Public Transportation: From the Tom Thumb Rail Road to Hyperloop and Beyond

Review by Steve Schaefer

This 2020 children’s book by Paul Comfort presents a charming and informative history of public transportation, from its origins almost 200 years ago to a look into the future.

Public transportation interests me, too. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by cars, but also by buses and trains. My sons were, too. I rode on the Santa Fe Super Chief at six years old and had my first bumpy airplane ride at around the same time on a propeller DC3. I rode the old Muni streetcars in San Francisco on the way to college and took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) when it first opened in 1972. I’ve taken a long Greyhound Bus trip, flown across the world on giant jetliners, ridden the trams in Amsterdam, and climbed the hills of San Francisco on the historic cable cars. More recently, I rented scooters and mopeds in San Francisco. Kids need to learn about this stuff.

Written by transportation writer Paul Comfort and crisply illustrated by Sudeep KP, Public Transportation keeps it simple, displaying a bright, colorful image of one transport method on each page with a one- or two-sentence description. The quality of light expertly mimics a sunny day and makes the images come alive, and cute, smiling children and happy adults appear in most of the images.

Balloons with “Did You Know?” and “Fun Facts” add interesting details for older children—and adults—to learn from. You could look at the pictures and point with a one-year-old or use it as a stepping-off point for a teenager.

The book engages children from page 1 with a bus to color. The Tom Thumb Steam Train, part of the B&O Railroad in Baltimore, Maryland, is the first character and dates back to 1830. It’s an enormous steam boiler in a rustic cart pulling men in top hats, but it loses a race to a horse when it breaks down. Transit has become much more reliable since.

Horses are the mode of transport itself on the next page, pulling multi-rider carriages. The book then moves on to a massive steamship, subways, and the historic transcontinental railroad in the U.S. with its famous golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. Hard to believe that subways go back even further, to the London Tube in 1863!

Then, cable cars, trains, and trolleys take center stage, with unusual projects like monorails showing a future that hasn’t panned out (except at amusement parks). After checking out city and school buses, Comfort introduces a global positioning satellite—the beginning of today’s high-tech transportation options.

Children get an introduction to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which explains why buses they may encounter have wheelchair ramps or lifts to allow everyone to ride.

Moving into environmentally friendly transport, we see racks of rentable bikes and learn about electric buses. A page discusses mobility apps and high-tech ways to pay our fares, such as mobile phone apps and wearables. There’s even a nod to autonomous vehicles, featuring the first AV in regular service—Switzerland’s Trapizio.

Futuristic Maglev high speed trains would likely not be seen by American children unless they vacationed in Japan, China, or Europe, but they appear here, followed by a look ahead with the Hyperloop train and electric vertical takeoff and Landing (VTOL) passenger drones.

Before you know it, the book’s over, but reading it is a fun ride in itself and helps prepare kids for a future full of public transportation options.

For more information, see: www.futureofpublictransportation.com and www.paulcomfort.org.