The transportation industry plays a vital role in the United States economy. It allows goods and services to be transported efficiently and effectively across the country and around the world. And as load board operators and freight brokers, we should know. But we also know trucking is not the only game in town. We now have access to multiple modes of transportation, including trucking, rail, air freight, and sea freight. And the industry has grown significantly over the past half-century. Let’s take a closer look at its evolution and what’s in store for the future.
The Trucking Industry is a Linchpin
We don’t say this because we’re biased. We say it because it’s the truth. The trucking industry acts as the linchpin for economic growth in the United States. And trucking companies in particular are vital to the country. The trucking industry is a critical component of the transportation sector. Why? Because nearly 71% of all freight tonnage in the United States is transported by trucks. In fact, the trucking industry not only hauls the most freight, but it is also one of the largest industries in the United States.
In 2022, the industry generated $277 billion in revenue, making it one of the largest industries in the country. With over 3.6 million truck drivers in the United States, the trucking industry plays a significant role in supporting small businesses, e-commerce, and the supply chains of many industries. As an industry, it is also one of the largest employers in the country. And truckers get paid well.
Here is a fascinating statistic that really puts the work truckers do in perspective. In 2019, truck drivers drove over 297 billion miles! Wow. This is a staggering figure that demonstrates the importance of the trucking industry in transporting goods across the country. With the continued growth of e-commerce, the trucking industry is expected to continue its growth trajectory. In fact, the American Trucking Associations projects that freight tonnage will increase by 25.6% over the next decade. And yet, the trucking sector is not the only sector playing a part in ensuring the efficient transfer of goods across the country.
The Rail Industry Pulls its Weight
The rail industry is another crucial component of the transportation sector. Trains have the ability to transport large quantities of goods efficiently over long distances. It’s an industry that has been active in the United States since the early 19th century, with the first steam-powered locomotive, the Tom Thumb, operating in Maryland in 1830.
The development of the rail industry was critical for the expansion of the United States. It allowed goods and people to be transported quickly and efficiently across the country. By the mid-20th century, railroads had become the dominant mode of transportation for freight in the United States. Altogether, they accounted for over 90% of intercity freight transport.
In the United States, there are over 140,000 miles of freight railroads. All told, the rail industry is responsible for transporting nearly 40% of all intercity freight. In 2020, the revenue of the industry was $68.8 billion, supporting over 1.2 million jobs. Rail is second only to trucking in its importance.
One of the most important statistics about the rail industry is the amount of freight transported by rail each year. According to the Association of American Railroads, in 2020, U.S. railroads moved 24.8 million carloads of freight and intermodal units, including containers and trailers, with a total value of $2.5 trillion. This demonstrates the importance of rail in transporting goods across the country. Rail is especially important for commodities such as fuel, chemicals, and grain. Now, let’s learn a little more about our last modes of freight transportation.
Air and Sea Freight Fill in the Gaps Globally
Air freight and sea freight are also critical components of the transportation sector, particularly for international trade. In 2019, the United States imported and exported over $5.5 trillion worth of goods. Of that number, air, and sea freight played a significant role in facilitating this trade. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, air cargo accounts for nearly 35% of the value of goods traded internationally. Over 50 million tons of freight are transported by air each year.
Similarly, sea freight is responsible for transporting over 90% of all goods traded internationally, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. In 2021, In 2021, the total volume of all international trade, imports, and exports, moving in shipping containers through U.S. seaports equaled 39.1 million Twenty-foot containers. The Port of Los Angeles, the busiest port in the United States, handled over 9.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo, demonstrating the importance of sea freight in facilitating trade and supporting the global economy.
How Intermodal Transportation Has Grown
One of the most significant developments in the transportation industry over the past few decades has been the growth of intermodal transportation. Intermodal transportation refers to the use of multiple modes of transportation, such as truck, rail, and sea or air, to transport goods from one location to another. This approach offers several advantages, including reduced transit times, increased efficiency, and lower costs.
The growth of intermodal transportation has been significant over the past half-century, with the industry experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 3.3% from 2000 to 2020, according to the Intermodal Association of North America. In 2022, the number of containers and trailers in circulation had a combined total value of $1.6 trillion.
What Will the Future of Freight Transport Look Like?
The future of transportation and logistics is undoubtedly headed in a more sustainable direction. As concerns about climate change and environmental degradation grow, there is increasing pressure on the transportation sector to adopt cleaner and more efficient technologies. In response to this, many companies are exploring the use of electric-powered trains, planes, and trucks. They are also investigating new shipping methods that prioritize sustainability.
Electric transportation has been gaining traction in recent years, and the trend is expected to continue. Electric trains, for example, have already been introduced in several countries, including right here in the United States, the United Kingdom, and China. These trains are powered by electricity and emit significantly less carbon dioxide compared to traditional diesel-powered locomotives. In the United States, for instance, Amtrak recently announced that it will be launching a fleet of new high-speed electric trains that are expected to be in service by 2030.
Similarly, the aviation industry is also exploring the use of electric planes. Several companies, including Airbus and Boeing, are currently developing electric aircraft that are expected to be operational within the next decade. These planes will be powered by batteries and emit significantly less greenhouse gases compared to traditional jet fuel-powered aircraft. While there are still some technical challenges to be addressed, such as developing high-capacity batteries, experts are optimistic that electric planes will become a viable alternative to traditional aircraft in the future.
Electric Trucks and Sea Freight Goes Electric
Electric trucks are also becoming increasingly common, particularly in the logistics industry. Companies such as Amazon and UPS have already begun to introduce electric delivery trucks, with the aim of reducing their carbon footprint and improving efficiency. Electric trucks have several advantages over traditional diesel-powered vehicles, including lower operating costs and reduced emissions.
Shipping freight is also undergoing significant changes as we move towards a more sustainable economy. One of the most promising developments in this area is the use of alternative fuels, such as biofuels and hydrogen, to power cargo ships. Several companies are already experimenting with these fuels, and some have even begun to build hybrid and electric-powered ships. For instance, Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, has committed to having carbon-neutral shipping by 2050 and is investing in renewable energy technologies such as biofuels and hydrogen.
In addition to alternative fuels, there is also growing interest in developing new shipping methods that prioritize sustainability. For instance, several companies are exploring the use of drones and autonomous ships for cargo transport. Drone use could significantly reduce emissions and operating costs. Another promising development is the use of container ships that can be powered by wind energy, such as the Skysails system, which uses large kites to harness wind power and reduce fuel consumption.
In the end, the future of transportation and logistics is headed towards a more sustainable direction. Expect to see electric-powered trains, planes, and trucks becoming increasingly common. Shipping freight is also undergoing significant changes as companies explore the use of alternative fuels and new shipping methods that prioritize sustainability. While there are still challenges to be addressed, such as developing high-capacity batteries, there is growing optimism. The transportation sector can become a key player in the transition to a more sustainable economy.