B.1 – Teaching Transport Geography

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Transport geography has been part of the curriculum of many geography programs, providing significant conceptual and methodological contributions to the discipline and transportation studies.

1. Transport Geography Education

Transportation geography is not a science, but dominantly a field of application. Many spatial theories are relying on the concepts of distance, mobility, and accessibility, perspectives on which transport geography offers a solid background. More recently, transportation networks and spatial organization issues have been notable contributions by the discipline to understand contemporary economic and social processes. The core issue in transport geography education, like any discipline, is related to relevancy and coherence. How relevant are the concepts and methods that are being taught and how coherently they are explained? Substantiating this question requires a critical overview of concepts, theories, and methodologies in transport geography and how they fulfill the curriculum requirements and also societal needs.

The development of the modern transport geography curriculum began in the 1960s with Ned Taaffe and Howard Gauthier among the most significant contributors in the United States. This curriculum development, virtually from scratch, led to the seminal textbook, Geography of Transportation (1973), which brought rigor in the description and optimization of transport systems. Since then, transport geography education has evolved with the priorities and concerns of the public and private sectors, focusing increasingly on global issues, but still acknowledging that they are deeply rooted in the local. The importance of supply chain management and logistics is a reality of contemporary world economics. This leads to the provision of education in technical expertise related to information technology, inventory management, and transport management. The objective is to provide knowledge and skills across business areas and industrial sectors within a supply chain context. This situation is conducive to programs in transport management shifting towards logistics management. More importantly, transport geographers must be able to anticipate rather than follow policy needs.

Where transportation geography is taught significantly impacts the curriculum since the geographical setting changes the modal focus. Under such circumstances, transport geography education must reflect the realities of the regional transport system as it is optimally the market in which students will find potential employment. In the case of Hong Kong, rail transportation has little importance, and most of the focus is on public transit and international transportation issues. In the case of several European countries, the perspective tends to be more policy-oriented. European governments tend to have more direct involvement over their transport systems through public and semi-public agencies. Transport geographers can thus be involved in the decision-making process in the public and private sectors through policy evaluation and formulation. The European emphasis is fairly different from the more privately owned system in North America, where deregulation has been a dominant paradigm for the last 20 years.

2. Curriculum Approaches

The last 50 years have seen the creation of a solid curriculum in transport geography as a sub-discipline to human and economic geography. Expanding the transport geography curriculum into the 21st century will require continuing this tradition with new conceptual and methodological initiatives since new problems will arise, and new perspectives will be developed. To tackle these issues, a new generation of transportation geographers will obviously have to be trained with a particular emphasis on analytical and methodological perspectives. Economic integration and sustainability issues are receiving growing attention in the transport geography curriculum.

The quantitative revolution that spurred in the 1970s has led to a variety of methodological and technical dimensions in geographical education. Many of these have led to the mathematical abstraction and quantification of transport geography but may have substituted for relevance. Transport geography is a specialized part of spatial analysis and focused on the importance of integrating analytical tools in the curriculum. Many of the tools and methods traditionally used in transport geography, such as spatial interaction, accessibility, and network modeling, are now part of many GIS packages and readily available to investigate real-world problems. GIS-T has become a fundamental part of transport geography curriculums.

A look at geography curriculums also reveals two transport geographies, one general and the other urban. The latter comes from the growing influence of Urban Geography in geography curriculums and growing traffic problems in cities. However, urban freight is largely absent from the perspective. In contrast, general transport geography has a more balanced orientation between passengers and freight, although modally, there are differences, particularly if the approach switches to an extended geographical scale.

The development of concepts, theories, and methods is a collective undertaking that involves seeking a consensus about what is relevant but also what has lost its relevance. From this large pool of knowledge, the transport geographer brings coherence to a curriculum by making choices concerning what should be introduced in accordance with the requirements of a curriculum. This mainly involves three challenges:

  • Theoretical and conceptual. The core challenge of transport geography education is that it must underline how relevant are its theoretical and conceptual foundations in explaining contemporary events and processes. Prospects over this issue are very positive as empirical evidence underlines the growing mobility of people, freight, and information at all geographical scales. This is a good indication of the relevancy of transport geography, and it is thus important to ensure that it clearly gets conveyed to undergraduate audiences.
  • Methodological. Another important aspect of transport geography education obviously relies on how information is analyzed, which includes a wide array of methods ranging from qualitative policy analysis to quantitative operations research. Methodologies previously tended to be taught more from a technical perspective and often in a very abstract manner. As methodologies are merging with information technologies, there are opportunities to go beyond abstraction.
  • Technical and applied. This involves using technology to replicate techniques and their procedures, but also using technology for educational purposes. GIS-T remains a promising educational tool in transport geography, especially when used to demonstrate methodologies within simulations. Surprisingly and despite the emphasis educational technologies have received, their level of integration to transport geography education, even in its simplest form, remains fairly low.

Another challenge resides within the institutional structure, as transport geography remains what departments and programs commit to the discipline in terms of human and physical resources. This challenge is however linked to educational issues as a successful curriculum, however modest, promotes its own continuation and growth. The question remains how transport geographers, through their contribution to geographical education, will make sure the discipline receives a role proportional to its relevancy.

3. Transport Geography in the Classroom

Students being introduced to a discipline are particularly sensitive to new concepts, ideas, and fields of application brought in the classroom, which will challenge and even change their vision of the world. This does not exclude a strong emphasis, with demonstrations and case studies, that concepts and methodologies are mutually embedded in any scientific investigation. Then, it is for the student to make the strategic decision to pursue this investigation in upper-level classes and at the graduate level. This decision may rarely take place if relevancy and coherence are not efficiently provided. While relevance is the responsibility of the whole scientific community, coherence is assumed by individual transport geographers within the classroom. As always, pertinent material cannot compensate for lack of pedagogy.

The balance between concepts, methods, and applications is obviously the prerogative of the individual teacher to comply with a program’s stated objectives. Still, the following approaches can be suggested depending on the general types of transport geography classes:

  • General introductory courses. These transportation classes are generally offered to the undergraduate student population at large and tend to have no pre-requisites. Considering the wide variety of students’ backgrounds, they tend to be challenging classes but offer the possibility to attract students into a transportation or a geography program. Offering such courses should thus be seriously considered to place transportation issues within an academic community. Such classes should almost strictly focus on concepts by explaining the importance of transportation from the local to the global. A particular emphasis should be placed on presenting the relationships between transportation and geography, discussing its history, presenting major modes and terminals, as well as international and urban transportation systems. Methodological issues should not be discussed in detail, but how they are relevant to the discipline.
  • Specific introductory courses. Concern regular transport geography classes part of a geography curriculum. They are commonly offered at a more advanced level (e.g. second or third year) and thus assume that the students are already familiar with core geographical concepts linked to accessibility and spatial interactions. The goal is to expand these concepts through transportation issues with a balance between concepts and methodologies. If students have already received GIS training, it is possible to provide some GIS-T methodologies and exercises, but methods can still be solved “by hand” or using spreadsheets. This web site has specifically been designed for such a purpose and offers ample material to address a wide range of transport geography issues.
  • Topical intermediate courses. Concern specialized classes often focusing on methods and fields of application. Many have prerequisites linked with quantitative methods and GIS. They thus offer an opportunity to teach a selected group of students already familiar with transport a series of customized concepts and methods. In many programs, this is essentially a GIS-T class, but there are also opportunities to focus on topics such as supply chain management, urban transportation, transport policy or transportation, and land use.
  • Advanced courses. They tend to be seminars and offered to small groups of students, commonly at the graduate level. Many students come from different programs, such as economics, engineering, or political science, and will take such seminars to expand their knowledge and address their specific research topic. Paradoxically, these courses tend to be less methodologically oriented and focus more on policy and management issues. A good approach involves the analysis of advanced research papers selected to cover the students’ expressed interests. Students can be encouraged to develop projects in their fields of interest, leading to a variety of approaches ranging from advanced methodologies (with GIS-T) to content analysis that can be presented and debated at the seminar.

Related Topics


  • Rodrigue, J-P (2003) “Teaching Transport Geography: Conference Report and Viewpoint”, Journal of Transport Geography, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 73-75.