The Geography of Transport Systems
Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2017), New York: Routledge, 440 pages.
ISBN 978-1138669574
Historical Geography of Transportation: The Setting of Global Systems
Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
1. Transportation in the Fordist Era (1920-1970)
The Fordist era was epitomized by the adoption of the assembly line as the dominant form of industrial production an innovation that benefited transportation substantially. The internal combustion engine, or four-stroke engine by Daimler (1889), which was a modified version of the Diesel engine (1885), and the pneumatic tire (1885) by Dunlop made road vehicles operations faster and more comfortable. Compared with steam engines, internal combustion engines have a much higher efficiency and are using a lighter fuel; petrol. Petrol, previously perceived as an unwanted by-product of the oil refining process, which was seeking kerosene for illumination, became a convenient fuel. Initially, diesel engines were bulky, limiting their use to industrial and maritime propulsion, a purpose which they still fulfill today. The internal combustion engine permitted an extended flexibility of movements with fast, inexpensive and ubiquitous (door to door) transport modes such as automobiles, buses and trucks. Mass producing these vehicles changed considerably the industrial production system, notably by 1913 when Ford began the production of the Model T car using an assembly line. From 1913 to 1927, about 15 million Ford Model T were built, making it the second most produced car in history, behind the Volkswagen Beetle. Economies of scale realized along the assembly line were passed on to the consumer which made the automobile even more affordable and popular. The rapid diffusion of the automobile marked an increased demand for oil products and other raw materials such as steel and rubber.
Economies of scale also improved transportation in terms of capacity, which enabled to move low-cost bulk commodities such as minerals and grain over long distances. The process was however slow to start as cargo ships require large amounts of labor to be loaded and unloaded. This informally imposed a limit of 10,000 deadweight tons to break-bulk cargo ships that will remain as such until containerization began in the late 1950s. Still, the gradual growth of international trade and particularly World War II gave a strong impetus for shipbuilding. The end of the war left an ample supply of military cargo ships, namely Liberty Ships, which could be cheaply used for commercial purposes and became the workhorses of global trade until the 1960s. Oil tankers are a good example of the application of the principle of economies of scale to transport larger quantities of oil at a lower cost, especially after WWII when global demand surged. Maritime routes were thus expanded to include tanker routes, notably from the Middle East, the dominant global producer of oil. The very long distances concerned in the oil trade favored the construction of larger tankers. In the 1960s, tanker ships of 100,000 tons became available, to be supplanted by VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers) of 250,000 tons in the 1970s and by the ULCCs (Ultra Large Crude Carrier) of 550,000 tons at the end of the 1970s.
Economies of scale were also favored by unitization where batches of break-bulk cargo could be combined into on handling unit. In ancient times amphorae were used as load units, but had limitations for carrying goods. The pallet became the first effective load unit, particularly after the invention of the forklift in 1937. Pallets permitted a better handling of goods as they could be more effectively managed and stored. By the early 1930s about three days were required to unload a rail boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. With pallets and forklifts, a similar task could be done in about four hours. It is however World War II that permitted the massive adoption of pallets as the standard supply unit load by the US military, which permitted fast handling of goods and turnaround of transport assets. This underlined the growing importance of efficient transportation systems in the competitiveness of nations, let it be for commercial or military gain.
Although the first balloon flight took place in 1783, due to the lack of propulsion no practical applications for air travel were realized until the 20th century. The first propelled flight was made in 1903 by the Wright brothers and inaugurated the era of air transportation. The initial air transport services were targeted at mail since it was a type of freight that could be easily transported and due to technical limitations in carrying capacity initially proved to be more profitable than transporting passengers. 1919 marked the first commercial air transport service between England and France, but air transport suffered from limitations in terms of capacity and range. Several attempts were made at developing dirigible services with Atlantic crossed by a Zeppelin dirigible in 1924. However, such technology was almost entirely abandoned in 1937 after the spectacular Hindenburg accident, in which the hydrogen filled reservoirs burned. The 1920s and 1930s saw the expansion of regional and national air transport services in Europe and the United States with mass produced propeller aircrafts such as the Douglas DC-3.
Through the first half of the 20th century the Atlantic remained an important technical challenge for long distance transportation modes since it linked large markets in Europe and North America. The post World War II period was the turning point for air transportation as the range, capacity and speed of aircrafts increased as well as the average income of the passengers. A growing number of people were thus able to afford the speed and convenience of air transportation. The application of the gas turbine principle led to the development of jet engines. 1952 marks the beginning of commercial jet services with the Comet, but a design flaw grounded the plane the following year. In 1958, the first successful commercial jet plane, the Boeing 707, entered in service and revolutionized international movements of passengers, marking the end of passenger transoceanic ships (liners) and replacing propeller planes for long distance services. The jet plane enabled the setting of time dependent trade relations between producers across the world (such as electronics), created a long distance market for perishables (fruits, vegetables, flowers) and supported the development of mass tourism.
Basic telecommunications infrastructures, such as the telephone and the radio, were mass marketed during the Fordist era. However, the major change was the large diffusion of the automobile, especially from the 1950s as it became a truly mass consumption product and when the first major highway systems, such as the American Interstate, began to be built. No other modes of transportation have so drastically changed lifestyles and the structure of cities, notably for developed countries. It created suburbanization and expanded cities to areas larger than 100 km in diameter in some instances. In dense and productive regions, such as the Northeast of the United States, Western Europe and Japan, the urban system became structured and interconnected by transport networks to the point that it could be considered as one vast urban region; the Megalopolis.
2. A New Context for Transportation : the Post-Fordist Era (1970-)
Among the major changes in international transportation from the 1970s are the massive development of telecommunications, the globalization of trade, more efficient distribution systems through the application of logistics and the considerable development of air transportation.
Telecommunications enabled growing information exchanges, especially for the financial and service sectors. After 1970 telecommunications successfully merged with information technologies. As such, telecommunication also became a medium of doing business in its own right, in addition to supporting and enhancing other transportation modes. The information highway became a reality as fiber optic cables gradually replaced copper wires, multiplying the capacity to transmit information between computers. Global submarine cable networks, which have existed since the setting of telegraphs networks in the 19th century, were overhauled with fiber optics to become the backbone of the global telecommunication system, particularly the internet. This growth was however dwarfed by the tremendous growth in processing power of personal computing devices, which are now fundamental components of economic and social activities across the world. A network of satellite communication was also created to support the growing exchanges of information, especially for television images, but remains of marginal use because of lower bandwidth. Out of this wireless technology emerged local cellular networks which expanded and merged to cover whole cities, countries, regions and then continents. Telecommunications have reached the era of individual access, portability and global coverage.
In a post-Fordist system, the fragmentation of the production, organizing an international division of labor, as well as the principle of "just-in-time" increased the quantity of freight moving at the local, regional and international levels. This in turn required increasing efforts to manage freight and reinforced the development of logistics, the science of physical distribution systems. Containers, main agents of the modern international transport system, enabled an increased flexibility of freight transport, mainly by reducing transshipment costs and delays; handling a container requires about 25 times less labor than its equivalent in bulk freight. This enabled to further the unitization trend brought forward by the pallet, particularly since pallets could be loaded into containers. Containers were introduced by the American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean who initially applied containerization to land transport but saw the opportunity of using container shipping as an alternative to acute road congestion in the early 1950s before the construction of the first Interstate highways. The initial attempts at containerization thus aimed are reducing maritime transshipment costs and time. Before containerization, a cargo ship could spend as much time in a port being loaded or unloaded than it did at sea. Later on, the true potential of containerization became clear when interfacing with other modes became an operational reality, mainly between maritime, rail and road transportation.
The first containership (the Ideal-X, a converted T2 oil tanker) set sail in 1956 from New York to Houston and marked the beginning of the era of containerization. In 1960, the Port Authority of New York / New Jersey foreseeing the potential in container trade constructed the first specialized container terminal next to Port Newark; the Port Elizabeth Marine Terminal. The Sea-Land Company established the first regular maritime container line in 1965 over the Atlantic between North America and Western Europe. By the early 1980s, container services with specialized ships (cellular containerships, first introduced in 1967) became a dominant aspect of international and regional transport systems, transforming the maritime industry. However, the size of those ships remained for 20 years constrained by the size of the Panama Canal, which de facto became the panamax standard. In 1988, the first post-Panamax containership was introduced, an indication of the will to further expand economies of scale in maritime container shipping. The container revolution was concomitant with globalization by supporting an increasingly complex system of trade involving parts, manufactured goods and even commodities. Few other transport innovations had such an impact on the global economic landscape.
Air and rail transportation experienced remarkable improvements in the late 1960s and early 1970s through massification and network developments. The first commercial flight of the Boeing 747 between New York and London in 1969 marked an important landmark for international transportation (mainly for passengers, but freight became a significant function in the 1980s). This giant plane could transport around 400 passengers, depending on the configuration. It permitted a considerable reduction of air fares through economies of scale and opened intercontinental air transportation to the mass market. Attempts were also undertaken to establish faster than sound commercial services with the Concorde (1976; flying at 2,200 km/hr). However, such services proved to be unprofitable and no new supersonic commercial planes have been built since the 1970s. The Concorde was finally retired in 2003. At the regional level, the emergence of high-speed train systems provided fast and efficient inter-urban services, notably in France (1981; speeds up to 300 km/hr) and in Japan (1964; Shinkansen; speeds up to 275 km/hr). More recently, high speed train systems were constructed in China, Korea and Taiwan.
Major corporations making transportation equipment, such as car manufacturers, have become dominant players in the global economy. Even if the car is not an international transport mode, its diffusion has expanded global trade of vehicles, parts, raw materials and fuel (mainly oil). Car production, which used to be mainly concentrated in the United States, Japan and Germany, has become a global industry with a few key players par of well integrated groups such as Ford, General Motors and Toyota. Along with oil conglomerates, they have pursued strategies aimed at the diffusion of the automobile as the main mode of individual transportation. This has led the growing mobility but also to congestion and waste of energy. As the 21st century begins, the automobile accounts for about 80% of the total oil consumption in developed countries.
Since the beginning of the Modern Era in the 15th century, transportation played in a significant role in the development of the world economy. Like most technological innovations, transportation is set in waves that reflect the cumulative development of infrastructures. Although these cumulative development phases played out differently, developed economies such as Europe and the United States, saw first the setting of canal systems, which were then complemented by rail transport systems. Later, the internal combustion engine supported the development of extensive road systems and from the 1950s of air transport systems that now span the globe.
The current period is marked by growing constraints and the search for alternatives, mainly because of a dual dependency. First, transportation modes have a heavy dependence on fossil fuels and second, road transportation has assumed dominance and being increasingly congested. The first oil shock of the early 1970s, which saw a significant increase in fuel prices, induced innovations in transport modes, the reduction of energy consumption and the search for alternative sources of energy (electric car, adding ethanol to gasoline and fuel cells). However, from the mid 1980s to the end of the 1990s, oil prices declined and attenuated the importance of these initiatives. Again, oil prices surged in the beginning of the 21st century, placing alternative sources of energy on the agenda and inciting more efficient use of transport systems. Still, the reliance on fossil fuels continues with a particularly strong growth of motorization in developing countries.