Transportation History

History of Transportation in America

The history of transportation is the history of our world. Since the beginning of human civilization, transportation and our ability to get from one place to another, has shaped politics, national borders, culture, cuisine, economic development, technological innovation, and war and peace.

The following is reprinted with permission from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center. Visit America on the Movenew window


Between 1800 and 1900, the way Americans moved around their world changed drastically.

In 1800, the only practical way to travel and trade across long distances was along the nation's natural waterways. As a result, settlement clung to the nation's coasts and rivers. A few roads connected major cities, but travel on them was difficult and time consuming.

One hundred years later, railroads sped along thousands of miles of track. Large ships moved passengers and freight across the oceans and smaller boats plied the nation's rivers, lakes and canals. Bicycles, carriages and wagons rolled over thousands of miles of roads. Seventy-five million people lived coast to coast, many in towns and cities that had sprouted up along the new routes.

One of the fastest growing of these young cities was Chicago. In 1800 the state of Illinois didn't exist; by 1900, its largest city was an economic powerhouse with over 1.6 million residents. Located at the intersection of river, lake and railroad routes, Chicago's industrial, manufacturing and commercial life depended on the boats and trains traveling into and out of the city. Lake steamers carried coal and iron ore to Chicago's steel mills. Railroads brought livestock to the city's stockyards and shipped sides of beef, pork, and lamb to the rest of the country.

Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward - both Chicago firms - sold everything including the kitchen sink and guaranteed delivery to the nation's doorstep, or at least to the nearest railroad station.

By 1900, the average American had come to depend on far-flung places for the basic staples of life. Fruit from California, furniture from Chicago and clothes from New York now criss-crossed the country with a speed and ease unheard of a century earlier.


The dawning of the 20th century. America was in the midst of great change. Although most of the population lived in rural areas, people were moving to cities in record numbers. Electric trolley lines meant people were less dependent on horse and foot to get around. They could travel farther faster and, because it was relatively cheap, they did. For 5 cents, commuters could hop on a streetcar in downtown New Haven or Memphis and ride to their homes in the new streetcar suburbs far from the crowds and chaos of the cities.

In the early part of the century, a new vehicle entered the fray. At first cars were fragile luxury items, but thanks to mass production, they quickly became affordable. In 1900, Americans owned 8 thousand cars, in 1920, 8 million. Cities and suburbs both spread out. For those with cars work and shopping were now just a short drive away.

Outside of American cities, however, travel by road was still difficult. It was rails and waterways that made it possible to move people and goods across long distances. Railroads were one of the nation's largest businesses. They employed nearly 10 percent of all industrial workers. During World War II, business boomed. Trains carried over 90 percent of wartime passengers and nearly all of the nation's long distance freight. After the war, however, as Americans slid behind the wheel in record numbers, railroads lost riders and concentrated on hauling freight.

The nation's rivers, lakes, and the oceans remained a critical part of the U.S. transportation story. Millions of immigrants came to this country by ocean liner from Europe or Asia. Others crossed the oceans for business and pleasure.

And an entirely new mode of transportation was introduced in the early years of the 20th century. Regional airlines began offering regularly scheduled passenger flights in the late 1920s. But it would be another 40 years before air travel would truly take off as a popular and affordable way to travel.


For many, a set of wheels seemed to guarantee the American dream-the house in the suburbs, the family outings, the freedom to come and go as you please. Nearly 50 million cars were on the roads.

In the year 2000, there were more than 220 million - more than one car for every person over the age of 18. More people shopped and worked miles from home - often in sprawling edge cities or far-flung suburbs. Although cars polluted the atmosphere and commuting times rose, for most Americans a car was no longer a luxury. It was a necessity they would be loathe to live without.

A great increase in air travel also changed how we lived. Beginning in the 1960s, airports expanded to serve the millions of new passengers and the flourishing air cargo business. By 2000, 2 million passengers plus millions of packages and high priority cargo took off from America's airports every day.

Goods of all kinds continued to be moved by rail, truck and ship, as well. But beginning in the 1960s a new innovation-containers-radically changed the way freight traveled the country and the globe. Shippers began to pack goods of all kinds in standardized steel boxes that could be easily and cheaply moved from ship to rail to truck and back again. It meant that shoes, shirts, or stereos made anywhere in the world could be shipped anywhere else at a low cost, changing not just what people bought, but the work they did and the lives they lead.

A Growing Region with Transportation and Air Quality Concerns

When an MPO was first established in the Nashville area in the 1960s, it consisted only of Nashville and Davidson County. The agency operated for many years under the name of "Nashville Urban Transportation Study."

Following the 1980 Census, it was clear that the urban growth of Nashville and surrounding cities was beginning to bleed together. As such, the MPO expanded its planning boundary to include areas outside of Davidson County including the cities of Hendersonville and Brentwood. Now, for the first time, multiple jurisdictions were formally coordinating major transportation projects and working together to plan major travel corridors.

By the end of the 1980's, the nation had begun to place an increased emphasis on air quality. In 1990, the United States Congress passed Amendments to the Clean Air Act, setting stricter national air quality standards for ozone and carbon monoxide. Areas of the country that did not meet the national air quality standards were designated as "non-attainment," and had to establish plans showing how they would reduce key air pollutants.

Congress followed that up in 1991 with the federal transportation bill know as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, or "ISTEA." That legislation recommended that metropolitan planning organizations expand their boundaries to include nearby non-attainment areas. The reason: personal automobiles and freight trucks account for a substantial portion of ozone-causing pollutants. Before adopting any plan consisting of new transportation projects, a non-attainment area must show that those projects will not cause unacceptable levels of new air pollution.

On December 16, 1992, the governing Board of the Nashville Area MPO voted to expand its membership to include the local governments within Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Wilson, and Williamson counties to correspond to the Nashville region's non-attainment area as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The MPO functioned as a five-county organization until 2002, when the planning area was expanded again to represent the urbanized area as defined by the 2000 Census. Today, the Nashville Area MPO includes the city limits of Spring Hill in Maury county and the city limits of Springfield in Robertson County.

For more on the history of MPOs visit the Association of MPOs (AMPO)new window

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