All of the global cities that we think of as epic took up less than eight square miles

Friday, June 28th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanIn The Accidental Superpower, Peter Zeihan reminds us that moving things around is hard:

Anyone who has ever rowed a boat or paddled a canoe in a place where he had to make a portage can (quite en­thusiastically) tell you how much easier it is to move stuff around on water than on land, but have you ever thought about just how much easier it is?


Modern container ships can transport goods for about net 17 cents per container-mile, compared to semi-trailer trucks that do it for net $2.40, including the cost of the locomotion mode as well as operating costs in both instances.

But even this incredible disparity in cost assumes access to an American-style multilane highway, the sort that simply doesn’t exist in some 95 percent of the planet. It also assumes that the road cargo is all transported by semi rather than less efficient vehicles, like those UPS trucks that probably brought you this book. It certainly ignores your family car. It also does not consider the cost and maintenance of the medium of transport itself. The U.S. interstate highway system, for example, responsible for “only” one-quarter of the United States’ road traffic by miles driven, has an annual maintenance cost of $160 billion. By contrast, the Army Corps of Engineers’ 2014 budget for all U.S. waterways maintenance is only $2.7 billion, while the oceans are flat-out free. Toss in associated costs — ranging from the $100 billion Americans spend annually on car insurance, to the $130 billion needed to build America’s 110,000 service stations, to the global supply chain needed to manufacture and service road vehicles — and the practical ratio of road to water transport inflates to anywhere from 40:1 in populated flatlands to in excess of 70:1 in sparsely populated highlands.

Cheap, easy transport does two things for you. First, it makes you a lot of money. Cheap transport means you can send your goods farther away in search of more profitable markets. Historically that’s been not only a primary means of capital generation, but also a method of making money wholly independent of government policy or whatever the new economic fad happens to be; it works with oil, grain, people, and widgets. In business terms, it’s a reliable perennial. Second, if it is easy to shuttle goods and people around, goods and people will get shuttled around quite a bit. Cheap riverine transport grants loads of personal exposure to the concerns of others in the system, helping to ensure that everyone on the waterway network sees themselves as all in the same boat (often literally). That constant interaction helps a country solidify its identity and political unity in a way that no other geographic feature can.


In the era before refrigeration and preservatives, hauling foodstuffs more than a few miles would have been an exercise in futility. Even armies didn’t have much in the way of self-managed supply chains right up into the eighteenth century. Instead militaries relied on the kindness — or lack of defenses — of strangers for provisions.

This kept cities small. Very small. In fact, up until the very beginning of the industrial era in the early 1600s, all of the global cities that we think of as epic — New York City, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, Shanghai — took up less than eight square miles. That’s a square less than three miles on a side, about the distance that someone carrying a heavy load can cover in two hours, far smaller than most modern airports. If the cities had been any bigger, people wouldn’t have been able to get their food home and still have sufficient time to do anything else. The surrounding farms couldn’t have generated enough surplus food to keep the city from starving, even in times of peace.


This smallness is why it took humanity millennia to evolve into what we now think of as the modern world. Nearly all of the population had to be involved in agriculture simply to feed itself. The minority was nonsedentary peoples (history calls them barbarians), who discovered that one of the few ways to avoid needing to spend your entire day growing food was to spend your entire day stealing other people’s.


  1. Jim says:

    Very true.

    Incidentally, how big was Venice?

  2. Kgaard says:

    This is probably the most insightful thing Ziehan has ever written. He is such a shill for the Neocons that usually he is revolting. But this is quite good.

  3. Jim says:

    According to a graphic I found on the Internets, 2021 “freight transport revenue per ton-mile” was 2.9¢ for water, 4.6¢ for rail, 24.3¢ for road, and 134.7¢ for air. That doesn’t count the externalities, of course, but it does reflect the operating costs of the corporations themselves, which isn’t nothing.

  4. Ezra says:

    My father was a railroad man so he would have greatly disagreed with the demise of the railroads USA to the extent they existed until at least 1945.

    Was it progress? Inevitable?

  5. Roo_ster says:

    Agree with Kgaard on both his points.

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