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Transportation systems and the routes they use have greatly influenced both how and where people live. Reliable transportation allows a population to expand throughout a country's territory and to live comfortably in remote areas far from factories and farms. The growth and expansion of the United States were directly related to the means of transportation available at the time. The more compact cities of the U.S. eastern seaboard are the result of early human- and animal-based transportation systems that allowed only short trips. The more sprawling cities of the western United States are the result of an automobile-based transportation system that permits much longer travel distances.
Transportation is vital to a nation's economy. Reducing the costs of transporting natural resources to production sites and moving finished goods to markets is one of the key factors in economic competition. The transportation industry is the largest industry in the world. It includes the manufacture and distribution of vehicles, the production and distribution of fuel, and the provision of transportation services. In the 1990s, approximately 11 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and an estimated 10 percent of all jobs in the United States were related to the transportation industry.
The same transportation systems that link a nation can also be used in the nation's war efforts. The rapid movement of troops, equipment, and supplies can be a deciding factor in winning a battle or a war. Transportation is usually classified by the medium in which the movement occurs, such as by land, air, water, or pipeline. Within each of the first three media, many different methods are used to move people and goods from place to place. Pipelines are used mainly to transport liquids or gases over long distances.
Land transportation is the dominant form of transportation in the world. People can move about land under their own power, either by walking or by other forms of human-powered transportation such as the bicycle. People also use domestic animals as a means of transportation, both for riding and for pulling wheeled wagons or carts.
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Human-powered transportation, such as walking or bicycling, relies entirely on human muscle power for movement. The earliest footpaths were likely based on animal migration routes, and ancient cultures developed extensive paths and roads for both transportation and communication. The ancient Greeks and the Inca Empire of South America were just two of the cultures that employed runners to carry messages in relays over many kilometers. The Incas constructed over 16,000 km (10,000 mi) of roads in South America in the 15th century and were able to relay a message 400 km (250 mi) in one day. Today, in many countries of the world, human-powered transportation remains the main form of transportation. In African cities, two-thirds of daily trips are made by walking. Even in automobile-dominated North American and European cities, walking is an important mode of transportation.
Railroads are paths of parallel metal rails that allow a wheeled vehicle to move more easily by reducing friction. Iron rails were first used in the early 1800s to guide horse-drawn wagons. After the invention of the steam locomotive in 1804, steam engines replaced horses as the primary means of power. Modern locomotives commonly use electric motors or diesel engines and pull long trains of passenger or freight cars.
Air travel has revolutionized global transportation by dramatically reducing the time needed to travel great distances. Journeys across nations or oceans that might have taken weeks or months can now be made in a matter of hours. With large numbers of people traveling in airplanes, air transportation has become a major part of the world's transportation system
Airplanes are heavier-than-air craft that use wings to produce lift in order to fly. Airplanes transport people from place to place and also ferry shipments of mail, perishable goods, and other important cargo The airplane has also revolutionized warfare. Many aeronautical advances in technology, such as the jet engine, were achieved by military engineers and designers. Advances in technology produced faster, larger, and more durable airplanes. The introduction of the turbojet engine in 1941 helped inaugurate the jet age in world travel in the years after World War II (1939-1945). The first commercial jet flight in the United States, made by a Boeing 707, occurred in 1958. To handle ever-increasing passenger demand, jet aircraft were made bigger and faster. The Boeing 747 jumbo jet, which can carry over 300 passengers, entered service in 1970. The supersonic British-French Concorde began passenger service in 1972.
Some of the greatest achievements in transportation relate to methods of crossing water. Two-thirds of Earth's surface is covered by water, so the progress of civilization is naturally tied to the ability to move over water. Water transportation has progressed from early rafts and canoes to more complex sailing ships to today's large passenger and freight ships. Freight vessels are special oceangoing ships that are designed exclusively for carrying large amounts of cargo. Different vessels are designed for carrying different kinds of cargo, such as liquids, bulk cargo (for example, grain or ore), or containers of preloaded materials.
Of course, there are hundreds of other modes of transportation, including roller skates, hang-gliders, hydrofoils, the space shuttle, and the submarine, just to name a few. If transportation had never progressed beyond walking and domestic animals, civilization today would be totally and completely different. We would not be as nearly as advanced, nor would we have the millions of miles of roads and highways that we do. Transportation is in every facet of our daily lives.