The Geography of Transport Systems
Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2017), New York: Routledge, 440 pages.
ISBN 978-1138669574
Conclusion: Issues and Challenges in Transport Geography
Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dr. Claude Comtois and Dr. Brian Slack
Transport geography seeks to understand the spatial organization of mobility. It has emerged as a full fledged field within geography with a strong propensity to include concepts and methods from other disciplines such as economics, engineering, environmental sciences and sociology. Because transportation systems are involved in a wide variety of scales and modes, from local public transit to global maritime shipping, the approach has a tendency to be partitioned. It is indeed difficult to reconcile perspectives such as pedestrian mobility issues related to land use or the selection of air cargo hubs. Multidisciplinary approaches remain at the core of transport geography simply because its modes are at the same time independent but interconnected at different scales. Irrespective of the scale and the mode, transport geography shares several common issues and challenges.
1. Congestion
The issue of congestion is likely to remain as one of the ongoing issues in transport geography because there are unprecedented demands for transportation being generated by a global economy that is ever more dependent upon the transport industry. The causes of congestion are well understood, even if the solutions are not. Congestion occurs across modes and locations and arises from two causes. Most important is when demand for mobility exceeds the capacity so support it. It can also occur when random events bring about a temporary disruption to service, such as an accident or a natural hazard such as flooding. In the case of the second set of causes, it is possible to mitigate their effects if the occurrence is frequent, such as accidents, or if the risks are great, as for example of flooding in a flood plain. A common and attractive solution is to increase capacity. However, increasing capacity engenders a hidden demand, so that adding lanes to an expressway tends to attract even more circulation. Furthermore, demand is increasing consistently, so that the practicality of this solution may be questioned.
The expected growth of the demand is likely to have major impacts on the nature and form of the future transport industry. In the short term at least, road transport is likely to continue its dominance of the transport industry. There are two basic reasons for this assertion. In the developed world automobiles and trucks already dominate the market, and the spatial patterns of people, industries and services have adjusted themselves somewhat to the demands of these modes. Such low density, space extensive patterns are pushing the traffic congestion ever further out, and make it very difficult for other higher capacity modes to compete. At the same time the demand for mobility is growing as a result of the rapid industrialization in developing countries such as China and India. There, a modal shift is occurring in favor of road transport. Increasing prosperity represents a great potential for growth in road transport.
Congestion is not limited to internal urban-generated traffic. International trade is likely to continue to be dominated by maritime transport (in terms of weight) and air transport (in terms of value). This has already led to a concentration of traffic a relatively small number of gateways and hubs, which are capable of extracting scale economies. For example, the 20 largest container ports handled more than 49% of global traffic in 2012. The traffic concentration however is already producing capacity problems in many of these gateways, particularly in terms of accessing their hinterlands. International trade has grown at a rate faster than economic growth as measured by the GDP in recent decades and there are expectations that congestion related to trade flows (or long distance freight transportation) will remain an issue in the future.
For geographers there are a whole range of issues arising out of the growth of demand and congestion. First, are a series of questions surrounding how to provide solutions. Second, are the effects on future spatial patterns. Conventionally, the solution to congestion was to provide more capacity by building more infrastructure. Such a response depended heavily on engineering solutions. It is now recognized that a multi-disciplinary approach is required. Engineering capabilities to design and construct infrastructure and systems, and to develop further technological innovations remain fundamental. However, transport policy and planning requires a broader perspective, one that considers different goals and alternatives, responds to different needs for mobility, and one that seeks ways to manage demand.
Congestion is spatially bound. It takes place in specific locations with impacts at a multitude of scales, from a particular highway intersection that may delay traffic over a few hundred meters, to blockage in a port that may disrupt the flow of goods over half a continent. Each event produces a spatial response, from the car driver who searches out an alternative route to the shipper who selects a different mode or point of entry for succeeding shipments. Increased demand and the rising likelihoods of congestion will intensify new spatial responses and thus it appears very likely that new spatial flows and structures will come into being. They involve:
  • Demand management. Concerns the conditions and in what types of locations can travel demand be modified. In a market context, when supply is fixed and demand increases, an upward price adjustment inevitably takes place. This is common in maritime and air transport with yield management strategies. However, many transport infrastructures, such as roads, are provided free of access, implying no cost changes as congestion levels increase. There is thus a growing need to provide incentives (or disincentives) and reassess the priority in the use of infrastructure, particularly in urban areas.
  • Concentration versus deconcentration. Accessibility and infrastructure improvements usually lead to a concentration of activities, while congestion acts as a counteracting force to concentration since it creates various diseconomies. Already there is evidence of deconcentration in air transport for growth in passengers and freight in some smaller airports. The density of economic and social activities and the related intensity of transport use imply a balance between the forces of concentration and deconcentration.
  • Economic and social impacts. In a context where transport networks are increasingly synchronized congestion can create multiplying effects not just impacting costs, but also the reliability of transport systems. The economic and social impacts of congestion remain a salient issue, particularly in developing countries where it can impede economic growth.
  • Passengers versus freight. Congestion also raises the issue of the prioritization of passengers versus freight when they share transport infrastructure or when freight activities such as terminals or distribution centers are in proximity to locations where large numbers of passengers transit. This will require a careful assessment of the respective costs of congestion on specific passenger and freight transport systems and in which circumstances congestion exerts the most externalities. A salient issue concerns how freight distribution could be better integrated in the urban environment where passenger movements tend to dominate; the realm of city logistics.
2. Infrastructure
Regardless of the specific solutions to congestion that are considered, increasing demand is placing unprecedented requests for investments on transport infrastructures. A major question confronting all countries around the world is how to finance the construction and maintenance of transport infrastructures. As economies of scale are applied to transport systems, such as larger containerships or doublestacked rail corridors, capital requirements increase in proportion. Governments have traditionally been the primary source of funding in the transport sector, but the costs of keeping pace with the growth in demand are making it difficult for even the richest countries to provide public funding on the scale required to meet expectations about the mobility of passengers and freight.
Capital requirements are particularly prevalent on both sides of the infrastructure life cycle spectrum. Over this matter the highways in China and North America represent two salient cases. For China, the last decade has seen an impressive level of highway construction with the setting of a national highway network, the longest in the world. Comparatively, the American Interstate highway system is nearing a phase in its life cycle where a substantial amount of capital investment will be required to upgrade the system and maintain its operability, including thousands of aging highway bridges. While most of the Interstate is publicly funded, almost all Chinese highways were funded by private interests that are using tolls to recover their investments. Irrespective of the context, the issue of the role of private and public actors in transport infrastructure as well as pricing mechanisms will remain salient:
  • Public-private partnerships and completely private solutions are one set of solutions. For many developing countries this is the only solution, since public finances are inadequate to the task. Thus, in the future, a greater private involvement in the provision of transport infrastructure is to be expected. Several models are already well tested: BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer), where the private sector builds and operates a facility or system for a period of time, but then transfers it back to the government after an agreed period; BLT (Build-Lease-Transfer) where after building the facilities, it is leased for a fixed period for operation, and finally transferred back; ROT (Rehabilitate-Operate-Transfer) where the private party refurbishes an existing facility to be operated for a term prior to be turned back to the state.
  • Pricing. Another approach that is gaining momentum is charging for use of transport infrastructure. Several segments of the transport system are privately owned and operated such as maritime shipping and air transportation implying that pricing is generally set by market forces. Still, many transport infrastructures such are roads and airports are wholly or partially owned by the public sector. Pricing is becoming an important feature of transport planning in urban areas where common use transport infrastructures are under stress. Whether it is cordon pricing, congestion pricing, or tolling, drivers are being forced to pay for their use of roads and limited price elasticity has been observed so far. With the growing concerns over the environment, charging for the externalities of transport modes is becoming a reality in many jurisdictions. It remains to be seen about how effective these alternatives are and their effects on travel behavior.
The difficulties are not to be underestimated, however. Most transport infrastructure projects are long term, but are typified by the heaviest capital investment requirements being incurred over a short initial phase. Even if transport infrastructure can be built in phases, most private enterprises cannot take a long term perspective, because they need to cover their expenses and recover their capital investments over short periods of time. With the growing unwillingness or inability of the public sector to fund and provide transport infrastructure, new forms of infrastructure provision, maintenance and operation need to be achieved. This is where the financial sector, particularly long term investment funds (such as pension funds) can be involved with a better synchronism between capital and time horizons of transport infrastructure projects.
3. Management of Transport Systems
The transportation industry is changing significantly in form and function that the very important changes in the way it is organized and managed tends to be overlook. Yet, it is through different management practices that the spatial manifestations of the industry are expressed. It is perhaps easiest to see the changes in management through the lens of governance, where an industry that used to be largely managed and controlled by the public sector, has become increasingly controlled by the private sector. The privatization of transport companies and infrastructures has been an important feature of the last decades, and is likely to continue further into the present century. However, there are still many issues about the role of the public sector in transportation and deregulation which has prevailed could be reversed.
The growing role of the private sector over an industry that has become global and multi-functional has necessitated a shift in management and ownership relationships that are still evolving. They include:
  • The emergence of horizontally linked global corporations that through a series of acquisitions and mergers have bought up similar operating companies in different markets. A good example is the global port terminal operators.
  • The development of vertically integrated corporations that have grown by merger and acquisition to control several segments of the transport chain, namely modes and terminals.
  • Intermediaries that provide transport services on a global scale, without direct ownership of infrastructure. 3PL companies operate in many markets and are major actors in the transport chain.
  • Alliances, informal groupings of transport providers that pool resources and offer joint services between major global markets as the partners combine their respective regional networks.
At the same time transport is being increasingly integrated in global production systems. It is becoming an integral part of production and distribution chains. These management and business structures give rise to distinct patterns of spatial organization, with different operating practices. The operational interests of a vertically integrated enterprise are different than one horizontally linked. This highlights the need to understand the nature of the organization of the businesses involved in transport as a means of explaining existing patterns and predicting their future forms. The concentration of traffic (and resultant congestion) is as much explained by the organization of transport firms as it is by traditional explanations involving demand and capacity. In turn, the organization of the global firms themselves is shaped by conditions of local markets. A distinct geography of transport firms exists, a geography that is still ill understood.
Another change in the management of transport systems concerns information technologies and vehicle automation, which open new venues in operations and the management of vehicle assets. Although self driving vehicles are still in the design phase, their potential implementation may lead to a much higher level of use of existing vehicle assets. The same number of vehicles could carry more people or freight while putting less pressures on existing roads, highways, terminal or rail lines. Congestion, which has been a recurring challenge for transportation, could be more effectively mitigated.
4. Transportation and Society
The role of transportation in society has been increasingly acknowledged, a role that goes beyond its economic contribution. Concerns over energy efficiency, safety and security are becoming more salient. While energy prices have been subject to significant volatility in recent years, the long term trend is indicative of higher energy prices with adjustments in transport modes to be expected. While technologies may make alternative fuel vehicles a commercial option to the internal combustion engine, the main question is the effect of higher prices on automobiles and trucks. Energy, particularly the availability of oil, has been a salient factor in the development of transport systems. It is expected that an ongoing shift in the energy price structure as well as the commercial availability of alternate energy sources will incite a transition to more energy efficient modes such as rail or maritime shipping. It remains to be seen about which forms of transport and mobility will take shape as the energy transition away from fossil fuels takes place.
Transportation safety issues are somewhat paradoxical. On one hand transportation modes and terminals are incrementally becoming safer as accident rates are declining. This is particularly the case for air transportation, which safety performance has steadily improved in spite of a substantial growth of passengers being carried. Similar trends are observed for road transportation, particularly in developed countries, as fatality rates have declined. However, road transport safety remains a salient issue in developing countries where vehicle ridership is increasing and where enforcement of safety regulation is lacking. An enduring issue is therefore in light of growing mobility levels to ensure that transportation safety continues to improve through better modal and infrastructure design, operational practices and the enforcement of existing regulations.
Another prevalent matter concerns security practices that are now part of the business environment in which passenger and freight transport systems are evolving. Most of these measures are imposed by regulatory agencies with consequences often difficult to assess, but always involving additional costs and delays for transport operators. A balance between security measures and the efficient flow of passengers and freight will need to be achieved through a variety of regulatory, operational and technological innovations. The years since September 11 2001 have clearly underlined that security issues in transportation have played a more prevalent role.
New patterns of consumption, social interactions and usage of transportation are also emerging. The rapid growth of ecommerce, including in developing economies such as China, has transformed retailing and the use of commercial space. With growing home deliveries, a switch is taking place from retail space to warehousing space, involving different location patterns and forms of distribution. Vehicle sharing services, including bicycle pools, are changing how people are using transportation in a manner that breaks the conventional dichotomy between full vehicle ownership or the reliance on public transit.
5. Sustainability Challenges
The issue of sustainability has become an increasing important consideration for the transport industry. It is now broadly recognized that there needs to be a balance between economic efficiency, social factors and the environment. Of these three, the issue of economic efficiency has always been to the forefront, and governments have been important in regulating social conditions (safety, security, and working conditions). Despite the strong historic relationships between transport and the environment, the latter has tended to be overlooked by the industry. This is changing, and environmental issues are likely to play an ever more important role in the transport industry, particularly over four core dimensions:
  • Transport and climate change. Transportation both influences and is impacted by climate change. Transport activities, particularly vehicles, account for 24% of CO2 emissions worldwide. They are thus subject to regulatory pressures to improve their environmental performance in regard to the greenhouse gases they emit. Concomitantly, transportation activities can be negatively impacted by climate change. Severe weather occurrences have a disruptive effect on transport systems, particularly for air transportation which has become a crucial element of global and regional mobility. Potential impacts on infrastructure need to be assessed since infrastructures are built with an expected life cycle and climate change may reduce it or increase maintenance costs. The prospects of sea level rises are particularly problematic for coastal transport systems. The extent to which climate change is influenced by and will impact global transport systems, for modes and terminals, needs to be seriously considered.
  • Transport and atmospheric pollution. Air quality standards are being implemented with increasing rigor in more and more countries around the world. There are still striking differences between regions and between the modes. For example, most of the countries of the developing world still have to go a long way to fixing and enforcing standards. However, the trend is towards greater control over emissions, which will have effects on modes and their respective competitiveness, particularly if a mode is subject to a greater degree of legislation than another.
  • Transport and water quality. The contribution of transport to the pollution of rivers and oceans is considerable, and is only recently being addressed by international legislation. Considerable progress has been made in a number of areas such as ballast water, waste and oil spills. As legislations increase in its comprehensiveness, the more the transport industry is impacted. This is particularly evident in matters relating to dredging, where environmental constraints are placing a growing financial burden on ports that are seeking to deepen channels in order to keep pace with the growth of vessels size. It can be expected that these constraints may impact port competitiveness, particularly in light of the pressures to dredge to keep up with the growth in vessel size.
  • Transport and land take. Increased demand for transport is already placing enormous pressures for new infrastructures. Many of these transport facilities such as airports and ports require very large amounts of land for their own internal operations and for the external transport links that have to be provided. Rapid motorization in developing countries has resulted in the conversion of land to provide road infrastructure. This expanded scale of transport infrastructure questions the capacity of environmental systems to mitigate the disruptions and will likely have an impact on how transport infrastructure is designed.
6. Prospects for Transport Geography
Transport geography played a relatively small role in the field of transport studies, a field that has been dominated by engineers and economists. This was due in part to the needs of the industry being focused on providing infrastructures and technologies, at what cost and benefits and at what level of pricing. The contemporary industry is much more complex, with issues as varied as safety, aesthetics, working conditions, equity, the environment, and governance being necessary considerations. A much broader set of skills are required therefore, and transport studies have become a multi-disciplinary field of application. Transport geography thus has opportunities to contribute to transport studies, transport planning and transport operations, in part because of the breadth of the approach and training. Still, transport geography, like the field of transportation in general, does not receive a level of attention in academia proportional to its economic and social importance.
It is also a fundamental fact that transport is a spatial activity. It has always been a space adjusting service, but over the last few decades it has become increasingly global in scope. Contemporary transport operates at a wider range of scales than ever before. There are complex interactions between the local and the global. For example, the issues surrounding the expansion of an airport are usually decided at the local level, and the impacts are likely to be felt locally, namely its externalities such as noise and congestion. However, the effects on passenger and freight flows may have a global impact. The spatiality of transport and the many scale levels at which it operates are elements that are the particular concerns to transport geography. No other discipline has as its core interest the role of space in shaping human activities. The globalization of transport activities thus has represented unique opportunities in the development of transport geography.
One reason for the success of engineers and economists in transport studies and applications is that their training has been rigorous in the application of mathematics and multivariate statistics. They have demonstrated the ability to provide precise answers to the questions that decision makers have required – what to build, at what cost, with what cost effects. There has evolved a culture in the transport industry that unless it can be quantified it is of little value. Transport geography provides the quantitative skills in modeling, graph theory, and multivariate statistics. However, there are newer techniques that provide geographers with opportunities to contribute to transport studies. GIS-T, in particular should be an essential element in transport geography training. The multi-scalar, multivariate nature of the transport industry makes GIS-T an invaluable tool, and one that will raise the profile of transport geography in the transportation industry.
One of the key challenges in transport studies is data availability. Many times census and survey data are inadequate or unavailable in the form required. However, online availability of large datasets is increasing offering a richer array of information to analyze transport issues. New opportunities also arise from what came to be known as "big data", where a large amount of digital information is made available at a low cost through mobile devices, sensors, remote sensing and RFID. Mobility can now be observed at an unprecedented scale and level of detail, where people, vehicles and cargo can be tracked. Knowledge of survey techniques and their limitations are also an important part of the transport geography toolkit. In spite of the appeal of ICT, many of the traditional tools and approaches are still relevant. They allow to address problems that are frequently overlooked by other disciplines because of the lack of data or the inability to spatially represent this data. Questionnaires and interviews represent a vital source of information in many situations. Content analysis is extremely useful in providing quantified data from non-quantified sources. At the same time, field work provides the opportunity to obtain detailed understanding of the particularities of the local conditions that cannot be obtained otherwise. Data, methods and models are no palliative to common sense, which remains a constant challenge when the approach is more focused on the tools than the reality in which transportation is evolving.
A look back at the subject matter and topics covered in this book indicates an industry that is growing in significance and changing in the face of challenges and drivers of change. The issues that are achieving greater importance – sustainability, congestion, governance and management – are ones to which transport geography has the opportunity to contribute. As the transport industry becomes more complex, conventional approaches, focusing on a narrow range of factors, have to be replaced by more nuanced analysis and solutions. Further, issues related to the mobility of freight are assuming a greater importance within the discipline in part driven by the setting of global supply chains and the complexities of urban freight distribution. In the transport industry itself, in public planning, and in research institutions, the scope for transport geography remains diverse.