Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2013), New York:
Routledge, 416 pages.
Transportation Modes: An Overview
Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dr. Brian Slack and Dr. Claude
Each transportation mode has
key operational and commercial advantages
and properties. However, contemporary demand is influenced by
integrated transportation systems that require maximum flexibility
in the respective use of each mode.
As a result, modal competition exists at various degrees and takes several
dimensions. Modes can compete or complement one another in terms
of cost, speed, accessibility, frequency, safety, comfort, etc. There
are three main conditions that insure that some modes are complementing
- Road transportation (Concept 2). Road infrastructures are large consumers
of space with the lowest level of physical constraints among transportation
modes. However, physiographical constraints are significant in road
construction with substantial additional costs to overcome features
such as rivers or rugged terrain. While historically road
transportation was developed to support non-motorized forms of
transportation (walking, domestication of animals and cycling at
the end of the 19th century), it is motorization that has shaped
the most its development since the beginning of the 20th
century. Road transportation has an average
operational flexibility as vehicles can serve several purposes but
are rarely able to move outside roads. Road transport systems have
high maintenance costs, both for the vehicles and infrastructures.
They are mainly linked to light industries where rapid movements
of freight in small batches are the norm. Yet, with containerization,
road transportation has become a crucial link in freight distribution.
- Rail transportation (Concept 3). Railways are composed of a traced
path on which wheeled vehicles are bound. In light of more
recent technological developments, rail transportation also include monorails
and maglev. They have an average level of
physical constrains linked to the types of locomotives and a low
gradient is required, particularly for freight. Heavy industries
are traditionally linked with rail transport systems, although containerization
has improved the flexibility of rail transportation by linking it
with road and maritime modes. Rail is by far the land transportation
mode offering the highest capacity with a 23,000 tons fully loaded
coal unit train being the heaviest load ever carried.
Gauges, however, vary
around the world, often challenging the integration of rail
- Pipelines (Concept 3). Pipeline routes are practically unlimited
as they can be laid on land or under water. The longest gas pipeline
links Alberta to Sarnia (Canada), which is 2,911 km in length. The
longest oil pipeline is the Transiberian, extending over 9,344 km
from the Russian arctic oilfields in eastern Siberia to Western
Europe. Physical constraints are low and include the landscape and
pergelisol in arctic or subarctic environments. Pipeline construction
costs vary according to the diameter and increase proportionally
with the distance and with the viscosity of fluids (from gas, low
viscosity, to oil, high viscosity). The
Trans Alaskan pipeline, which is
1,300 km long, was built under difficult conditions and has to be
above ground for most of its path. Pipeline terminals are very important
since they correspond to refineries and harbors.
- Maritime transportation (Concept 4). Because of the physical properties
of water conferring buoyancy and limited friction, maritime transportation
is the most effective mode to move large quantities of cargo over
long distances. Main maritime routes are composed of oceans, coasts,
seas, lakes, rivers and channels. However, due to the location of
economic activities maritime circulation takes place on specific
parts of the maritime space, particularly over the North Atlantic
and the North Pacific. The construction of channels, locks and dredging
are attempts to facilitate maritime circulation by reducing discontinuity.
Comprehensive inland waterway systems include Western Europe, the
Volga / Don system, St. Lawrence / Great Lakes system, the Mississippi
and its tributaries, the Amazon, the Panama / Paraguay and the interior
of China. Maritime transportation has high terminal costs, since
port infrastructures are among the most expensive to build, maintain
and improve. High inventory costs also characterize maritime transportation.
More than any other mode, maritime transportation is linked to heavy
industries, such as steel and petrochemical facilities adjacent
to port sites.
- Air transportation (Concept 5). Air routes are practically unlimited,
but they are denser over the North Atlantic, inside North America
and Europe and over the North Pacific. Air transport constraints
are multidimensional and include the site (a commercial plane needs
about 3,300 meters of runway for landing and take off), the climate,
fog and aerial currents. Air activities are linked to the tertiary
and quaternary sectors, notably finance and tourism, which lean
on the long distance mobility of people. More recently, air transportation
has been accommodating growing quantities of high value freight
and is playing a growing role in global logistics.
- Intermodal transportation (Concept
6). Concerns a variety of modes used in combination so that
the respective advantages of each mode are better exploited.
Although intermodal transportation applies for passenger
movements, such as the usage of the different, but
interconnected modes of a public transit system, it is over
freight transportation that the most significant impacts have
been observed. Containerization has been a powerful vector of
intermodal integration, enabling maritime and land
transportation modes to more effectively interconnect.
- Telecommunications. Cover a grey area in terms of if
they can be considered as a transport mode since unlike true
transportation, telecommunications often does not have a
physicality. Yet, they are structured as networks with a practically
unlimited capacity with very low constraints, which may include the physiography
and oceanic masses that may impair the setting of
cables. They provide
for the instantaneous movement of information (speed of light in
theory). Wave transmissions, because of their limited coverage,
often require substations, such as for cellular phone networks.
Satellites are often using a geostationary orbit which is getting
crowded. High network costs and low distribution costs characterize
many telecommunication networks, which are linked to the tertiary
and quaternary sectors (stock markets, business to business information
networks, etc.). Telecommunications can provide a substitution for
personal movements in some economic sectors.
Thus, there is modal competition when there is an overlap in geography,
transport and level of service. Cost is one of the
most important considerations in modal choice. Because each mode has its own price/performance profile, the
actual competition between the modes depends primarily upon the distance
traveled, the quantities that have to be shipped and the value of the
goods. While maritime transport might offer the lowest variable costs,
over short distances and for small bundles of goods, road transport
tends to be most competitive. A critical factor is the terminal cost
structure for each mode, where the costs (and delays) of loading and
unloading the unit impose fixed costs that are incurred independent
of the distance traveled.
With increasing income levels the propensity for people to
travel rises. At the same time, international trade in manufactured
goods and parts has increased. These trends in travel demand act differentially
upon the modes. Those that offer the faster and more reliable services
gain over modes that might offer a lower cost, but slower, alternative.
For passenger services, rail has difficulty in meeting the competition
of road transport over short distances and aircraft for longer trips.
For freight, rail and shipping
have suffered from competition from road and air modes for high value
shipments. While shipping, pipelines and rail still perform well for
bulkier shipments, intense competition over the last thirty years has
seen road and air modes capture an important market share of the high
revenue-generating goods. Road transport clearly dominates.
Although intermodal transportation has opened many opportunities
for a complementarity between modes, there is intense competition as companies
are now competing over many modes in the transport chain. A growing
paradigm thus involves supply chain competition with the modal
competition component occurring over
- Different geographical markets. It is clear that if different
markets are involved, modes will permit a continuity within the transport
system, particularly if different scales are concerned, such as
between national and international transportation. This requires
an interconnection, commonly known as a gateway, where it is possible to transfer from one mode
to the other. Intermodal transportation has been particularly
relevant to improve the complementarity of different
- Different transport markets. The nature of what is being
transported, such as passengers or freight, often indicates a level
of complementarity. Even if the same market area is serviced, it
may not be equally accessible depending of the mode used. Thus,
in some markets rail and road transportation can be
complementary as one may be focusing on passengers and the other
- Different levels of service. For a similar market and
accessibility, two modes that offer a different level of service
will tend to complement another. The most prevailing complementarity
concerns costs versus time.
It is generally advocated that a form of modal equality
(or modal neutrality) should be part of public policy where each
mode would compete based upon its inherent characteristics. Since
different transport modes are under different jurisdiction and
funding mechanisms, modal equality is conceptually impossible as
some modes will always be more advantageous than others. Modal competition
is influenced by public policy
where one mode could be advantaged over the others. This particularly
takes place over government funding of infrastructure and regulation issues.
Roads are usually provided by the public sector, while many other
transport infrastructures are financed by the operators using them. This
is particularly the case for rail, air and maritime transportation. For instance,
in the United States the Federal Government would finance 80% of the
costs of an highway project, leaving the state government to supply
the remaining 20%. For public transit, this share is 50%, while for
passenger rail the Federal Government will not provide any funding.
Under such circumstances, public policy shapes modal preferences.
The technological evolution in the transport industry aims at adapting
the transport infrastructures to growing needs and requirements. When
a transport mode becomes more advantageous than another over the same
route or market, a modal shift is likely
to take place. A modal shift involves the growth in the demand of a
transport mode at the expense of another, although a modal shift can
involve an absolute growth in both of the concerned modes. The comparative
advantages behind a modal shift can be in terms of costs, convenience,
speed or reliability. For passengers, this involved a transition
in modal preferences as incomes went up, such as from
collective to individual modes
of transportation. For freight, this has implied a shift to faster and
more flexible modes when possible and cost effective, namely trucking
and air freight.
There are important geographical variations in modal competition.
The availability of transport infrastructures and networks varies enormously.
Some regions possess many different modes that in combination provide
a range of transport services that ensure an efficient commercial environment.
Thus, in contrast to the situation in the EU, rail freight transport occupies
a more important market share in North America but passenger rail
has a negligible share. In many parts of the
world, however, there are only limited services, and some important
modes such as rail may be absent altogether. This limits the choices for people and
shippers, and acts to limit accessibility. People and freight are forced
to use the only available modes that may not be the most effective
to support the mobility needs of passengers or freight.
For these reasons, transport provision is seen as a major factor
in economic development. Areas with limited modal choices tend to be
among the least developed. The developed world, on the other hand possesses
a wide range of modes that can provide services to meet the needs of
society and the economy. Since 2000 the price of fuel has increased
significantly as well as its volatility. All modes are affected, from
the individual car owner to the corporation operating a fleet of hundreds
of aircraft or ships. The higher costs are being passed on to the customer,
either directly, as is the case of shipping where freight rates are
climbing, or indirectly as is the case of airlines, where passengers
are being charged additional fuel surcharges. These cost increases are
likely to have significant impacts on mobility and trade, as well as
on the modal split:
- Modal usage. Competition that involves the comparative
advantage of using a specific or a combination of modes.
Distance remains one of the basic
determinants of modal usage for passenger transportation. However,
for a similar distance, costs, speed
and comfort can be significant factors behind the choice of
- Infrastructure usage. Competition resulting from the
presence of freight and passenger traffic on the same itineraries
linking the same nodes.
- Market area. Competition being experienced between transport
terminals for using new space (terminal relocation or expansion)
or capturing new markets (hinterland).
4. Passengers or Freight?
There is a complementarity between passenger and
freight transport systems. With some exceptions, such as busses and pipelines, most transport
modes have developed to handle both freight and passenger traffic.
In some cases both are carried in the same vehicle, as for instance in
air transport where about 80% of the freight is transported in the cargo holds of passenger
aircraft. In others, different types of vehicle have been developed
for freight and passenger traffic, but they both share the same road
infrastructure, as for example in rail and road traffic. In shipping, passengers
and freight used to share the same vessels and often the same
terminals. Since the 1950s specialization
has occurred, and the two are now quite distinct, except for ferries
and some RORO services.
The sharing by freight and passengers of a mode is not without
difficulties, and indeed some of the major problems confronting
transportation occur where the two compete for the
use of scare transport infrastructure. For example,
trucks in urban areas are seen as a nuisance and a cause of congestion
by passenger transport users. Daytime deliveries and double-parked trucks
are a particular nuisance. The poor performance of some modes, such
as rail, is seen as the outcome of freight and passengers having
to share routes. There are also growing interests expressed at using
segments of transit systems to move freight, particularly in central
areas. This raises the question as to what extent and under which
circumstances freight and passengers
are compatible. The main advantages of joint operations are:
- Higher transport costs increase the friction of distance
and constrain mobility. As a major consumer of petroleum the
transport industry has to increase rates. Across the board
increases causes people to rethink their patterns of movement
and companies to adjust their supply and distribution chains.
- Because the impact of higher fuel costs hits the modes differentially,
a modal shift is anticipated. Road and air transport are
more fuel intensive than the other modes, and so fuel price increases
are likely to impact upon them more severely than other modes. This
could lead to a shift towards water and rail transport in particular.
- A further impact of fuel price increases is greater fuel
economy across the modes. One of the best ways for all modes
to reduce consumption is to lower speeds. A future of high energy
prices is likely to have a major impact on just-in-time deliveries,
and lead to a restructuring of supply chains.
The main disadvantages of joint operations are:
- High capital costs can be justified and amortized more easily with
a diverse revenue stream (rail, airlines, ferries).
- Maintenance costs can be spread over a wider base (rail,
- The same modes or traction sources can be used for both freight and
passengers, particularly for rail.
The ongoing separation of passengers and freight on specific gateways and corridors is
consequently a likely outcome, involving a growing divergence of
flows, modes and terminals.
Passengers and freight are increasingly divergent activities as they
reflect different transportation markets.
In several modes and across many regions passenger and freight transport
is being unbundled:
- Locations of demand rarely match since the origins and destinations
of freight flows are usually quite distinct spatially from passenger traffic.
- Frequency of demand is different as for passengers the
need is for high frequency service, for freight it tends to be somewhat
- Timing of service. Demand for passenger services has
specific peaks during the day, for freight it tends to be more evenly
spread throughout the day. Several freight operations prefer
night services since they insure that shipments arrive at their
destination in the morning.
- Traffic balance. On a daily basis passenger flows tend
to be in equilibrium, irrespective of the distance involved
(e.g. commuting or air transportation). For freight, market imbalances produce empty
flows that require the repositioning of assets.
- Reliability. Although freight traffic increasingly demands
quality service, for passengers delays (diversion from posted
schedules) are unacceptable.
- Sharing routes favors passenger traffic with passenger trains
often given priority or trucks excluded from specific areas at certain
times of the day.
- Different operational speeds where passengers demand faster
service but specific cargo, such as parcel, facing similar
- Security screening measures for passengers and freight
require totally different procedures.
- Shipping. Mention has been made already how in the maritime
sector passenger services have become separated from freight operations.
The exception being ferry services where the use of RORO ships
on high frequency services adapt to the needs of both market segments.
Deep sea passenger travel is now dominated by cruise shipping which
has no freight-handling capabilities, and bulk and general cargo
ships rarely have an interest or the ability to transport passengers.
- Rail. Most rail systems improved passenger and
freight services. Where both segments are maintained the
railways give priority to passengers, since rail persists as the
dominant mode for inter-city transport in India, China and much
of the developing world. In Europe the national rail systems and
various levels of government have prioritized passenger service
as a means of checking the growth of the automobile.
Significant investments have occurred in improving the comfort
of trains and in passenger rail stations, but most notable have
been the upgrading of track and equipment in order to achieve
higher operational speeds. Freight transport has tended to lose
out because of the emphasis on passengers since such systems
were optimized for passenger flows. Because of their
lower operational speeds, freight trains are frequently excluded
from day-time slots, when passenger trains are most in demand.
Overnight journeys may not meet the needs of freight customers.
This incompatibility is a factor in the loss of freight business
by most rail systems still trying to operate both freight and
passenger operations. It is in North America where the
between freight and passenger rail business is the most
private railway companies could not compete against the automobile
and airline industry for passenger traffic, and consequently withdrew
from the passenger business in the 1970s. They were left to operate
a freight only system, which has generally been successful, especially
with the introduction of intermodality. The passenger business has
been taken over by public agencies, AMTRAK in the US, and VIA Rail
in Canada. Both are struggling to survive. A major problem is that
they have to lease trackage from the freight railways, and thus
slower freight trains have priority.
- Roads. Freight and passenger vehicles still share the
roads. The growth of freight traffic is increasing road congestion
and in many cities concerns are being raised about the presence
of trucks. Already, restrictions are in place on truck dimensions
and weights in certain parts of cities, and there are growing pressures
to limiting truck access to non-daylight hours. Certain highways
exclude truck traffic – the parkways in the US for example. These
are examples of what is likely to become a growing trend; the need
to separate truck from passenger vehicle traffic. Facing chronic
congestion around the access points to the port of Rotterdam and
at the freight terminals at Schiphol airport, Dutch engineers have
worked on feasibility studies of developing separate underground
road networks for freight vehicles.
- Air transport. Air transport is the mode where freight
and passengers are most integrated. Yet even here a divergence is
being noted. The growth of all-freight airlines and the freight-only
planes operated by some of the major carriers, such as Singapore
Airlines, are heralding a trend. The interests of the shippers,
including the timing of the shipments and the destinations, are
sometimes better served than in passenger aircraft. The divergence
between passengers and freight is also being accentuated by the
growing importance of charter and "low-cost" carriers. Their interest
in freight is very limited, especially when their business is oriented
towards tourism, since tourist destinations tend to be lean freight