3.1 – Transportation and Economic Development

Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Theo Notteboom

The development of transportation systems is embedded within the scale and context in which they take place, from the local to the global and from environmental, historical, technological, and economic perspectives.

1. The Economic Importance of Transportation

Development can be defined as improving the welfare of a society through appropriate social, political, and economic conditions. The expected outcomes are quantitative and qualitative improvements in human capital (e.g. income and education levels) as well as physical capital such as infrastructures (utilities, transport, telecommunications).

The development of transportation systems takes place in a socioeconomic context. While development policies and strategies focus on physical capital, recent years have seen a better balance by including human capital issues. Irrespective of the relative importance of physical versus human capital, development cannot occur without their respective interactions, as infrastructures cannot remain effective without proper management, operations, and maintenance. At the same time, economic activities cannot take place without an infrastructure base. The highly transactional and service-oriented functions of many transport activities underline the complex relationship between its physical and human capital needs. For instance, effective logistics rely on infrastructures and managerial expertise.

Because of its intensive use of infrastructures, the transport sector is an important component of the economy and a common tool used for development. This is even more so in a global economy where economic opportunities have been increasingly related to the mobility of people and freight, including information and communication technologies. A relation between the quantity and quality of transport infrastructure and the level of economic development is apparent. High-density transport infrastructure and highly connected networks are commonly associated with high levels of development. When transport systems are efficient, they provide economic and social opportunities and benefits that result in positive multiplier effects, such as better accessibility to markets, employment, and additional investments. When transport systems are deficient in terms of capacity or reliability, they can have an economic cost, such as reduced or missed opportunities and lower quality of life.

At the aggregate level, efficient transportation reduces costs in many economic sectors, while inefficient transportation increases these costs. Besides, the impacts of transportation are not always intended and can have unforeseen or unintended consequences. For instance, congestion is often an unintended consequence of providing users with free or low-cost transport infrastructure. However, congestion also indicates a growing economy where capacity and infrastructure have difficulties keeping up with the rising mobility demands. Transport carries an important social and environmental load, which cannot be neglected.

Assessing the economic importance of transportation requires the categorization of the types of impacts it conveys. These involve core (the physical characteristics of transportation), operational and geographical dimensions:

  • Core. The most fundamental impacts of transportation-related to the physical capacity to convey passengers and goods and the associated costs to support this mobility. This involves setting routes enabling new or existing interactions between economic entities.
  • Operational. Improvement in the time performance, notably in terms of reliability, as well as reduced loss or damage. This implies a better utilization level of existing transportation assets benefiting its users as passengers and freight are conveyed more rapidly and with fewer delays.
  • Geographical. Access to a broader market base where economies of scale in production, distribution, and consumption can be improved. Increases in productivity from the access to a larger and more diverse base of inputs (raw materials, parts, energy, or labor) and broader markets for diverse outputs (intermediate and finished goods). Another important geographical impact concerns the influence of transport on the location of activities and its impacts on land values.

The economic importance of the transportation industry can thus be assessed from a macroeconomic and microeconomic perspective:

  • At the macroeconomic level (the importance of transportation for a whole economy), transportation and related mobility are linked to a level of output, employment, and income within a national economy. In many developed economies, transportation accounts for between 6% and 12% of the GDP. Further, logistics costs can account for between 6% and 25% of the GDP. The value of all transportation assets, including infrastructures and vehicles, can easily account for half the GDP of an advanced economy.
  • At the microeconomic level (the importance of transportation for specific parts of the economy), transportation is linked to producer, consumer, and distribution costs. The importance of specific transport activities and infrastructure can thus be assessed for each sector of the economy. Usually, higher income levels are associated with a greater share of transportation in consumption expenses. Transportation accounts for between 10% and 15% of household expenditures. In comparison, it accounts for around 4% of the costs of each unit of output in manufacturing, but this figure varies greatly according to sub-sectors.

The added value and employment effects of transport services usually extend beyond those generated by that activity; indirect effects are salient. For instance, transportation companies purchase some of their inputs (fuel, supplies, maintenance) from local suppliers. These inputs generate additional value-added and employment in the local economy. In turn, the suppliers purchase goods and services from other local firms. There are further rounds of local re-spending, which generate additional value-added and employment. Similarly, households that receive income from employment in transport activities spend some of their income on local goods and services. These purchases result in additional local jobs and added value, with some of the income from these additional jobs spent on local goods and services, thereby creating further jobs and income for local households. As a result of these successive rounds of re-spending in the framework of local purchases, the overall impact on the economy exceeds the initial round of output, income, and employment generated by passenger and freight transport activities. Thus, from a general standpoint, the economic impacts of transportation can be direct, indirect, and induced:

  • Direct impacts. The outcome of improved capacity and efficiency where transport provides employment, added value, larger markets, as well as time and cost improvements. The overall demand of an economy is increasing.
  • Indirect impacts. The outcome of improved accessibility and economies of scale. Indirect value-added and jobs result from local purchases by activities directly dependent upon transportation. Transport activities are responsible for a wide range of indirect value-added and employment effects through the linkages of transport with other economic sectors (e.g. office supply firms, equipment, and parts suppliers, maintenance and repair services, insurance companies, consulting, and other business services).
  • Induced impacts. The outcome of the economic multiplier effects when the price of commodities, goods, or services drops and their variety increases. For instance, the steel industry requires the cost-efficient import of iron ore and coal for blast furnaces and export activities for finished products such as steel booms and coils. Manufacturers, retail outlets, and distribution centers handling imported containerized cargo rely on efficient transport and seaport operations.

Transportation links together the factors of production in a complex web of relationships between producers and consumers. The outcome is commonly a more efficient division of production by the exploitation of comparative geographical advantages, as well as the means to develop economies of scale and scope. The productivity of space, capital, and labor is thus enhanced with the efficiency of distribution and personal mobility. Economic growth is increasingly linked with transport developments, namely infrastructures, but also with managerial expertise, which is crucial for logistics. Thus, although transportation is an infrastructure-intensive activity, hard assets must be supported by an array of soft assets, namely labor, management, and information systems. Decisions about using and operating transportation systems must be made to optimize benefits and minimize costs and inconvenience.

2. Transportation and Economic Opportunities

Transportation developments that have taken place since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have been linked to growing economic opportunities. At each development stage of the global economy, a particular transport technology has been developed or adapted with an array of impacts. Economic cycles are associated with a variety of innovations, including transportation, influencing economic opportunities for production, distribution, and consumption. Historically, six major waves of economic development where a specific transport technology created new economic, market, and social opportunities can be suggested:

  • Seaports. The historical importance of seaports in trade has been enduring. This importance was reinforced by the early stages of European expansion from the 16th to the 18th centuries, commonly known as the Age of Exploration. Seaports supported the early development of international trade through colonial empires but were constrained by limited inland access. Later in the industrial revolution, many ports became important industrial platforms. With globalization and containerization, seaports increased their importance in supporting global trade and supply chains. The cargo handled by seaports reflects the economic complexity of their hinterlands. Simple economies are usually associated with bulk cargoes, while complex economies generate more containerized flows. Technological and commercial developments have incited a greater reliance on the oceans as an economic and circulation space.
  • Rivers and canals. River trade has prevailed throughout history, and even canals were built where no significant altitude change existed since lock technology was rudimentary. The first stage of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was linked with the development of canal systems with locks in Western Europe and North America, mainly to transport heavy goods. This permitted the development of rudimentary and constrained inland distribution systems, many of which are still used today.
  • Railways. The second stage of the industrial revolution in the 19th century was linked with the development and implementation of rail systems, enabling more flexible and high-capacity inland transportation systems. This opened substantial economic and social opportunities through the extraction of resources, the settlement of regions, and the growing mobility of freight and passengers.
  • Roads. The 20th century saw the rapid development of comprehensive road transportation systems, such as national highway systems and automobile manufacturing, as a major economic sector. After the Second World War, individual transportation became widely available to mid-income social classes. This was associated with significant economic opportunities to service industrial and commercial markets with reliable door-to-door deliveries. The automobile also permitted new forms of social opportunities, particularly with suburbanization.
  • Airways and information technologies. The second half of the 20th century saw the development of global air and telecommunication networks in conjunction with economic globalization. New organizational and managerial forms became possible, especially in the rapidly developing realm of logistics and supply chain management. Although maritime transportation is the physical linchpin of globalization, air transportation and IT support the accelerated mobility of passengers, specialized cargoes, and their associated information flows.

No single transport mode has been solely responsible for economic growth. Instead, modes have been linked with the economic functions they support and the geography in which growth was taking place. The first trade routes established a rudimentary system of distribution and transactions that would eventually be expanded by long-distance maritime shipping networks and the setting of the first multinational corporations managing these flows. Major flows of international migration that occurred since the 18th century were linked with the expansion of international and continental transport systems that radically shaped emerging economies such as North America and Australia. Transport played a catalytic role in these migrations, transforming the economic and social geography of many nations.

Transportation has been a tool of territorial control, particularly during the colonial era, where resource-based transport systems supported the extraction of commodities in the developing world and forwarded them to the industrializing nations of the time. The goal to capture resource and market opportunities was a strong impetus in the setting and structure of transport networks. More recently, port development, particularly container ports, has been of strategic interest as a tool of integration into the global economy, as the case of China illustrates. There is a direct relationship, or coordination, between foreign trade and container port volumes, so container port development is commonly seen as a tool to capture the opportunities brought by globalization. The growth of container shipping has systematically been 3 to 4 times the GDP growth rate, underlining a significant multiplier effect between economic growth and container trade. However, this multiplying effect has substantially receded since 2009, underlining the maturity of the diffusion of containerization and its dissociation from economic growth.

Due to demographic pressures and urbanization, developing economies are characterized by a mismatch between the limited supply and growing demand for transport infrastructure. While some regions benefit from the development of transport systems, others are often marginalized by conditions in which inadequate transportation plays a role. Transport by itself is not a sufficient condition for development. However, the lack of transport infrastructures can be a constraining factor in development. The lack of transportation infrastructures and regulatory impediments are jointly impacting economic development by conferring higher transport costs, but also delays rendering supply chain management unreliable. A poor transport service level can negatively affect the competitiveness of regions and their economic activities and thus impair the regional added value, economic opportunities, and employment. Tools and measures are being developed to assess and compare the performance of national transportation systems. For instance, in 2007, the World Bank published its first-ever report ranking nations according to their logistics performance based on the Logistics Performance Index. Logistic performance is commonly associated with economic opportunities.

3. Economic Returns of Transport Investments

A common expectation is that transport investments will generate economic returns, which should justify the initial capital commitment in the long run. Like most infrastructure projects, transportation infrastructure can generate a 5 to 20% annual return on the capital invested, with such figures often used to promote and justify investments. However, transport investments tend to have declining marginal returns (diminishing returns). While initial infrastructure investments tend to have a high return since they provide an entirely new range of mobility options, the more the system is developed, the more likely additional investment would lower returns. The marginal returns can sometimes be close to zero or even negative. A common fallacy assumes that additional transport investments will have a similar multiplying effect than the initial investments had, which can lead to capital misallocation. The most common reasons for the declining marginal returns of transport investments are:

  • High accumulation of existing infrastructure. Where there is a high level of accessibility and where transportation networks are already extensive, further investments usually result in marginal improvements. This means that the economic impacts of transport investments tend to be significant when infrastructures were previously lacking and tend to be marginal when an extensive network is already present. Additional investments can thus have a limited impact outside convenience.
  • Economic changes. As economies develop, their function shifts from the primary (resource extraction) and secondary (manufacturing) sectors towards advanced manufacturing, distribution, and services. These sectors rely on different transport systems and capabilities. While an economy depending on manufacturing will rely on road, rail, and port infrastructures, a service economy is more oriented toward logistics and urban transportation efficiency. Transport infrastructure is important in all cases, but its relative importance in supporting the economy may shift.
  • Clustering. Due to clustering and agglomeration, several locations develop advantages that cannot be readily reversed through improvements in accessibility. Transportation can be a factor of concentration and dispersion depending on the context and the level of development. Less accessible regions do not necessarily benefit from transport investments if they are embedded in a system of unequal relations.

Therefore, each transport development project must be considered independently and contextually. Since transport infrastructures are capital-intensive fixed assets, they are particularly vulnerable to misallocations and malinvestments. The standard assumption is that transportation investments tend to be more wealth-producing than wealth-consuming investments such as services. Still, several transportation investments can be wealth consuming if they merely provide conveniences, such as parking and sidewalks, or service a market size well below any possible economic return, with, for instance, projects labeled “bridges to nowhere”. In such a context, transport investment projects can be counterproductive by draining the resources of an economy instead of creating wealth and additional opportunities.

Since many transport infrastructures are provided through public funds, they can be pressured by special interest groups, which can result in poor economic returns, even if those projects are often sold to the public as strong catalysts for growth. Further, large transportation projects, such as public transit, can have inadequate cost control mechanisms, implying systematic budget overruns. Infrastructure projects in the United States are particularly prone to these engineered fallacies. Efficient and sustainable transport markets and systems play a key role in regional development, although the causality between transport and wealth generation is not always clear. To better document and monitor the economic returns of transport investments, a series of indicators can be used, such as transportation prices and productivity. Investment in transport infrastructures is thus seen as a regional development tool, particularly in developing countries.

4. Types of Transportation Impacts

The relationship between transportation and economic development is difficult to establish formally and has been debated for many years. In some circumstances, transport investments appear to catalyze economic growth, while in others, economic growth puts pressure on existing transport infrastructures and incites additional investments. Transport markets and related transport infrastructure networks are key drivers in promoting more balanced and sustainable development, particularly by improving accessibility and opportunities for less-developed regions or disadvantaged social groups. Initially, there are different impacts on transport providers (transport companies) and transport users. There are several layers of activity that transportation can valorize, from a suitable location that experiences the development of its accessibility through infrastructure investment to better usage of existing transport assets through more efficient management. This is further nuanced by the nature, scale, and scope of possible impacts:

  • Timing of the development. The impacts of transportation can precede (lead), occur during (concomitantly), or take place after (lag) economic development. The lag, concomitant, and lead impacts make it difficult to separate the specific contributions of transport to development. Each case appears specific to a set of timing circumstances that are difficult to replicate elsewhere.
  • Types of impacts. They vary considerably as the spectrum ranges from positive to negative. Usually, transportation investments promote economic development, while in rarer cases, they may hinder a region by draining its resources in unproductive transportation projects.

Cycles of economic development provide a revealing conceptual perspective on how transport systems evolve in time and space, including the timing and nature of transport’s impact on economic development. This perspective underlines that after a phase of introduction and growth, a transport system will eventually reach maturity through geographical and market saturation. There is also the risk of overinvestment, particularly when economic growth is credit driven, which can lead to significant misallocations of capital. The outcome is surplus capacity in infrastructures and modes, creating deflationary pressures that undermine profitability. In periods of recession that commonly follow periods of expansion, transportation activities may experiment with a setback in terms of lower demand and a scarcity of capital investment. Because of their characteristics, several transport activities are highly synchronized with the level of economic activity. For instance, if rail freight or maritime rates were to decline rapidly, this could indicate deteriorating economic conditions.

Transport, as a technology, typically follows a path of experimentation, introduction, adoption, diffusion, and, finally, obsolescence, each of which impacts the rate of economic development. The most significant benefits and productivity gains are realized in the early to mid-diffusion phases, while later phases are facing diminishing returns. Containerization is a relevant example of such a diffusion behavior as its productivity benefits were mostly derived in the 1990s and 2000s when economic globalization was accelerating.

If relying upon new technologies, transportation investments can go through what is called a “hype phase” with unrealistic expectations about their potential and benefits. Some projects are eventually abandoned as the technology is ineffective at addressing market or operational requirements or is too expensive for its benefits. Since transportation is capital intensive, operators tend to be cautious before committing to new technologies and the significant sunk costs they require. This is particularly the case where transportation is capital-intensive and has a long lifespan. In addition, transport modes and infrastructures are depreciating assets that continuously require maintenance and upgrades. Eventually, their useful lifespan is exceeded, and the vehicle must be retired or the infrastructure rebuilt. Thus, the amortization of transport investments must consider the lifespan of the concerned mode or infrastructure.

5. Transportation as an Economic Factor

Contemporary trends have underlined that economic development has become less dependent on relations with the environment (resources) and more dependent on relations across space. While resources remain the foundation of economic activities, the commodification of the economy has been linked with higher levels of material flows. Concomitantly, resources, capital, and even labor have shown increasing levels of mobility. This is particularly the case for multinational firms that can benefit from transport improvements in two significant markets:

  • Commodity market. Improvements in the efficiency with which firms have access to raw materials and parts as well as to their respective customers. Thus, transportation expands opportunities to acquire and sell a variety of commodities necessary for industrial and manufacturing systems.
  • Labor market. Improvements in access to labor and a reduction in access costs, mainly by improved commuting (local scale) or the use of lower-cost labor (global scale).

Transportation provides market accessibility by linking producers and consumers so that transactions can occur. A common fallacy in assessing the importance and impact of transportation on the economy is to focus only on transportation costs, which tend to be relatively low; in the range of 5 to 10% of the value of a good. Transportation is an economic factor of production of goods and services, implying that it is fundamental in their generation, even if it accounts for a small share of input costs. This means that irrespective of the cost, an activity cannot take place without the transportation factor and the mobility it provides. Thus, relatively small transport costs, capacity, and performance changes can substantially impact dependent economic activities.

An efficient transport system with modern infrastructures favors many economic changes, most of them positive. The major impacts of transport on economic factors can be categorized as follows:

  • Geographic specialization. Improvements in transportation and communication favor a process of geographical specialization that increases productivity and spatial interactions. An economic entity tends to produce goods and services with the most appropriate combination of capital, labor, and raw materials. A region will thus tend to specialize in producing goods and services for which it has the greatest advantages (or the least disadvantages) compared to other regions as long as appropriate transport is available for trade. Through geographic specialization supported by efficient transportation, economic productivity is promoted. This process is known in economic theory as comparative advantages that have enabled the economic specialization of regions.
  • Scale and scope of production. An efficient transport system offering cost, time, and reliability advantages enables goods to be transported over longer distances. This facilitates mass production through economies of scale because larger markets can be accessed. The concept of “just-in-time” in supply chain management has further expanded the productivity of production and distribution with benefits such as lower inventory levels and better responses to shifting market conditions. Thus, the more efficient transportation becomes, the larger the markets that can be serviced, and the larger the scale of production. This results in lower unit costs.
  • Increased competition. When transport is efficient, the potential market for a given product (or service) increases, and so does competition. A wider array of goods and services becomes available to consumers through competition, reducing costs and promoting quality and innovation. Globalization has been associated with a competitive environment that spans the world and enables consumers to access a wider range of goods and services.
  • Increased land value. Land adjacent or serviced by good transport services generally has greater value due to its utility. Consumers can have access to a wider range of services and retail goods. In contrast, residents can have better accessibility to employment, services, and social networks, all of which result in higher land value. Irrespective of if used or not, the accessibility conveyed by transportation impacts the land value. In some cases, due to the externalities they generate, transportation activities can lower land value, particularly for residential activities. Land located near airports and highways, near noise and pollution sources, will thus be impacted by corresponding diminishing land value.

Transport also contributes to economic development through job creation and derived economic activities. Accordingly, many direct (freighters, managers, shippers) and indirect (insurance, finance, packaging, handling, travel agencies, transit operators) employment are associated with transport. Producers and consumers make economic decisions on products, markets, costs, location, and prices, which are based on transport services, availability, costs, capacity, and reliability.

Related Topics


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