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What is Transport Geography? | The Geography of Transport Systems

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Transport geography is a sub-discipline of geography concerned about the mobility of people, freight and information and its spatial organization considering attributes and constraints related to the origin, destination, extent, nature and purpose of movements.

The unique purpose of transportation is to overcome space, which is shaped by a variety of human and physical constraints such as distance, time, administrative divisions and topography. Jointly, they confer a friction to any movement, commonly known as the friction of distance (or friction of space). In an ideal world, transportation would come at no effort in terms of cost and time and would have unlimited capacity and spatial reach. Under such circumstances, geography would not matter. In the real world, however, geography can be a significant constraint to transport since it trades space for time and money and can only be partially circumscribed. The extent to which this is done has a cost that varies greatly according to factors such as the length of the trip, the capacity of modes and infrastructures and the nature of what is being transported. Transport geography can be understood from a series of core principles:

  • Transportation is the spatial linking of a derived demand.
  • Distance is a relative concept involving space, time and effort.
  • Space is at the same time the generator, support and a constraint for mobility.
  • The relation between space and time can converge or diverge.
  • A location can be central, where it generates and attract traffic, or an intermediate element where traffic transits through.
  • To overcome geography, transportation must consume space.
  • Transportation seeks massification but is constrained by atomization.
  • Velocity is a modal, intermodal and managerial effort.

These principles underline that there would be no transportation without geography and there would be no geography without transportation. The goal of transportation is thus to transform the geographical attributes of freight, passengers or information, from an origin to a destination, conferring them an added value in the process. There are substantial operational differences between transportation modes, particularly between passengers and freight, which often operated separately. The convenience at which this can be done varies considerably and is commonly labeled as mobility.

Mobility The ease of a movement of a passenger or a unit of freight. It is related to transport costs as well as to the attributes of what is being transported (fragility, perishable, price). Political factors can also influence mobility such as laws, regulations, borders and tariffs. When mobility is high, activities are less constrained by distance.

Transportation is not necessarily a science, but a field of application borrowing concepts and methods from a wide variety of disciplines. The specific purpose of transportation is to fulfill a demand for mobility since transportation can only exist if it moves passengers, freight and information around. Otherwise, it has no purpose. This is because transportation is dominantly the outcome of a derived demand; it takes place because other activities are taking place. Distance, a core attribute of transportation, can be