve referenced the importance of transport several times before, including with regard to cities and touching on it briefly in Book 1 of my “Politics for Worldbuilders” series during the discussion of the Nobility. Now we’re going to discuss transport squarely. It plays vital roles for economic activity, the placement of cities, and politics.
Let’s begin by assuming that a given territory can be easy to cross, difficult to cross, or have particular constrained routes such as rivers or valleys that allow for easy transport but can also be easily controlled. Each of these options generates its own set of possibilities.
The easier it is to transport goods and people, the easier it is to trade—you have to be able to get your goods to buyers without too much cost, and on the flip side you have to be able to access raw materials. If transport is cheap and easy, a lot of trade becomes feasible and economic activity will tend to flourish. Cities will be supported by food transports and shipments of raw materials such as iron ore or coal, paid for by the goods and services they generate, and they can also trade finished goods with each other and with their surrounding rural areas.
Similarly, the easier that transport is, the easier it is to stay current on news from distant places. This is somewhat less of a factor in our modern era of instant communication, rather than having to wait for the latest ship from far-off shores; but even today, there needs to be people on site to report what is going on, who want to report it to you or to an audience that includes you. This is more likely when transportation is easy and cheap.
If transport is difficult—the territory is a rugged mountain range, for instance—trade becomes difficult as well. People will have to depend more on their own production, rather than producing for trade with distant buyers. Villages will be inward-focused, struggling to produce their own food, clothes, tools, and other goods. Traveling peddlers might come along every month or three, or not at all. Cities will be rare, placed in the few places where transport is relatively easier, and more likely to be administrative/garrison cities supported by the government than commercial or industrial cities, simply because it is so hard to produce anything and transport it out to buyers. Economic activity as a whole will be stunted as a result.
(Many scholars believe that this is one of the reasons for the relatively low economic growth of the inland part of the African continent and Eurasia. In contrast to Europe, which features long coastlines and many rivers that penetrate into the hinterlands, Africa and Eurasia are mostly landlocked and have few rivers. As a result, areas along the coast and next to rivers will tend to flourish more than inland areas that have a relatively difficult time getting goods to market.)
Trade and production in places with difficult travel will tend to focus on valuable and rare goods if they are present, such as gold, spices, uranium, and the like. If there is enough money to be made, governments or merchants will invest in roads or other transport at fantastical expense that go directly to the production site and nowhere else, in order to make extraction easier. This will create path-dependency effects that favor continued focus on the extractive industry, rather than allowing the economy to broaden and deepen in healthier ways. The region will likely become a supply region. If no such valuables are present, economic activity will simply stagnate. People will focus on producing their own needs, or else migrate to greener pastures if available.
If transport is possible through otherwise rough terrain down particular pathways such as rivers or valleys, we can expect these roads to become the focus of military conflict or economic competition. Whoever controls them will be able to profit from the trade that goes through them, and if the pathways are the key enablers of trade between vast regions then the rewards might be great indeed.
Note that if the transport situation changes—new roads are built, or somebody invents magical zeppelins, or the mountain pass suffers an avalanche and is blocked until spring—the effects on the society might be profoundly good or bad. There is certainly a story to be written here, about who would benefit from such changes, who would be threatened, and what they would do about it.
Just as trade is easier if travel is easier, so is power projection. It is no accident that the Roman Empire spent incredible effort on building its famed roads.
Political boundaries often map onto geographic boundaries such as rivers or mountain ranges, simply because it is hard to transport armies across, or to enforce laws or collect taxes on the other side. The more rugged the terrain, the more likely that an area will feature a patchwork of smaller domains rather than a unified government. (This is part of why Afghanistan continues to be the graveyard of empires.) As with trade, nominal distances as the crow flies matter less than travel time. This is particularly true with the transmission of information; the less information that can get through, the less likely that an empire or other political unit can maintain its control and the more likely that control will devolve to a more local level.
And naturally, the political situation will have effects on the economic one as well, good or bad. A vast regime might enable more internal trade, as Rome did, or it might ruthlessly squeeze its subjects, as Rome also did at various times. A patchwork of small principalities might be littered with obstacles to trade and feature frequent conflicts, or it might become a fecund region promoting creativity and economic development.
You can see how these factors interrelate. A government might build roads for military purposes, which then have the side effect of stimulating new economic activity. The interstate highway system in the United States, and the Autobahn in Germany, are good examples. So is the rail system in much of Europe. Or a transportation system built for commercial purposes might be adopted for military ones, such as airplanes.
All in all, the ease of transport across a territory will dramatically condition what happens there and how people live. For worldbuilders, we can readily exploit some of the challenges that this presents in our stories.
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Wealth [Commerce?] for Worldbuilders, along with some overlap with the planned third book, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when they will be finished, but it should be fun!)