Can My Characters Use Less Efficient Transport?

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Hello. While I was worldbuilding, I noticed that my characters do not really use technology to do things like travelling – however, there are things like trains/cars/flying vessels in big cities. My characters come from a small town, where there are some bits of technology (like the fantasy equivalent of an iphone/android/samsung/what have you), and motorcycles, but nothing super big. Is this realistic? I feel like I am making some kind of mistake.

Hey Hadeel, great to hear from you!

I can’t fully answer your question without having read the story, but just from what you’ve told me, it does sound like this could be a bit strange. If your characters are passing up more efficient ways to travel in favor of less efficient ones, readers will probably wonder why. All things being equal, the goal of travel is usually to get where you’re going as efficiently as possible, so passing up an airship to ride your motorcycle cross-country is a bit confusing.

Of course, context is everything, and there are lots of reasons characters might use a less efficient form of transit. In Supernatural, for example, Sam and Dean routinely drive cross-country rather than taking planes, even though the plane would be a lot faster. They have a number of reasons for doing this:

  1. They’re wanted criminals, so flying is tricky.
  2. They have a trunk full of guns and other weapons they need to transport.
  3. If they get attacked on a plane, they’d have limited options for fighting back.
  4. Dean really loves his car.

So if your characters are going to use less efficient forms of transit, make sure they have a good, easy to understand reason. Perhaps they need to make multiple stops along the way, so ground transit makes more sense than air. And perhaps they often have to chase or flee from enemies through narrow streets, so motorcycles make more sense than cars. It’s all about context!

Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!

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  1. Dave L

    Money might be a factor. Can your characters AFFORD flying vehicles?

    Personal preference is certainly an option, as long as there is no time crunch or other reason why your characters absolutely NEED to use the big vehicles. People in-universe will probably comment on this

    How much bureaucracy is there? Do you need ID to board a train? Or a driver’s license to own a car? You might need a Bigtown ID and all your characters have are Smalltown IDs

    Perhaps most importantly, ask yourself WHY your characters haven’t been using tech to travel. Is there an in-character reason? Is it just that you like the esthetic? Should you rewrite so that the characters are more flexible about this?

    Good luck

  2. Kenneth Mackay

    Imagine a small town in the Old West. Railroads exist, making high-speed long-distance travel possible, but the townsfolk and ranchers don’t have their own branch lines running from their front doors into town, and their own private steam engines – they get about on horses, or even on foot.

    If they need to travel to the next town, they might use the train – but if one or both towns don’t have a railway station, it’s back to horse-drawn vehicles again.

    Just because railways and airships exist in the cities, doesn’t mean they’re a convenient method of travelling in a small town; the nearest town with an airship-port might be days away in the other direction!

  3. Richard

    One of them could be deathly afraid of flying?

  4. Koeleria

    It makes sense to me. Not having access to passenger trains and airplanes in a small town sounds like the way things are in modern America. Both require a big population to be economical. Even when you can get to an airport in an hour or two, it is often easier to just drive. As long as you can do the drive in less than a day.

    A lack of cars in the small town is harder to explain. One option is that motorcycles are cheaper and no one in the small town can afford a car. Another option is that the roads are really bad, and a wider vehicle would get stuck. This could be due to difficult terrain and/or lack of investment from the wealthier, more powerful cities.

    Even in the modern world, there are still lots of places that don’t have access to much modern technology. It is usually due to lack of infrastructure, and unequal distribution of resources. If wealth and power is concentrated in the cities, then it makes sense that technology is concentrated there too.

    The people in the small town will buy the stuff they can afford and that will be useful to them. If the technology requires nonexistent infrastructure to function, it won’t be popular. If it is really expensive, you wouldn’t use it much, and there is a cheaper option, they will go with the cheap option. Even if it isn’t quite as nice. Wealthy people in the small town may own some of the high end, less practical stuff. But that doesn’t mean they will be sharing it with your protagonists.

    • Cay Reet

      One problem I see with ‘small towns have motorbikes, but no cars’ is that a car is a much more useful vehicle, even if it is more expensive. It’s also a vehicle that can transport several people (maximum for a bike are two – unless you really love danger) or a lot of stuff at once. Especially smaller towns without mass transport and rural areas with a lot of farms would profit from cars of different types.

      In a city, you can get your kids to school with a bus or a train system of some kind, but if your small town has no public transport, you need another type of transport (which often is a car). Putting a kid or two on a motorbike to take them somewhere is dangerous (much more than having a second adult ride along).

      Yes, horse-drawn transport would be an option – you can see in pictures from the early 1900s how cars and other types of transport mixed then -, but I can’t see a town where not even the wealthy populace (and there always will be a wealthy populace) owns cars in such a setting. Even if the mayor/doctor is the only one with a car, someone will be so into modern technology and wealthy enough to own one.

      • Bellis

        So I admit I don’t have a ton of experience around this, but the transport situation in a country that’s less wealthy or is in the process of being industrialised – especially if there is a lot of wealth disparity – can actually look like that. Having NO cars in small towns seems less likely, but if the roads or bridges are too narrow (depending on the terrain this might be explainable) it could happen.

        And the protagonists could very likely be poor enough to not be able to afford a car but go by (motor-)bike instead. Maybe cost isn’t the deciding factor either, but being able to go more places either because streets are narrow or damaged, bridges are not passable by car or in big cities they can weave through the gaps between cars. Oh and yes, people do transport their entire families plus luggage on motorbikes. Safe? No. But people do it irl, it could definitely happen in stories and add to the tension or fun!

        My experience comes from when I was backpacking in India in the mid-2000s. In villages it would be common to see water-buffalo-drawn carts, but even in the big cities lots of people would go on foot* or by bike or motorbike even though the rich have nice cars and go by plane for longer distances. India has a good network of train lines, but your fictional country might not. Or protagonists have to avoid them.

        Even one of the touristy towns we visited, Rishikesh, had an entire quarter without cars because the bridge that led there was too narrow for them. So maybe your protagonists have to travel through rough terrain, be it mountains or swamps, where the government didn’t bother or couldn’t afford to install and maintain wide roads or train lines. Even if a road exists but was damaged due to a storm or dragon attack or what have you, other forms of transport or just going on foot even could be the only way through.

        *In Kolkata there are even handdrawn rikshas for passengers which totally wrecks their health though

        • Cay Reet

          I could rather see rural areas falling back to regular bikes (don’t need gas, are easy to be kept in repair) than wide-spread motorbikes. I know some areas of the world have a lot of those bikes, but I doubt anyone really does a lot of far-distance travel on them (remember India, for instance, still has a lot of train travel).

          Yes, human transport of other humans is also a thing – not just rikshas, also those transport chairs that were small cabins carried by two or so servants.

          If you want to negotiate narrow roads, two better choices are either going around the area (for instance in the trains mentioned in the question), if feasible, or travelling on foot. Strangely enough, humans actually can walk longer in a day than, for instance, horses with humans on top can (provided the humans in question are reasonably healthy). Take along a donkey or two for the luggage and you have a manoeuvrable group ready for every terrain. Regular bikes are a better choice, too – you don’t need to keep an eye out for some kind of gas station and a stable bike can take a lot of luggage, very much like the motor variety. But then, regular bikes are very underestimated in media.

          • CKDerrick

            Still, IRL in many developing countries cheap motorbikes are the most common means of transportation, even for families, and even as public transit in the form of motorcycle taxis. This is completely a real-life solution, even if you are unable to believe it as presumably someone who has not lived in the developing world and witnessed this. Yes, it’s dangerous. Many people still prefer it to walking.

  5. Jeppsson

    When I was a teenager, planes existed, but going by air was EXPENSIVE. When I went to London with a friend, we went by ferry, and so did everyone workingclass. Train overland, ferry over sea, unless you were going REALLY far.
    Nowadays people are used to cheap flights, but that wasn’t always the case (in Europe, at least – the US might have been different, for various reasons). And going long distances by train, even though it takes a lot of time, is making a comeback due to environmental reasons.

    • Cay Reet

      Yep, here in Europe, plane tickets were very expensive until a relatively short time ago.

      That’s why the Euro-tunnel (underneath the Channel) was met with so much approval – it was a way to get to England without using the ferry, you could just switch trains or even stay on yours.

      If long-distance travel by train comes back into fashion (as it seems to, for good reasons), I hope they resurrect the Orient Express and let people travel long distances in luxury.

  6. Cay Reet

    I think, as commented above, it’s unlikely that cars would exist in big cities, but not in small towns. I can see a small town not having access to trains or planes, but cars are much more useful in areas where there’s not much public transport. As a matter of fact, I could rather see no cars in the cities, because public transport there is very efficient and cheap (although even there some people would have one out of interest, for use, or as a status symbol). Cars are also useful for transporting both people and objects – you can load five friends into your car or you can stuff it with all the bags and suitcases for a trip. A motorbike can, at best, take one person along – or a very small amount of luggage.

    It would be possible for your small town to still rely much on animal-drawn transport (coaches, carts, etc.), but that would be used in town, not for travelling further away. Traditionally, people would travel per cart/coach/whatever to the nearest station and travel further distances by train. At the nearest station to their destination, they’d either rent transport or be picked up by the person they were going to visit. That is why trains became so popular so quickly and why people’s reach expanded so much once trains became a thing. It’s also why the American west was pacified with the train lines driven further and further west.
    Your characters would take a trip to the next place with a train station, say, take the train across country, then rent a cart, hitch a ride, or get picked up by someone living in the area.

    There are, of course, excuses for not using the best means of transport, as Oren listed already. Some ideas:
    – They might want to stay under someone’s radar and train stations/airports/what-have-you are under surveillance.
    – They have little money and less effective means of transport are more affordable for them (RL example: long distance busses are cheaper than plane travel, but it takes much, much longer).
    – They have a lot to transport, so individual travel suits them better.
    – They are aware they will need their means of transport at the destination as well, so they’d rather take them along (would probably not work with animal-driven transport, because it takes a lot of planning to get a cart or coach somewhere and travel speed is extremely slow).

    • ckderrick

      A motorcycle can carry an entire family if you load it correctly. Look up the Zémidjan taxis of Benin, there are many photos illustrating this.

    • Alicia

      I lived in a village in rural Paraguay in the mid-90’s. At that time, there were a few people who had large trucks, and the farmers would pay those people to take their crops to market. The families that had a little more money might have a motorbike, but every one else walked or rode horses, or for certain occasions hooked their oxen up to an ox cart.

      My village did have a bus that ran through it that went to the larger town about two hours away. People from the smaller surrounding villages would walk an hour or more to catch the bus. The biggest thing that has changed over the years is that now almost every family has a motorbike, and not many people seem to walk long distances anymore. Also, the last time I was there I hardly saw anyone on a horse.

      This is to make the point that motorbikes can be used as the primary mode of transportation in some countries. And I still can’t believe how many people can fit on one motorbike!

      P.S. I never saw many people on bikes (the kind you pedal, not the motorized kind). When I visited other villages I usually rode my bike, but not only was the area hilly but if it didn’t rain for a while the sand would get so deep that the bike was pretty much useless.

      P.P.S. For the person who asked the question, if your location has deep sand or deep mud on a regular basis, this could be another reason why motorized ground vehicles might not be very useful.

    • Cay Reet

      Thanks for pointing out how well motorbikes work for several people in other areas of the world.

      I’m still not sure whether they’d do for long-distance travel with a lot of luggage or several people per bike, but it would be possible if you want or need it enough, I guess.

      @Alicia: Yes, deep mud or sand would be easier to crosse for humans on foot or your average horse/donkey/ox.

  7. Star of Hope

    You can make them run on foot if nothing suffices for your story, it’s healthier anyway.

  8. Asyles

    I think keeping a low profile can also be a factor. If the characters don’t want to attract any unneccesarily attention, they have to have the kind of vehicle that blends in the scenery. A vehicle that is common enough for nobody would want to steal it. Though they can install any fancy and hidden upgrades to it.

  9. Kenneth Mackay

    You could make your motorcycles more useful by adding a sidecar or a trailer. In the inter-war years, when few people could afford cars, motorcycle-based cars, such as the Morgan three-wheeler, were popular.

    The army even experimented with a motorcycle-based ‘staff car’ consisting of a collapsible framework of struts and canvas enclosing a pair of motorcycles with a steering-wheel connected to both sets of handlebars!

  10. AlgaeNymph

    I’ve a related question along these lines: why travel by land when sea transport is available? For example, let’s say somebody’s making a pilgrimage from Point A, a seasonal mining town near a port, to Point Z, a mobile camp near another port. And in between are a lot of ports to stop at. So how would one have adventures during travel when you’re either on a ship or waiting for the next one?

    • Cay Reet

      Interesting plot points being dropped during a ship voyage could be a pirate attack or the ship picking up a shipwreck survivor or another traveller bringing new information to your MC/MC group.
      Between ships, things can happen in a port town – port towns are places where many different people mingle, so it’s easy to put something interesting in.

      With a pilgrimage, though, travelling slowly and not necessarily by the best means available is not unusual. Many people still do pilgrimages on foot in Europe, despite the fact that faster means are available. The trip is part of the pilgrimage, doing it on foot is part of your way of going through pilgrimage, station to station.
      This does not apply to a regular trip from point A to point Z with all those places in between.

  11. Ferd

    Maybe it’s too expensive.

    I once wrote a story where there’s a fast and efficient railwaynsystem in a city, but he heroes didn’t use it because the government used it to track people’s movements.

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