Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Rethinking Transport Geography

These lorries have a much larger impact than you might think. Wikipedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

The geography of transport is a field scholars traditionally take for granted. Ideas and cultures spread via cars, trains, aircraft, ships, and buses, facilitating transnational exchanges. Precisely because of this simplistic summation, transport geography has often been ignored relative to its more glamorous siblings, defense geography, human geography, and political geography. As developing countries establish powerful domestic transport industries, however (e.g. Embraer in Brazil, Tata in India and Geely in China), geographers are taking a fresh look at global, mechanized movement. In a July 2010 article for Transactions of the Institute for British Geographers, John Saw (University of Plymouth) and Markus Hesse (University of Luxembourg) highlight what they term as “the new mobilities paradigm” (305). In many respects, this paradigm shift is not revolutionary; the angle of perspective has simply been substantially widened. As was discussed at the 2008 annual conference of the Association of American Geographers (305), geographers should contextualize transport within the interdisciplinary nature of the local and global.

Transport – the conduit by which trade and cultural links have been established throughout world history – traditionally reflected relative international power. In the long sixteenth century (c.1450-1600) Portuguese and Spanish shipbuilders, spurred by prospective wealth in the East Indies, radicalized vessel designs. William Adams, an Englishman stranded in Japan who eventually became a close advisor to the shogun Ieyasu, introduced Western ship designs. The Chinese had lambasted their Japanese counterparts; in We Pei Chih (1600), Mao Yuan haughtily dismissed Japanese merchant vessels as “wretchedly small…and easily sunk”. Adams’s design, incorporating two masts and a deep, ocean-going hull, proved extremely valuable to the Japanese elite. The experiences of such visitors as Adams opened new paths of communication that would subsequently widened and enhanced. As transport diversified, so did the means and types of cultural, political, and linguistic transmissions.

Jon Shaw and Markus Hesse, “Boundary Crossings: Transport, Geography and the ‘New’ Mobilities”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35 n0. 3 (Jul., 2010): pp. 305-312.

Giles Milton, Samurai William: the Englishman Who Opened Japan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), p. 110.

Mao Yuan, Wu Pei Chih (On Preparations for War), 1600.


  1. Its also to important to understand the scale of transportation infrastructure. Developed countries have invested heavily for their transportation networks. We must consider these networks as assets, observe, maintain and improve them! Asset management is a critical component to the transportation/ land use mix.

    Great post!

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