Marvel’s “Black Panther”, which will be released on video-on-demand and Blu-ray this week, concluded its record-breaking box office run with more than $1.3 billion in global ticket sales, knocking off “Titanic” as the third highest-grossing domestic film of all time.
Beyond its compelling performances, colorful costumes and powerful cultural commentary, the movie also challenges how we think about our transportation infrastructure.
Much of the movie takes place in the fictional country of Wakanda, a technologically advanced and traditionally xenophobic African nation powered by an imaginary metal called vibranium. Although Wakanda and vibranium are works of fiction, the film nonetheless paints a compelling vision of the future of transportation, one that can inspire much-needed conversation around real-world issues like mass transit and land use.
1) A common technology creates valuable efficiencies
Because most of its technology is vibranium-based, Wakanda uses electromagnetism to power its infrastructure. The country’s subways and elevated trains glide through electromagnetic rings, and its street cars are levitated and propelled by vibranium strips in the road. Building an entire transportation ecosystem on a single technology like this creates significant operational and economic efficiencies. A system rooted in a single technology would allow us to consolidate power generation and distribution, focus maintenance activities and make systemwide upgrades more expediently. Many today are hopeful that electric-powered systems, whether in the form of cars, buses, roadways or railways, emerge as our common transit technology. Of course, building everything on a single technology also has drawbacks. It reduces diversity and redundancy, making a system more vulnerable.
2) Multidimensional transit eliminates congestion
Today, most of the world’s transportation infrastructure is one-dimensional. It packs people, cars, trucks, buses and trains onto a single horizontal plane. Given this, it’s no wonder that cities around the world struggle with traffic congestion. In Wakanda, however, different modes of transportation, from streetcars to elevated trains to subways to aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, operate at different spatial elevations, from underground to overhead. This creates a multidimensional transit system that helps distribute traffic vertically, not just horizontally, thereby alleviating congestion and increasing overall efficiency. Wakanda illustrates the benefits of this approach and can help us visualize why investment in subterranean transit and drone taxi programs, like those being explored by Uber Elevate and Dubai, is worthwhile.
3) A pedestrian-first approach cultivates culture
Although only shown briefly in the film, downtown Wakanda is portrayed as a bustling center for entertainment, dining and trade, where citizens walk down pedestrian-friendly streets lined with vendors and restaurants. Even the leisurely speed of the streetcars demonstrates Wakanda’s emphasis on pedestrian safety. This approach is more than just pedestrian-friendly. It’s pedestrian-first. Wakanda’s pedestrian-centricity fuels spontaneous social interaction, valuable foot traffic for businesses and a deeper sense of community without compromising mobility. The most celebrated cities in the world, like New York City and Paris, have many of these qualities. As cities everywhere look to be more aggressive in courting new residents and corporations, they’d do well to find ways to increase walkability and make their urban experience as pedestrian-first as possible.
4) Investing in technology over amenities improves experience
While only glimpsed briefly, the interiors of Wakanda’s streetcars and train cars appear to be rather plain and utilitarian. Although this lack of decor and amenities could have simply been an oversight or a cost-saving decision on the part of the filmmakers, it nonetheless points to an interesting insight: the in-transit experience becomes less important when the mode of transit is expedient and efficient. For instance, the total travel time by air from Houston to Chicago, including security wait times and downtime at the gate, is around four and a half hours. As a result, passengers demand a host of amenities in the terminal and on the plane. Virgin’s Hyperloop One, however, could hypothetically make the same trip in under two hours, making all those amenities less critical.
5) Better transit helps balance development and nature
Although Wakanda’s urban center is its most technologically advanced district, the country also encompasses outlying agrarian lands whose residents have access to the same level of personal technology as their urban counterparts. This model of land use, which envisions a dense city center for commerce and entertainment surrounded by more rural but equally as affluent districts, provides an alternative to the sprawling suburban model of most American cities. A sufficiently advanced transportation network, such as Wakanda’s, remediates the need for suburbs by efficiently connecting various districts regardless of proximity. This allows more disparate areas to retain their natural splendor without sacrificing access to the urban center. While seemingly utopian or idyllic, the harmony between technology and nature showcased in Black Panther is indeed achievable, but only if we reimagine the relationship between infrastructure, communities and land.
While a science fiction movie may seem like a strange place to look for inspiration on infrastructure, artists and engineers were one and the same for much of history. See Leonardo da Vinci. Even as recently as the 20th century, some of the world’s most accomplished engineers were also prominent futurists, such as George Morison, who served as President of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1895. Indeed, art and engineering have a longstanding friendship, as Black Panther welcomingly reminds us.
Ultimately, the infrastructure we have today may not be the infrastructure we need tomorrow. It’s the imagination and creativity of movies like Black Panther that allow us — and sometimes force us — to envision a different future. Now it’s up to us to build it
Credits: AFK Insider