Moving people and goods the Yankee way

Going green, the Yankee way

The United States relies heavily on its land-based transport for the movement of people and goods – but, being the world’s biggest polluter, is now also moving to mass transit systems to get people out of their cars, as well as hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles for the movement of passengers and goods, writes UDO RYPSTRA

The United States of America, a federal constitutional republic comprising 50 states and one federal district, is situated in North America, between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and bordered by Canada in the north and Mexico in the south. As seen on the map, the US state of Alaska lies north-west of Canada and you could sail across the Bering Strait directly into Russia. The Americans actually wanted to build a motorway traversing the Strait, but have shelved the idea for the time being.

At 9,83 million square kilometres, the US is the third largest country by total area after Brazil and Canada. The landscape consists of a vast central plain, mountains to the west, hills and low mountains in the east, and rugged mountains and broad river valleys in Alaska.

For the trivia buffs out there, the shortest distance from the East to the West Coast (as the crow flies) would be 3 347 km from San Diego, CA, to Jacksonville, Florida. But the average distance, depending on your latitudinal departure point, is 4 800 km. And that’s going through two or three time zones and different altitudes. For example, Death Valley is 86 m below sea level, and the highest point, Mount McKinley, is 6 194 m above sea level.

While the US offers a mostly temperate climate, it is tropical in Hawaii and Florida, arctic in Alaska, semi-arid in the great plains west of the Mississippi River, and arid in the Great Basin of the southwest.

There are well over 300 million “Americans” of a multitude of ethnic origins – the biggest population after China and India, (still) working for the world’s largest national economy, with an estimated 2009 GDP of US$14,3 trillion, which is 24% of the nominal global GDP.

According to the US Department of Transportation (USDOT): “Transportation’s vital importance to the US economy is underscored by the fact that more than US$1 out of every US$10 produced in the US GDP is related to transportation activity. This includes all aspects of transportation, including the movement of goods and the purchase of all transportation-related products and services, as well as the movement of people.” The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA), a division of the USDOT, governs all transportation-related industries such as buses, trucking, shipping, railroads and airlines, while various other issues are handled by a branch of the USDOT, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Employment in the transportation and material-moving industry accounts for 7,4% of all employment, and is the 5th largest employment group in the US. The US invests 0,6% of its GDP on transportation annually. Land transport is predominant, and has progressed in great strides from the horse, wagon, stage coach and old coal-fired steam trains immortalised in old black-and-white movies of the Wild West.

Public Transport
The legacy left by Henry Ford and other “auto makers” is that the vast majority of passenger travel still occurs by car for in-city and inter-city distances. According to the CIA World Fact Book, updated last month, the US now has a road network of 6,5 million kilometres, of which 4,4 million km is paved, including 75 376 km of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System and other expressways. This, and the American passion for vehicle ownership, has combined to swell the numbers of passenger vehicles (including cars, trucks, vans and motorcycles), and now accounts for 86% of passenger miles travelled. The remaining 14% is handled by planes, trains and buses.

Going green, the Yankee wayLike most South Africans, Americans prefer to go to work by car. The CIA book cites there were 759 “automobiles” per 1 000 Americans in 2003, compared to 472 per
1 000 inhabitants of the European Union the following year.

Wikipedia, whose contributors also provide input for the CIA book, say car ownership is almost universal except in a few of the largest cities where extensive mass transit systems have been developed.

A 2009 study found that traffic congestion costs the US almost US$87,2 billion. The economic costs of traffic congestion have increased 63% over the past decade, and despite declining traffic volumes, caused by the economic downturn, Americans still waste more than 2,8 billion gallons of fuel each year as a result of traffic congestion. Motorists also waste 4,2 billion hours annually, or one full work week per traveller.

However, recently, a 3% drop in urban driving using passenger cars is explained by the 4% increase of public transportation usage, the reason being that most medium-sized cities have some form of local public transport, usually a network of fixed bus routes. Larger cities tend to have metrorail systems and/or light rail systems for high-capacity passenger service within the urban area.

In June 2008, the US introduced the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act, which gives grants to mass transit authorities to lower fares for commuters and expand transit services. Intercity travel is another matter. Due to the geography of the US and the generally long distances between major cities, the less affluent Americans use Greyhound Lines (claimed to be the least expensive) for intercity travel. It is the largest intercity bus company in the United States, with routes in all parts of the continental US.

Passenger trains were the dominant mode of transport until the mid-twentieth century, but the completion of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s, and the introduction of jet aeroplanes on major US routes, accelerated the decline in intercity rail passenger demand during the 1960s, resulting in the sharp curtailment of passenger service by private railroads. This led to the creation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (branded as Amtrak) by the Federal Government in 1971 to maintain limited intercity rail passenger services in most parts of the country. Amtrak serves most major cities but, outside of the Northeast, often only by one or two trains per day.

The more affluent tend to use air travel for business trips or vacation travel for longer distances of more than 480 km. In terms of passengers, 17 of the world’s 30 busiest airports in 2004 were in the US. There is no single national airline, as passenger airlines in the US have always been privately owned. But there are over 200 domestic passenger and cargo airlines and a number of international carriers, such as Delta, American, United and US Airways. All fall under the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board in terms of aircraft safety, pilot training, and accident investigations. And with numerous airlines competing for traffic on the same intercity routes, ticket prices tend to be very competitive, resulting in low industry profit margins.


The largest percentage of US freight is carried by trucks (60%), followed by pipelines (18%), rail (10%), ship (8%), and air (0,01%). The remaining 3% accounts for intermodal freight (including parcels). The US has some 20 000 km of coastline and around 41 000 km of inland waterways, of which just over 19 000 km are used commercially.

The quasi-governmental United States Postal Service has a monopoly on letter delivery (except for express services) but several large private companies such as FedEx and UPS compete in the package and cargo delivery market.

According to the CIA, quoting 2008 statistics in their latest report, some 24 million TEU containers are handled annually at the country’s six main container ports, with Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York taking the bulk.

The trucking industry, supplied by American vehicle manufacturers such as Freightliner, Navistar International, Kenworth, Western Star, and engine manufacturers such as Detroit Diesel and Cummins, has come out of recession with vehicle sales having picked up dramatically since last year. Transport Topics, the leading US trucking magazine and mouthpiece for the American Truckers Association, has confirmed renewed activity in the US transport market and the move towards longer truck combinations, for which a Bill has been introduced recently by some senators.

Fleet operators, some who operate more than 4 000 vehicles, needed in the region of 200 000 “truckers” at the end of 2010, and another 200 000 drivers by the end of this year, according to last year’s state of logistics report from the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

The report said a number of factors would feed into this need for drivers, including retirements, tougher safety regulations designed to get drivers with bad records off the road, as well as the need to replace drivers who were laid-off during the recession.

Overall the industry has lost almost 150 000 driving jobs since the start of 2008. It said the US would need one million drivers in the next 15 years to deal with replacing retirees alone, and the normal growth of freight raw materials and finished goods over land, typically from manufacturing plants to retail distribution centres.

Trucks are also important to the mining industry, and the construction industry relies on dump trucks and concrete mixers to move the large amounts of rocks, dirt, concrete, and other building materials used in construction.

Large trucks and buses require a commercial driver’s licence (CDL) to operate. Obtaining a CDL requires further education and training dealing with the special knowledge requirements and handling characteristics of such a large vehicle. Drivers of CMVs must adhere to regulations governing the driving hours of commercial drivers. These, and all other rules regarding the safety of interstate commercial driving, are issued by the FMCSA.

Developments in technology, such as computers, satellite communication and the internet, have contributed to numerous improvements within the industry. These developments have increased the productivity of company operations, helped drivers’ save time and effort, and provided new, more accessible forms of entertainment to men and women who often spend long periods of time away from home.

In 2006, the US Environmental Protection Agency implemented revised emission standards for diesel trucks (reducing airborne pollutants emitted by diesel engines), which are very much in line with European standards and promise to improve air quality and public health.

The US makes extensive use of its rail system for freight. According to the Association of American Railroads: “US freight railroads are the world’s busiest, moving more freight than any rail system in any other country. In fact, US railroads move more than four times as much freight than all of Western Europe’s freight railroads combined.”

Going green, the Yankee wayNearly all railroad corridors (not including local transit rail systems) are owned by private companies that provide freight services. Amtrak pays these companies for the right to use the tracks for passenger service.

According to the CIA book, there are 226 427 km of standard gauge railroads in the US, the world’s longest national railroad network. The difference in percentage of rail’s share by ton-miles and by weight (10% vs 38%) is accounted for by the extreme efficiency of trains.

Trucks surpass trains in the weight category due to their greater numbers, while trains surpass trucks in the ton-miles category due to the vast distances they travel carrying large amounts of freight. Freight rail transportation in Chicago is a major national bottleneck (about one-third of the nation’s freight trains pass through the region), and the subject of a
$1,5 billion infrastructure improvement project.

In terms of cargo, 12 of the world’s 30 busiest airports are in the US, including the world’s busiest, Memphis International Airport. Private aircraft are also used for medical emergencies, government agencies, large businesses, and individuals. Air cargo comprises a large number of daily flights in the United States and are operated by private parcel companies such as Fedex and UPS. These organisations operate some of the largest fleets in the world. Most air cargo moved by these organisations is time sensitive overnight and second day parcels. Air freight is commonly used only for perishables and premium express shipments.

Two-thirds of US oil consumption is due to the transportation sector. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 had a significant impact on US Energy Policy. The US – an important export country for food stocks – converted 18% of its grain output to ethanol in 2008. Across the US, 25% of the whole corn crop went to ethanol in 2007 and was expected to go up in ensuing years, forcing US senators to introduce a Biofuels Security Bill.

America’s reliance on fossil fuel is huge and goes to explain why there is so much air pollution, resulting in acid rain, in both the US and Canada. The US is the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels; add water pollution from runoff of pesticides and fertilisers, and limited natural fresh water resources in much of the western part of the country, and it’s clear that careful management is required.

It is therefore not surprising that the US leads the world in turning to hybrid and alternative fuel-powered vehicles, and is implementing strategies to make the country less reliant on fossil fuel for its energy needs. For a country that sits on the world’s largest coal reserves – 491 billion short tons of it – that’s saying something.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
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