Here’s a tidbit that you probably didn’t already know, because I never write about work on this site – my job involves maps. I’ve always loved maps, just casting my eye across them and imagining all the people doing their thing and living their lives, and imagining the changes throughout the millennia that eventually resulted in things being precisely where they are.
One of the really fun things that you can do when you’ve got your own map-drawing software is to go back in time.
My first experiment was to hide all of the motorways. The change in the road network is immediate and astounding. Motorways charge across the countryside, swooping close to large towns and cities but generally not touching them, like an alien tourist from another planet. Once they’re gone, the road network links up all the cities, towns and villages, fairly direct and fairly perpendicular. In your mind’s eye you picture medieval families walking to market with their goods on a cart. From this village to this town, and then back again at the end of the day. For long distance travellers, it’s a series of stops – a journey across the country is described by the towns that you sleep in along the way, not by a series of short alphanumeric codes. Before the M4 gave us the power to rocket from London to Bristol in 2 hours, the main road was the A4 which goes directly through the centres of Slough, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury, Hungerford, Marlborough, Chippenham and Bath. If you wanted to avoid any of these places, then it would be a long way round.
The second experiment is to then go ahead and hide the roads altogether. The pattern that you see now is strands of old settlements radiating inward from the coast, following the courses of the rivers. You’re now back in an even older time, when a flowing river was necessary for fresh water and transportation of heavy items. And suddenly, even the straight lines of the road network seem crude. There’s something quite civilised about the way that the towns are linked by the natural waterways before humans went and tried to connect them by the shortest possible path, in their idiosyncratic way.
I’m not a luddite. I’m just a bit wistful. It’s inevitable that future generations will continue to push forward for the sake of optimisation. Maybe one day a guy just like me will peel layers off of a map until he can see just the cities and motorways and think “ah, wasn’t it quaint?”
I wonder what those layers will be. In hindsight, it’s an obvious progression – from winding waterways, to direct town-to-town roads, to high speed non-stop expressways spanning the country. What could supersede that? Maybe an ultra-high speed rail network, once again direct from city to city? Would this have to be done using some sort of vacuum tube, in order to reach insanely high speeds? Would it be cost-effective to do this underground? Will motorways become obsolete?
Uborka readers, what is the future of transport? As a sweetener, if you turn out to be right, I’ll buy you a cucumber.