transportation geography

THE DISCIPLINE OF GEOGRAPHY aims to describe and explain the nature of spatial variation as observed on the Earth’s surface. There have been a number of ways proposed to divide the discipline, but in the end it is easy to see a HUMAN GEOGRAPHY (the human use of the Earth’s surface), a PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY (natural processes on the Earth’s surface), and an area where the interest is on the human-environment interface. There are also a whole series of techniques and tools for studying each of these subdivisions. Geographers analyze how human activities are distributed on the surface of the earth, why they are located where they are, and what implications stem from these distributions.

Just about everything in the world of geography has some relationship with transportation. The form and organization of both settlements and the production of goods is intimately and intricately linked to the ability to move people and commodities across space. It was the Greeks who believed that the origin, growth, and development of cities was a direct consequence of human wants and needs. Within this context, we can easily see that it is the existence of cities that creates a demand for transport. At the same time, the development of transport within a given region leads to two interesting outcomes.

transportation geography

On the one hand, transportation serves as a limit to the development of an area. It does this by establishing functional limits to movement of people and commodities within the city sphere. At the same time, the presence of operational limits plays a critical role in shaping the space these very limits bound. This impact is accomplished through a variety of social and economic feedback mechanisms. Looked at slightly differently, we might say that the size and scale of the any given region is directly related to the development of the transportation function within that region.

For most people living before the iNDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, life began and ended in one place. Communities were largely self-sufficient entities whose geographic boundaries (both physical and political) were generally determined by the distance one could easily walk. This kept most urban forms remarkably compact. It also makes it easy to see how the early development of both economic and political geography was closely tied to the CORE AND PERIPHERY concept. There was no public transport in cities at this time, and intercity travel was rough and restricted. As James Joyce indicated in The Story of Passenger Transport in Britain, travel during the Middle Ages meant that “you could easily trip into a ditch or get stuck in the mud, and you could easily lose your way along unmarked roads that took an indeterminate course across open and desolate countryside.”

If, on the other hand, you were a person of rank, you might just as well fall victim to some roadside thief ready to relieve you of any valuables as you made your way across the unprotected lands between urban centers. Even in some rural settings, the most honest of peasants might throw stones at you, not from any personal motives, but simply because you were a stranger. And in the age of isolation, strangers were never to be trusted.

Transportation is a fundamentally geographical phenomenon. But that does not mean that it does not reflect strong economic undertones. This becomes clear as soon as you remember that the focus of transportation is on the movement of people and commodities through space and thus through time. In simplest terms, transportation is connectivity. When connectivity isn’t important, there is little reason for transport ,and life goes on at singular locations. But once there is some reason for connection, a host of important factors come into play. Every movement starts somewhere, ends somewhere, and follows a certain route through space and time. Every movement affects, and is affected by, conditions at the origin, the destination, and the various conditions that exist along the way.

Transportation, then, plays a significant role in the development of space as both a factor and a process. As such, the study of transportation must take place across a range of spatial scales, from local to regional to global and across a range of purposes, from social, to commercial, to military.

It has been common to place transportation geography within the broader human geographic context. This is because its conceptual framework is centered human activity within a context of overcoming space subject to various physical geographic limitations. Transportation geography is generally considered to have two operating themes. The first focuses on transportation and its role in the organization of space. That is, how transportation has affected the shape and character of a place and how it has given place meaning. The best example of this comes from just saying “San Francisco”; most of us first think of the hills and the trolley cars that operate there or perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge.

Or one might think of Lombard Street with its numerous turns back and forth across a fairly steep landscape. Say “Venice” (ITALY) and most people think of canals and interesting river taxis. This, then, is the context within which transportation begins to shape a landscape and help give it meaning as place. This category can in turn be subdivided into how transportation is organized geographically and how transportation organizes other human activities. Examples of the former (spatial organization of transportation) include networks, corridors, hierarchies, hinterlands, inter-modal connections, and so on. Examples of the latter (spatial aspects of human society and economy that affect and are affected by transportation) include land use patterns, industrial location, urban hierarchies, information flows, shopping, regional development, trade, and the natural environment.


This spatially focused theme of transportation geography played a major role in the development of location theory as a field of inquiry in the early 20th century. Location theorists wanted to develop models that could explain the location of cities and believed that by understanding the where, why, and when of economic location they might come to understand the spatial context of the system of cities and thus predict future locations of human activity. Several distinctly different approaches are used to describe and explain transportation and spatial organization.

One approach is to build conceptual theories and graphic models as a basis for understanding the processes that lead to given spatial outcomes. The second approach is historical and therefore has an interest in both descriptive and process activities as seen through existing patterns and the relationships between them. There is also a third approach that is empirical, that is, data collection, mapping, graphing, statistical analysis, and so on.

The second theme of transportation geography is the one applied to real-world problem-solving needs. This approach, which is heavily but not exclusively quantitative, overlaps with the disciplines of land use planning, business and industrial location, and engineering. It is common for transportation geographers to use a number of basic transportation models to deal with fundamentally geographic questions. Important questions include topics such as where is traffic generated and where does it go, what mode or means of transport is chosen, what routes are/could be/should be followed, where are networks constructed, and where are activities located.

Most of these questions can be addressed with various kinds of models including descriptive models (where is it?), explanatory models (why there?), predictive models (where will it?), and prescriptive (where should it?). GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEMS (GIS) are widely used as a platform for many geographic transportation models, as is increasing use of global positioning systems (GPS). This branch of transportation geography has become one of the fasting-growing fields recently, although you may see it under a different name. Today, we often use the term logistics to refer to this quantitative side of transportation and transportation analysis.

Each of these approaches is, in its own distinct way, an attempt to tell a story about the effect transportation has on spatial patterns and relationships within any geographic space. It is important to remember that technology plays a critical role in transportation geography and the influence transportation has on the organization of human space. The primary result of technological advances that take place in transportation is that they redefine space. It took Marco POLO and his uncle four years to travel to CHINA. Today, we can board an airplane in Rome and land in BEIJING in 6 hours or so.

This influence is also not limited to just physical things. Improvements in transportation technology also influence communication. In the 21st century, the transportation of ideas has become just as significant as the movement of goods. And there are some that might say it is even more important, for it is through the influence of transportation that all territory is described and ultimately limited, whether national or commercial in character.


Movements between one place and another are dependent upon the existence of transportation routes or networks, where the networks contain a number of nodes (place points). Geographically, each node represents either a place, some starting point of destination and intersections, usually considered as intervening opportunities in the sense that you have a choice to make about how to proceed. There is also the set of links (lines) that exist between each node and each intersection. There could be any number of these depending on their uniqueness or importance, but they all represent the paths available for travel from one place to another.

Transportation networks have four spatial characteristics. One is network deviousness, or the degree to which the lengths of the individual links differ from the straight line distances between the places being linked together. Another characteristic is network density, or the number of routes in the area. In transportation studies, density refers to both the number and the length of the routes available. This implies that the size of the area is important, as are any physical barriers that may exist such that deviousness is also affected.

Also important are the mode of transportation being considered and the size and scale of economic development. Connectivity refers to the degree to which direct movements are possible over the network. Networks that are most connected are those in which the directness of routes joining up pairs of places is maximized. More connected networks tend to consist of circuit networks in which there is more than one path or route between places.

Less connected networks tend to be dominated by branching networks or trees in which there is only one possible path between places. Connectivity is typically related to the size (and attractiveness) of the area being connected and the degree of economic development. Hierarchy is the recognition that certain nodes and certain links in the network are more important than others. This hierarchy develops as a result of development and the economic specialization of the economic landscape that ensues.

Transportation pricing usually reflects one of three approaches: F.O.B., C.I.F. or basing point. F.O.B. stands for free on board and represents a situation where the purchaser pays the transport cost; that is, the price of the product is its market price plus transportation cost.

C.I.F. stands for cost, insurance, and freight and occurs when the seller assumes the transportation cost generally and one uniform price exists in the market. C.I.F. usually occurs because there is a large volume of sales, it permits competition across all markets, and some firms do not like to compete on a price basis, marketing other factors as important.

Basing point is a practice where the transport charges are established from a particular point in a zone or a region. Such a price scheme is legal as long as the purchaser has the option of buying F.O.B. and sellers do not collude (previously agree) about the base price. Generally, transportation costs are based on two charges. Terminal charges represent the cost of loading and unloading the carrier, while line-haul costs are associated with transporting the commodity from its origin to its destination.