Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2013), New York:
Routledge, 416 pages.
What is Transport Geography?
Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
1. The Purpose of Transportation
"The ideal transport mode would be instantaneous, free, have an
unlimited capacity and always be available. It would render space
obsolete. This is obviously not the case. Space is a constraint
for the construction of transport networks. Transportation appears
to be an economic activity different from the others. It trades
space with time and thus money" (translated from Merlin, 1992).
As the above quotation underlines, the unique purpose of transportation
is to overcome space, which is shaped by a variety of human and physical
constraints such as distance, time, administrative divisions
and topography. Jointly, they confer a
friction to any movement, commonly
known as the friction of space. However, these constraints
and the friction they create can only be partially circumscribed. The
extent to which this is done has a cost that varies greatly according
to factors such as the distance involved, the capacity of modes and
infrastructures and the nature of what is being
transported. There would be no transportation without geography and
there would be no geography without transportation. The goal of transportation
is thus to transform the geographical attributes of freight,
people or information, from an origin to a destination, conferring them
an added value in the process. The convenience at which this
can be done - transportability - varies considerably.
Transportability refers to the ease of movement of passengers,
freight or information. It is related to transport costs as well
as to the attributes of what is being transported (fragility, perishable,
price). Political factors can also influence transportability such
as laws, regulations, borders and tariffs. When transportability
is high, activities are less constrained by distance.
The specific purpose of transportation is to fulfill a demand
for mobility, since transportation can only exists if it moves people,
freight and information around. Otherwise it has no purpose. This is
because transportation is dominantly the outcome of a
derived demand. Distance, a core attribute
of transportation can be represented in a
variety of ways, ranging from a simple
Euclidean distance - a straight line between two locations - to what
can be called logistical distance; a complete set of tasks required
to be done so that distance can be overcome. Any movement must thus
consider its geographical setting which
in turn is linked to spatial flows and
their patterns. The concept of flow has four major components:
Urbanization, multinational corporations, the globalization of
trade and the international division of labor are all forces shaping
and taking advantage of transportation at different, but often
related, scales. Consequently, the fundamental purpose of transport is geographic
in nature, because it facilitates movements
between different locations. Transport plays a role in the
structure and organization of space and territories, which may vary
according to the level of development. In the 19th century, the purpose
of the emerging modern forms of transportation, mainly railways and
maritime shipping, was to expand coverage with the creation,
expansion and consolidation national markets. In the 20th century,
the objective shifted to selecting itineraries, prioritizing
transport modes, increasing the capacity of existing networks and
responding to the mobility needs and this at a scale which was
increasingly global, with its own
flows. In the 21st century, transportation
must cope with a globally oriented economic system in a timely and cost
effective way, but also with several local problems such as congestion
and capacity constraints.
2. The Importance of Transportation
Transport represents one of the most important human activities worldwide.
It is an indispensable component of the economy and plays a major role
in spatial relations between locations. Transport creates valuable links
between regions and economic activities, between people and the rest
of the world. Transport is a multidimensional activity whose importance
- Geographical. Each flow has an origin and a
destination and consequently a degree of separation. Flows with
high degrees of separation tend to be more limited than flows
with low degrees of separation.
- Physical. Each flow involves specific
physical characteristics in terms of possible load units and the
conditions in which they can be carried. Flows, depending on the
transportation mode, can be
atomized (smallest load unit) or
massified (moving load units in batches).
- Transactional. The realization of each flow
has to be negotiated with providers of transport services, such
as booking a slot on a containership or an air travel seat.
Commonly, a flow is related to a monetary exchange between
provider of transportation and the user.
- Distribution. Flows are organized in
sequences where the more complex are involving different modes
and terminals. Many transport flows are scheduled and routed to
minimize costs or maximize efficiency, often through
Transportation studies are therefore a multidisciplinary that can
involve hard (e.g. engineering) or soft sciences (e.g. economics)
depending on the dimension being investigated such infrastructure
provision, operational management or planning. Substantial empirical evidence indicates that the importance of
transportation is growing. The following contemporary trends can
be identified regarding this issue:
- Historical. Transport modes have played several different
historical roles in the rise of civilizations (Egypt,
Rome and China),
in the development of societies (creation of social structures)
and also in national defense (Roman Empire, American road network).
- Social. Transport modes facilitate access to healthcare,
welfare, and cultural or artistic events, thus performing a social
service. They shape social interactions by favoring or inhibiting
the mobility of people. Transportation thus support and may even
shape social structures.
- Political. Governments play a critical role in transport
as sources of investment and as regulators. The political role of
transportation is undeniable as governments often subsidize the
mobility of their populations (highways, public transit, etc.).
While most transport demand relates to economic imperatives, many
communication corridors have been constructed for political reasons
such as national accessibility or job creation. Transport thus has
an impact on nation building and national unity, but it is also
a political tool.
- Economic. The evolution of transport has always been
linked to economic development. It is an industry in its own right
(car manufacturing, air transport companies, etc.). The transport
sector is also an economic factor in the production of goods and
services. It contributes to the value-added of economic activities,
facilitates economies of scale, influences land (real estate) value
and the geographic specialization of regions. Transport is both
a factor shaping economic activities, and is also shaped by them.
- Environmental. Despite the manifest advantages of transport,
its environmental consequences are also significant. They include
air and water quality, noise level and public health. All decisions
relating to transport need to be evaluated taking into account the
corresponding environmental costs. Transport is a dominant factor
in contemporary environmental issues.
Facing these contemporary trends, an important part of the spatial
differentiation of the economy is related to where resources (raw
materials, capital, people, information etc.) are located and how well
they can be distributed. Transport routes are established to distribute
resources between places where they are abundant and places where they
are scarce, but only if the costs are lower than the benefits.
Consequently, transportation has an important role to play in the
conditions that affect global, national and regional economic entities.
It is a strategic infrastructure that is so embedded in the socio-economic
life of individuals, institutions and corporations that it is often
invisible to the consumer, but always part of all economic and social
functions. This is paradoxical, since the perceived invisibility of
transportation is derived from its efficiency. If transport is
disrupted or ceases to operate, the consequences can be dramatic
such as workers unable to reach their workplace or parts not being
delivered to factories.
3. Transportation in Geography
The world is obviously not a place where features such as
resources, people and economic activities are randomly distributed.
Geography seeks to understand the spatial order of things as well as
their interactions. Transportation is on element of this spatial order
as it is at the same time influenced by geography as well as having in
influence on it. Transportation is not necessarily a science, but a field of
application borrowing concepts and methods from a wide variety of
disciplines. Transportation interests geographers for two main reasons. First,
transport infrastructures, terminals, equipment and networks occupy
an important place in space and constitute the basis of a
complex spatial system. Second, since geography seeks to explain
spatial relationships, transport networks are of specific interest because
they are the main support of these interactions.
- Growth of the demand. The years
following the Second World War have seen a considerable growth of the transport demand
related to individual (passengers) as well as freight mobility.
This growth is jointly the result of larger quantities of passengers
and freight being moved, but also the longer distances over which
they are carried. Recent trends underline an ongoing process of
mobility growth, which has led to the multiplication of the number
of journeys involving a wide variety of modes that service transport
- Reduction of costs. Even if several
transportation modes are very expensive to own and operate (ships
and planes for instance), costs per unit transported have dropped
significantly over the last decades. This has made it possible to
overcome larger distances and further exploit the comparative advantages
of space. As a result, despite the lower costs, the share of transport
activities in the economy has remained relatively constant in time.
Expansion of infrastructures. The above two trends have obviously
extended the requirements for transport infrastructures both quantitatively
and qualitatively. Roads, harbors, airports, telecommunication facilities
and pipelines have expanded considerably to service new areas and
adding capacity to existing networks. Transportation infrastructures
are thus a major component of the land use, notably in developed
Transport geography is a sub-discipline of geography concerned
about movements of freight, people and information. It seeks to
understand their spatial organization by linking spatial constraints and attributes with the origin, the destination,
the extent, the nature and the purpose of movements.
Transport geography, as a discipline, emerged from economic geography
in the second half of the twentieth century. Traditionally, transportation
has been an important factor behind the economic representations of
the geographic space, namely in terms of the location of economic activities
and the monetary costs of distance. The growing mobility of passengers
and freight justified the emergence of transport geography as a specialized
field of investigation. In the 1960s, transport costs were recognized
as key factors in location theories and transport geography began to
rely increasingly on quantitative methods, particularly over network
and spatial interactions analysis. However, from the 1970s globalization
challenged the centrality of transportation in many geographical and
regional development investigations. As a result, transportation became
under represented in economic geography in the 1970s and 1980s, even
if mobility of people and freight and low transport costs were considered
as important factors behind the globalization of trade and production.
Since the 1990s, transport geography has received renewed attention,
especially because the issues of mobility, production and distribution
are interrelated in a complex geographical setting. It is now recognized
that transportation is a system that considers the complex relationships
between its core components, which are modes,
infrastructures, networks and flows.
They are fundamental for transportation to take place. An approach to transportation thus involves several
fields of enquiry where some are at the core of transport geography while others
are more peripheral. However, three central
concepts to transport systems can be identified:
The analysis of these concepts relies on methodologies often
developed by other disciplines such as economics, mathematics, planning
and demography. Each provides a different
dimension to transport geography.
For instance, the spatial structure of transportation networks can be
analyzed with graph
theory, which was initially developed for mathematics. Further,
many models developed for the analysis of movements, such as the
were borrowed from physical sciences. Multidisciplinarity is
consequently an important attribute of transport geography, as in geography
in general. Transport geography must be systematic
as one element of the transport system is linked with numerous others;
transport systems are complex.
The role of transport geography is to understand the spatial relations
that are produced by transport systems. This gives rise to several
fallacies about transportation
in terms of the respective relations between access, accessibility,
distance and time.
A better understanding of spatial relations is essential to assist private
and public actors involved in transportation mitigate
transport problems, such as capacity,
transfer, reliability and integration of transport systems. There are
three basic geographical considerations relevant to transport geography:
- Transportation nodes. Transportation primarily links
locations, often characterized as nodes. They serve as access points
to a distribution system or as transshipment / intermediary
locations within a transport network. This function is mainly serviced
by transport terminals where flows originate, end or are being transshipped
from one mode to the other. Transport geography must consider its
places of convergence and transshipment.
- Transportation networks. Considers the spatial structure
and organization of transport infrastructures and terminals. Transport
geography must include in its investigation the structures
(routes and infrastructures)
supporting and shaping movements.
- Transportation demand. Considers the demand for transport
services as well as the modes used to support movements. Once this
demand is realized, it becomes an interaction which flows through
a transport network. Transport geography must evaluate the factors
affecting its derived demand function.
Consequently, transport systems, by their nature, consume land and
support the relationships between locations.
- Location. As all activities are located somewhere, each
location has its own characteristics conferring a potential supply
and/or a demand for resources, products, services or labor. A location
will determine the nature, the origin, the destination, the distance
and even the possibility of a movement to be realized. For instance,
a city provides employment in various sectors of activity in addition
to consume resources.
- Complementarity. Locations must require exchanging goods,
people or information. This implies that some locations have a surplus
while others have a deficit. The only way an equilibrium can reached
is by movements between locations having surpluses and locations
having demands. For instance, a complementarity is created between
a store (surplus of goods) and its customers (demand of goods).
- Scale. Movements generated by complementarity are occurring
at different scales, pending the nature of the activity. Scale illustrates
how transportation systems are established over local, regional
and global geographies. For instance, home-to-work journeys generally
have a local or regional scale, while the distribution network of
a multinational corporation is most likely to cover several regions
of the world.