What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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London’s cycling Quietways are a mess. And they’re about to get a whole lot messier

Oh what a tangled web we weave. Image: Getty.

As part of my clichéd dive into premature midlife crisis, I’ve taken up cycling. But one thing they don’t tell you when you first don a cycle helmet, is just how complicated it is to navigate London’s labyrinth of cycle-paths. To the uninitiated, the capital is currently a mixed collection of backstreet Quietways, Cycle Superhighways, informal lanes and everything in between.

So why is cycling in London so complicated? What separates your Quietways from your Cycle Superhighways? And why does it matter?

For many Londoners cycling is defined by the collection of segregated cycle superhighways built under Boris Johnson. Following in the time honoured tradition of stealing the ideas of whichever mayor came before you, this scheme was actually first suggested by Ken Livingstone, but we’ll ignore that for now.

After a tentative beginning, filled with cancelled plans and safety hazards, Boris Johnson created tens of miles of paths on his two tier system of cycle superhighways and a backstreet alternative.

Under Sadiq Khan, the main focus has been these “Quietways”, a name that sounds like it took a PR team an unhealthy amount of time to come up with. In essence these cycle-paths escape the bustle of main road-adjacent superhighways, and are situated on quieter (get it) side streets. The hope was this would make them more appealing to less confident cyclists.

Both Transport for London (TfL) and the mayor’s office have made much of the roughly 100km of Quietways built over the last three years. When you look into it more closely, however, things become a little less inspiring.

The central London cycleway network, such as it is. Superhighways are blue, quietways are purple, rebranded cycleways are green. Image: TfL.

As it turns out, the word “built” has very little actual meaning anymore; simply renaming existing cycle paths counts. That’s what happened with both East London’s Greenway and the Thames Towpath, both existing routes that now make up 26km of these “new” cycle-paths. All in all, over half of the routes were rebrands of existing cycle lanes, whilst those bits that were “new" frequently face their own problems.

On Islington's cramped Quietway 2 a faded line of paint is the only thing that marks the line between cycle lane and road. There’s barely room for two bikes to pass each other on the bumpy, ageing tarmac of Quietway between Wimbledon and Raynes Park. Across the network riders frequently face crossing busy road at open, unmarked junctions. The lack of markings, protection and signals that define many of these routes stretch the meaning of the word “built” even further, and put cyclist’s safety at risk.


This is not exactly ideal for a project that chewed up a sizeable chunk of the £86m spent on cycling last year. While this does show some will to improve London cycling at City Hall, good intentions fill no potholes: indeed, it’s a damn sight less than the £214m a year previously promised by Will Norman, Sadiq Khan’s walking and cycling commissioner. Suffice to say, the Quietway programme is a mess.

Complicating things further is the recent news that all London’s cycle routes would be merging into a whole other scheme called “cycleways”. But only one of these new cycleways is finished, C6 (formerly CS6) from Kentish Town to Elephant and Castle, so we’re currently left with a mix of systems across London. Oh – and many of these new cycleways will be getting their third set of new signs in recent years, despite little to no construction work.

Why exactly we suddenly need this integrated mesh of differing cycle paths is still a mystery. According to TfL, people were being put off by the excess “brand names” and that “their experience on the routes do not always match their expectations” of current paths. But none of these problems seem to be solved by just re-organising existing cycle-paths. Indeed if the idea of Quietways was to provide a backstreet alternative for less confident cyclists, I’m not entirely sure how merging them with busy superhighways achieves that.

In many ways this very concept of a Quietway highlights everything wrong with London’s current cycling policy. Meekly they navigate old paths, side roads, and pedestrianised areas, inoffensive and inconvenient. It entertains the idea that you can radically improve cycle paths and encourage cycling without even slightly inconveniencing drivers – or even in this case, your own bottom line. In reality, however, not every policy can be liked by everybody. You can only entertain both sides for so long before you run out adequate space, money and support to deliver your ideas.

Not only can we do better but we need to. From reducing air pollution and emissions to relieving pressure on a tube system that is frequently overcapacity, well-funded cycling is in best interest of all Londoners. Something more radical is needed than underfunded side streets and a mix-mash of cycle lanes barely different from the superhighways Ken Livingstone suggested over a decade ago.

Popularity is hardly a question anymore: just look at the never ending piles of dockless bikes, so popular that boroughs like Hackney are actually having problems keeping streets clear of them. Indeed since 2000, there’s been a 154 per cent increase in cyclists in London, according to TfL.

Nor is feasibility the bar: cities like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Copenhagen have not only invested substantially more but trialed new schemes like subsidised bicycle parking and wide scale pedestrianisation. Thanks to this work each city ranks on the Copenhagenize Index for the world’s best cycling hubs.

The last time London featured on the list was in 2011. Even here, however, “mini-Holland” infrastructure schemes in Enfield, Kingston and Waltham Forest have managed to encourage cycling and improve the local environment, and set a precedent for the rest of the city.

What does remain the question, though, is when political promises will translate into real action.