Transportation is often referred to as an enabling technology since its modes, terminals, and infrastructure support and expand economic and social interactions. Transport development tends to be a cumulative process as each new transport technology adds to the capacity and mobility potential of the previous technologies. Larger quantities of freight and more people can be moved more quickly and more efficiently. Developments in transport may also lead to the obsolescence and decline of prior technologies when serving similar markets. Since the modern era, five major waves of transport developments can be identified, each with a transport technology that had fundamental impacts on the mobility of passengers and freight:
- First wave; sailships. The mastery of high sea navigation in the mid 16th and early 17th centuries led to the gradual setting of a global trade network supported by the emergence of colonial empires. Long-distance transportation became reliable, but still subject to dominant wind and sea current patterns.
- Second wave; canals. The early stages of the industrial revolution in the 19th century were accompanied by the setting of canals complementing existing rivers or linking them. They provided the first level of inland access with the economies of scale they could confer, but such accessibility was highly punctual, where canals could be built. Although canal systems have historically been set in other parts of the world (China being the most salient example), it is in Western Europe and North America that their impacts on economic development were the most significant. Even if later on canal systems were supplemented by railways for many commercial relations, they remained active transport modes, particularly in Europe, China, and North America.
- Third wave; railways and steamships. In the second half of the 19th century, the setting of rail systems permitted the first effective forms of inland accessibility and concomitantly of cohesive national transport systems, but interconnecting different rail systems took time. At the beginning of the 20th century, rail systems were the dominant mode supporting passengers and freight flows. The structure of railway systems took different shapes depending on the population density and the distribution of resources such as mining and agriculture. Although their relative importance has declined with the setting of highways, railways are far from being an obsolete technology with the setting of high-speed rail systems around the world as well as their conversion to intermodalism. On the maritime side, in the late 19th century, the steamship would mark the demise of the sailship, but not of commercial maritime shipping networks that continued to expand to support more comprehensive international trade volumes and the long-distance mobility of passengers.
- Fourth wave; highways. The diffusion of the internal combustion engine and the availability of cheap oil supplies enabled the setting of individual mobility as well as trucking. This, however, could not take place without the construction of national highway systems, such as the Interstate in the United States. Another important impact of the highways was the setting of lower density forms of urbanization, namely suburbs.
- Fifth wave; airports and containerships. The introduction of jet services in the late 1950s permitted for the first time the setting of true global mobility systems where locations can be reached within hours. Airports became important nodes in the national and global systems of passenger flows as well as freight flows. On the maritime side, the containership, including the massification of bulk shipping, would strengthen global commercial relations to an unparalleled level through the setting of global distribution systems.