Say humanity have the luxury to start anew. Colonizing a planet where speed of colonization is not an issue. Let's assume planet conditions and gravity pull similar to Earth. Technology relatively more advanced than ours, but not in the realm of fantasy.

What kind of transport infrastructure would they build? Specifically:

  1. Sea transport: this is the first thing that comes to mind. In order to ferry heavy loads, nothing comes close to the efficiency of ships.
  2. Air transport: Not great for shipping heavy materials, but great to ship passengers quickly around the world, or other time-sensitive cargo.
  3. Land transport: That's where I've got my main question. Given the technology to implement an hyper-loop-like infrastructure, and the lack of the burden of legacy infrastructure to maintain, would we ever need to build roads or railways?

I guess roads could be useful for in-city transportation, but once we get to infrastructure connecting cities, why would we ever build roads or railways?

Especially since what's said in the marketing blurb of the hyper-loop site, that:

  1. It rivals trains in transportation efficiency.
  2. Speed would be at least 2× modern-day high speed trains.

Maybe we would need roads for parts of the landscape in which hyperloops are hard to implement? Or would we just connect everything through these?

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    $\begingroup$ Considering that the hyper-loop is still a wish-based system without even a non-working prototype, putting it together with the science-based tag is a problem. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Oct 29 '19 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ Are we talking about a colony that had 100 of years to develop and stabilize, or was planned in advance? Or a first outpost that might or might not develop into a bigger colony? Hyperloops take a ton of time and resources to build, and nobody will do it unless they are sure they will be used a lot. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 29 '19 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ You're missing some critical details, I think. This is like asking what kind of infrastructure a brand new town right here on Earth is going to build. It depends entirely on how big the town is and how long it's been developing. A brand new colony is going to have completely different needs than one that's a hundred years old and has its own industrial base. Exactly what kind of scenario are you describing here? $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 29 '19 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ Also, what's your definition of "new" if the colonists are considering airports, ocean ports, and railroads? To me, new means the first ship full of people. Chances are their transportation will consist of what they brought with them. $\endgroup$ – puppetsock Oct 29 '19 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ honestly, all transportion methods will be used, depending on amount of passengers and cargo to trasport. Railroad is at risk of being eliminated by hyperloop, but it will still make sense for shipping ore or coal from mines up in the mountains: speed is not a concern, and any one line will be scrapped once the minerals run out. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 29 '19 at 20:15

Any new colony on an earth-like planet will have all three - sea, air, and land.


On Earth, water-based shipping is slow but cheap. Natural ports and harbors allow for transportation across oceans and seas and along rivers with ease. Water is still necessary for human life, so settlements will still be built along rivers.

As soon as there are multiple colonies located across large bodies of water that wish to trade, seaports will be the immediate and logical solution.


Air travel is great - you can carry people and goods across long distances without worrying about natural barriers. However, it's an energy guzzler and has limited capacity. In addition, it requires dedicated infrastructure, requires high demand to function economically (e.g. fly-over territory with low demand exists), etc.

There is no doubt that air travel will be used in any new colony. But there will need to be sufficient inter-city demand to justify the enormous capital expenditure necessary to build the infrastructure and vehicles.


First thing's first - HyperLoop and MagLev are not going to outright replace rail, even if starting from scratch. The technology is expensive, the capital costs are expensive, and both require complete grade separation to work.

HyperLoop: The benefit of HyperLoop is speed, which means that it is good for people but not for freight. Higher speeds require blasting holes in mountains and elevating the system above ground to maintain consistent height and avoid ground conditions. Keeping the entire system in a vacuum requires energy and results in high maintenance costs. Capital costs are high, and it is only relevant for medium-long distance land travel.

MagLev: The main advantage of MagLevs, like HyperLoop, involves their ability to reduce maintenance costs and increase speed by not having the vehicle touch the track. Again, capital costs are high, and they are unsuited for freight. Even low speed MagLevs can be economically unfeasible - The Linimo is famous for not running during high winds and for not running when there were too many passengers for it to actually levitate. In addition, their switches consists of many moving parts. They have their place, but they have their disadvantages as well.

Rail: Conventional rail is comparatively low tech and cheap material-wise to install. It's easy to set up, and is very flexible. However, on a new colony rail would most likely be for freight. Long, heavy trains going long distances are very good economically. As for long distance passenger service, I see other modes being preferred - if you're starting from scratch, you can choose your standard, and economies of scale will do the rest.

Roads: Roads are cheap and flexible. They will almost always exist in some form, even for longer distances. There will always be materials that cannot be transported by other means, and as such roads will be necessary to transport them. I don't see people using roads for long distance travel, but they will almost certainly exist.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer! Regarding roads, what do you see them used for exactly, then? If freight is best done by Rail and Sea, and long distance passenger transport best done by HL, ML and just planes, why would we use roads? You mention flexibility. So would it be reasonable to conceive that we wouldn't have a high-coverage network of roads, but that maybe roads would only depart out of train stations/ports into places that are inaccessible, but would only be used for short-distance freight until the closest station/port? (i.e. no highways) $\endgroup$ – Sunyatasattva Oct 29 '19 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ I would consider short networks of roads within cities for local transportation of goods as well as a few long distance roads, but nothing like the road networks of the USA, for example. Roads are still comparatively cheap and can have a small footprint. The alternative would be to have an automated delivery system of freight to local destinations, but Masdar City's PRT has proven that this is prohibitively expensive to implement since it requires grade separation to work effectively. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Fan Oct 30 '19 at 1:04
  • $\begingroup$ I would say that 90% of all transportation (cargo and passanger) for new colony would be by rail. But that would not be single rail system and even single rail standart. "Light" rail systems like tram lines and narrow-gauge railwas are very cheap and fast to establish, maintain and modify and can be easely "upgraded" to full-size rails (using existing "light" tracks to deliver materials and workforce). $\endgroup$ – ksbes Oct 30 '19 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ @ksbes It's definitely true that in this world light rail would be cheap since there would be full automation (IE no labor costs for operation) + easy right of way acquisition. However, providing a coverage service would not be cheap if all locations were to be reached. You won't be able to go absolutely everywhere by rail and roads can cover the needs for areas without sufficient demand but which still require transportation needs. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Fan Oct 30 '19 at 12:45

Andrew said almost all that needs to be said. That being said:

The infrastructure on Earth has developed historically. The infrastructure on your colony will also develop historically, with the benefit of hindsight but starting with expedient decisions in a pioneer society.

You will probably start with a few towns/cities. In the real world, aircraft are filled with tourists and business travelers. Neither might be an issue at early stages of your colony world. You will start with

  • heavy freight transport to bring ore to the coal (is there coal?) or vice versa, and steel to the factories,
  • lighter freight transport to bring consumer goods, grain and groceries to the population centers, and
  • extremely rugged, flexible transport for prospectors, surveyors, etc.

For the first bullet point, it is sea or conventional rail. For the second bullet point, it could be roads and trucks, or using rail in a few cases.

  • $\begingroup$ Makes sense. Just exactly what I was asking, you put it very well: we have the advantage of hindsight, but we still need to meet our most immediate needs. So, would it make sense in your view that, say, 300–400 years after the first colony was put down, the roads would mostly be legacy and be clustered mostly around the first cities, but as time goes on and new cities get designed, transport between them and between resource points is going to be mostly hyperloop/rail/ship? $\endgroup$ – Sunyatasattva Oct 30 '19 at 16:34

The other two answers have answered a lot already but I wanted to add a few things you might add to your consideration.

Your cities will be build differently, especially infrastructural wise. Most, if not all, roads, rails and other large means of transport will be pushed underground. The city will exist from buildings and promenades. All access will be underground and most mobility will be pushed to means of public transport (trains, trams, busses) and cars-for-hire (self driving cars that you hire to get from point A to point B, no people will own cars anymore and these cars will follow the underground infrastructure much the same as other means of transport will. Imagine large main 'veins' that have offshoots to reach small hubs and end points where people can 'get off' the network and go upside to their homes and work and what ever.

Ports and sea authority will increasingly have to deal with zones where ships can not travel near the coast because off tidal wave generators or off shore wind parks. Otherwise I do not see much difference in this aside of better ships, better engines, and so forth. The ports will have a large endpoint/ connection to the said network, possibly not underground.

Air travel will not change much either aside of better technology. There might be better planes that use sub orbital flights to quickly get from point A to point B. Space travel might become something popular as well, or at the very least more frequent. Think supply lines, immigration lines, trade lines, leisure flights and so on. You will have more space ports, larger space ports and much more space-based traffic. It might be possible/ worth it bundling spaceports with seaports or airports for quick movement of incoming cargo and personnel.

In short think about the current level of automation, how fast it makes strides forwards and extrapolate that to your x years in the future. Most vehicles will drive/fly/move on their own with minimal human input. Human input will be more managerial and planning than actually steering the vehicles.

Cities will become devoid of streets and most in-city movement will be bicycles and e-bikes. Transport for further away will be done underground with a vast infrastructure.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes! I had the same thought about underground transport within the city with fast lanes and automated cars. Manual driving is something of the past, and outright illegal; only a few people, maybe enthusiasts or military, know how to operate vehicles manually. However, underground is not going to replace roads/rails for longer distance connections between colonies. It wouldn't make sense to go through the expense of digging when space is not a concern. $\endgroup$ – Sunyatasattva Oct 30 '19 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ While it is true that infrastructure will be built differently, it's definitely worth noting that if free surface space is available, it is FAR easier to utilize that space than to build underground. If budget is not an issue however, then underground has the potential to be more efficient when done properly. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Fan Oct 31 '19 at 4:35
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewFan yes, I assume OP is taking about the more long term buildings and not the priority buildings that would be used when first colonizing the planet. These would be prefabs and 3D printed and not durable enough will be temporarily. So I agree that these will be too costly to be used as the very first habitats. But when you are starting to build actual cities on your colony, I hope our benevolent leaders will choose for this :D $\endgroup$ – Robin Oct 31 '19 at 6:50

Since a colony would have been settled from space, there is an interesting option of simply not having any surface based transportation infrastructure at all. The colony modules and supplies would have been dropped from orbit by the starship, and a system of shuttlecraft would be moving people and equipment to and from orbit to the ship overhead. The shuttles could either travel to the starship and deporbit at a later time, landing at a different site, or travel on a ballistic path from site to site.

SpaceX has revived the idea here on Earth for the next generation spaceship to make ballistic hops, cutting the time for transcontenental flights to roughly 30 minutes. Who would want to spend hours, days or weeks getting from point A to point B if there was a faster alternative?

Even the idea of bulk freight really isn't going to come into the picture if you have the technology for spaceflight, you could literally vapourize rocks to get any elements you need to synthesize any materials or devices you want to make, and frankly it is even easier to do so in the local asteroid belt and "drop" manufactured goods and services from orbit as well, using the massive energy resources to vapourize and recycle them on the planet when they wear out, break etc.

So each site on the world will be connected to each other and to orbit through a network of shuttlecraft. The followup, if the population density supports the amount of throughput would be a tether running from the surface into space to provide lower cost transportation for people and goods to and from orbit.

  • $\begingroup$ Good point about asteroid mining being possibly more efficient than local mining! $\endgroup$ – Sunyatasattva Oct 30 '19 at 16:35

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