Spaceships get all the attention, but it occurred to me recently that the cities of science fiction tend to have unusually robust public transportation systems. Sci-fi movies, TV shows, and novels feature transit for the same reasons that other stories do; namely, that trains and train stations are ideal locations to stage moments of high drama (the paradigm being, of course, the train chase at the end of Paddington 2). But the prevalence of public transportation in science fiction tells us something else, too: that trains and buses are inextricably intertwined with our aspirations as a society.

Public Transportation as the Epitome of Technological Progress

Trains—on rails, on cables, or hovering above the ground—are science fiction shorthand for a society that has mastered problems of both physics and governance. Look no further for an example than the biggest sci-fi franchise of them all: Star Wars. Admittedly, there are a lot of single-occupancy vehicles zipping around on the surface of various planets. After all, what else is Luke Skywalker’s speeder but a 1960’s convertible? But that’s on Tatooine: a rural, undeveloped backwater.  

In the Star Wars universe, we see public transit on Coruscant, the capital city of the Republic (most notably in 2002’s Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones). Along with the city’s towering skyscrapers and space ports, the Coruscant hover train is part of the elegant, high-tech scenery that helps establish that the Republic is a state of incredible administrative and technological sophistication.

There’s public transit in the Star Trek universe, too. Despite having developed an extremely effective form of micromobility (teleportation), people in future San Francisco take the AirTram. From what we see in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), we can surmise that the AirTram is a fixed-route service that… flies? But also… runs on a track?  It may not make a ton of sense, but public transportation in the form of the AirTram perfectly encapsulates Star Trek’s vision of the future: hyper-advanced technology in the service of an egalitarian utopia.  

Science fiction novelists also deploy transit to showcase the civilizational accomplishments of the worlds they imagine. Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) features a train running along the rim of the giant halo-planet that encircles the sun. In Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire (2019), the planet-spanning capital city is the height of opulence, cultural achievement, and technological sophistication. As such, everyone gets around on the subway.  

When the protagonist of The Forever War (1974) returns to Earth for shore leave after a deployment of several hundred years, what is the surest sign that’s he’s arrived in an unfamiliar future? It’s the train that takes him from an overpopulated Washington, DC all the way to Hyattsville, Maryland, about seven miles outside the city center. In these imagined futures, the idea seems to be: “this civilization is so advanced, they have trains.”     

It’s not all trains and subways in the future. Isaac Asimov imagined that Earth’s cities of the future would be too crowded for cars, or even streets. In his novel The Caves of Steel (1953), future New Yorkers get around via a set of high-speed moving walkways. As with any successful public amenity, the true sign of the system’s success is that people take it for granted. To wit, here’s Detective Elijah Baley’s morning commute in Asimov’s world:

He stepped from strip to strip with the ease of a lifetime’s practice. Children learned to ‘hop the strips’ as soon as they learned to walk. Baley scarcely felt the jerk of acceleration as his velocity increased with each step. He was not even aware that he leaned forward against the force. 

Whether a moving walkway or flying train, the basic vision is the same: the future of urban transportation will involve shared public infrastructure on a massive scale that feels utterly mundane to its riders. It turns out that many sci-fi writers have a hard time imagining that an advanced civilization would just get around in piddly little cars. 

Public Transportation as Evidence of Social Progress

In some sci-fi worlds, public transportation is held up as an emblem of social, rather than technological, progress. The Expanse (2015-2021) is a board game-turned-novel series-turned TV show set in a future where humanity has settled the solar system. There are several trams and even some interplanetary ferries, but the service with the best on-time performance is the cable car on Mars. Why do the Martians have the best public transportation? Because theirs is a highly collectivist society whose citizens are unified around the goal of transforming their adopted, inhospitable home into a garden paradise. People with aspirations like that? They build trains.  

My favorite sci-fi transit system is also one of the most low-tech. Ursula K. Leguin’s The Dispossessed (1974) is the story of a revolutionary movement that settles on their planet’s arid but habitable moon called Anarres. Anarres is a civilization without private property or any coercive force to protect it. Everything is done voluntarily, out of an impulse of solidarity. To me, the novel’s most vivid description of human solidarity is this celebration of the capital city’s streetcar:

Every now and then down Depot Street a thing came careening by clanging a bell, a vehicle crammed full of people and with people festooned on stanchions all over the outside… electric sparks showering blue from the overhead wires at crossings: as if that quiet intense vitality of the streets built up every now and then to discharge point, and leapt the gap with a crash and a blue crackle and the smell of ozone. These were the Abbenay omnibuses, and as they passed one felt like cheering.

The revolutionaries’ capitalist homeworld of Urras also have trains. That system is less urban circulator and more commuter rail, taking passengers from tony suburb to glittering city. Like other sci-fi capitals, these Urras trains are a sign of sophistication. 

But overcrowded bus or cabin in first class, the two transit systems of The Dispossessed ultimately aren’t all that different. When Urras receives its first visitor from the moon in 170 years, he is taken to the train station, where he remarks:

You know our train cars are much the same? A good design need not change.

Apparently not, even in our most imaginative stories. 

Back here on Earth in 2023, public transportation doesn’t always seem to capture our attention. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to get people to imagine a world where they might get around without a car. But it’s worth noting that when we really let our creativity run wild, the future we seem to yearn for involves efficient buses and trains.

I suppose it’s this same yearning that leads some of us into the field of transportation planning, where we hope to move our world closer to the future of our imaginations. While urban planners design within the constraints of our reality, we can also pull from our imaginations as well as the worlds present in science fiction to create a more ideal world for future generations.