Transportation and Social Change

Trains, automobiles, boats, bicycles, planes, and more carry visitors to National Park Service (NPS) sites around the United States. Some national parks protect historic transportation routes, some preserve vehicles and technology from years past, and others tell the story of the innovators who made it all possible. While transportation helps people and goods get from “Point A” to “Point B,” these networks also inspire social change and foster the spread of new ideas.

In his 1808 report on roads and canals, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin promoted the benefits of transportation: “Good roads and canals, will shorten distances, facilitate commercial and personal intercourse, and unite by a still more intimate community of interests, the most remote quarters of the United States.” To Gallatin, efficient transportation was the route to a stronger nation.

Transportation networks contributed to the efforts of reformers and activists to challenge social norms and customs. Canals aided abolitionists spreading their anti-slavery message. Railroad expansion led to labor reform while facilitating migration around the country. Bicycles empowered women’s rights advocates and encouraged female independence. Buses became sites of civil rights activism. Transportation is inextricably linked to the spread of social change throughout the nation and beyond.

Discover the stories of how railroads, canals, highways, and other transportation networks encouraged new ways of thinking and the reimagining of American society.

Last updated: October 27, 2020