Friday Fun: What Harry Potter teaches us about integrated transport
King's Cross Station in London ties together both train and high-speed rail lines, serving as a transport hub for residents in the city and the wider region, and, perhaps, for wizards. Photo by Jim Nix/Flickr.

King’s Cross Station in London ties together both train and high-speed rail lines, serving as a transport hub for residents in the city and the wider region, and, perhaps, for wizards. Photo by Jim Nix/Flickr.

In J.K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter, there comes a time when the reader learns about Apparition – essentially teleportation – where wizards close their eyes, think about where they want to be, and poof! There they are. Once you learn about this method of travel, every other transport mode seems superfluous. Why have a Platform 9 ¾ when you don’t need to wait for a train? Why fly broomsticks when using the Floo network is orders of magnitude faster? These questions are much like one that urban planners and city leaders get every day in the Muggle world: why build public transport when there are individual cars?

Just as the wizarding world can’t fix all of its transport needs with the simple solution of “magic,” neither can we solve mobility with one transport mode, even one sustainable transport mode. The answer both worlds need is an ecosystem of different sustainable transport modes that supports connectivity – think access to jobs, education, leisure — for a diverse range of user needs, whether these users are witches, elves, or simply city residents.

What Apparition lacks: Safety and the Hogwarts Express

Apparition at first glance seems to be the perfect transport option with its ability to move individuals anywhere almost instantaneously. Motorcycles, our world’s nearest equivalent, appear to offer this same range of unfettered motion. Yet the consequences of Apparating incorrectly can be disastrous, with some body parts failing to arrive at the destination with the wizard. So too does motorcycle riding carry close to these same consequences, with motorcycle deaths in America nearly 30 times higher than car fatalities—which are already considered one of the most dangerous modes of transport. The chance of dying in a car in America is 1/415, compared to 1/4,982 as a cyclist, and 1/7,229 as an airplane passenger. In developing countries the situation is even more dire with road collisions accounting for 1.24 million deaths each year globally, a number set to rise to 3.6 million by 2030 – more than tuberculosis and malaria combined. In countries such as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Colombia, road fatalities are now the fifth leading cause of death.

To combat these consequences, those under 17 and without proper training are highly advised against attempting to Apparate. Yet, those under 17 still need access to education and community, even from such far-flung places as central London. Enter the Hogwarts Express, which albeit much slower than Apparition, it offers a safer mode of transport for all wizards. The train is also far more comfortable, with cushioned seats, intimate box cars, and not to mention magically hopping chocolate frogs. This transport mode also provides something besides for mobility. The Hogwarts Express is accessed from the Muggle transport node of Kings Cross Station, which subtly promotes a sense of community between wizards and Muggles. Transport is the nexus that connects these two worlds together.

The flaw of the Floo network: The Knight Bus and Accessibility

If apparition is not the sole answer, Floo networks – silver powder that allows people to travel between different fireplaces – seem as if they should be enough to suit the rest of the wizarding community’s mobility needs. Floo Networks allow anyone to travel quickly without a license. Where the Floo Network is flawed is in its limited access. Houses need to have both a fireplace and a license from the Floo Network Authority, which limits the locations where people can travel from. This is much like rail systems that primarily transport people from suburbs into the central city. These rail systems have limited stops, often surrounded by parking lots and highways, and so riders still need to own cars to get the last three to five miles home.

To complement this mode is the Knight Bus, which provides inexpensive, sustainable, last-mile connectivity for those wizards who do not have access to a fireplace connected to the Floo network. Although the Knight Bus is not the quickest form of travel, it does have a leg up on personal automobiles by the fact that objects magically move out of its way. In our world, we can create something close to this phenomenon by providing dedicated lanes for buses, and clear signage, lighting, and wide sidewalks for pedestrians. It might not be magic, but it can drastically increase transport access.

Broomsticks and bikes: Healthy, human-centered mobility

Broomsticks are one of the coolest forms of magical transport, least of all because they fly. They also have a low-carbon impact, provide individualized transport, and are unobtrusive so as to blend into the Muggle world. They promote a healthy lifestyle, and games like Quidditch have grown out of their use, creating an entire community founded on sustainable mobility. Although we do not have Quidditch in our world – at least not yet – we do have bikes that connect both people to other forms of transport, and to their wider communities.

Even in a world with magic, there is no one mobility mode that can transport people anytime, anywhere, and do so safely. Even wizards still need multi-modal transport. Although this is perhaps partly a plot device, it is worth questioning that even if magic advanced to allow wizards the ability to move immediately anywhere, would they still choose to take buses, or trains, or broomsticks, together? In our world, we must ask: as our technology is advancing, is there a role for shared or multiple forms of transport when everyone can have an electric, autonomous car that can transport them anywhere, alone?

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  • Suna Akyuz

    Aside from the wonderful surprise of seeing two of my favorite worlds collide (HP and sustainability), I enjoyed your article. And yes, shared/multiple forms of transport is important to providing different levels of accessibility and affordability for citizens (or wizards). To take it further, sustainable growth is better achieved when transportation designs are people-oriented (accounting for peoples needs/flow patterns/etc), and when it is integrated into urban planning that doesn’t sacrifice the environment/green spaces (earlier better). Thus helping a city to grow with the people that keep it alive in mind.

    Rowling’s world was definitely people (or wizard) oriented and well integrated: accounting for a person’s ability to access the transport, keeping distances in mind, and alternate modes supporting one another.