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Freight Facts & Figures 2017 - Chapter 5: Economic Characteristics of the Freight Transportation Industry

The transportation sector is an integral part of the U.S. economy. It employs millions of people and comprises 8.9 percent of the Nation’s economic activity as measured by gross domestic product (GDP).

Fixed transportation assets reflect the important role of both the public and private sectors in moving freight. Freight railroad facilities and services are almost entirely private, while private-sector trucks operate over public highways. Air-cargo services in the private sector operate in public airways and mostly public airports, and ships in the private sector serve public waterways and both public and private port facilities. Pipelines are mostly privately owned, although significantly controlled by public regulation. In the public sector, virtually all truck routes are owned and maintained by state or local governments. Airports and harbors are typically owned by public authorities, although terminals are usually owned or managed by private operators. Air and water navigation is mostly controlled by the Federal Government, and safety is regulated by all levels of government. Total private and public fixed assets grew from about $4.9 trillion in 2010 to nearly $6.0 trillion in 2015 (current U.S. dollars). Transportation equipment and structures (private and public) accounted for approximately 43.2 percent of the total U.S. assets in 2015. The components of transportation fixed assets and their 2015 values are private transportation equipment ($1.4 trillion), private transportation structures ($457 billion), and government transportation structures ($4.1 trillion).

Table 5-1

Federal, state, and local governments are a major source of funding for transportation infrastructure construction. In 2016 the value of government-funded transportation construction underway was $121.6 billion, accounting for 90.7 percent of total spending on transportation construction. Approximately three-fourths of public sector funding went to highways and streets; the remainder supported the construction of airport terminals and runways, transit and water transportation facilities, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Figure 5-1

In addition to using for-hire transportation services, many nontransportation industries also undertake transportation activities for their own purposes (called in-house transportation). 

Transportation’s total estimated contribution was $972.4 billion for 2015. For-hire transportation contributed $482.3 billion (2.6 percent) to the U.S. GDP of $18.4 trillion. Transportation services (air, rail, truck, and water) provided by nontransportation industries for their own use (in-house transportation) contributed an additional $169.9 billion (0.9 percent). Total household transportation (i.e., the depreciation cost associated with households owning motor vehicles) contributed $320.2 billion (1.7 percent). Total household transportation’s contribution to GDP was larger than any of the other transportation modes. Trucking contributed the second largest amount, at $281.4 billion. In-house truck transportation operations contributed $138.4 billion, while for-hire truck transportation services contributed $143.0 billion.

Figure 5-2


NOTES: (a) In-house transportation consists of the services provided by nontransportation industries, including households, for their use. Business in-house transportation includes privately owned and operated vehicles of all body types, used primarily on public rights of way, and the supportive services to store, maintain, and operate those vehicles. Household transportation covers transportation provided by households for their own use through the use of an automobile. (b) For-hire transportation consists of the services provided by transportation firms to industries and the public on a fee-basis. (c) Other for-hire transportation includes: pipeline, transit and ground passenger transportation, including State and local government passenger transit; sightseeing transportation and transportation support; courier and messenger services; and warehousing and storage. (d) Gross domestic product (GDP) increased from value reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in I-O use table by total output from the household production of transportation services.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Transportation Satellite Accounts, available at, as of May 2017.

The gross domestic product (GDP) includes monetary value of all goods and services produced within the United States. Between the first quarters of 2000 and 2017, real GDP increased 36.4 percent, and BTS’s freight Transportation Services Index (TSI) increased by 17.8 percent. However, due to the recession, GDP decreased 3.6 percent from the first quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009, and the freight TSI decreased 14.6 percent. Both measures have since recovered to prerecession levels. GDP includes many sectors besides transportation, thus the magnitude of changes in GDP are not directly reflected in the TSI although their trends may be similar.

Figure 5-3

The freight industry has many components, encompassing companies large and small. All told there were nearly 214,000 transportation and warehousing establishments (excluding rail) in 2012, with more than one-half of those primarily engaged in trucking. Revenue generated by trucking accounted for 32.6 percent of transportation and warehousing sector revenue, while warehousing accounted for a small percentage of the total.

Table 5-2

Class I freight and operating revenues in 2015 dropped 8.1 and 7.7 percent, respectively, from 2014. Its 69.0 and 71.7 billion dollar collection of revenues in 2015 represented an increase of 108.6 and 110.3 percent since 2000. 

Table 5-3

Between 1990 and 2016, output-per-hour worked more than doubled in line-haul railroading and the air transport industry (line-haul railroads do not include switching and terminal operations or short-distance/local railroads). Long-distance, general-freight trucking grew by 41.4 percent over the same period (long-distance, general-freight trucking establishments exclude local trucking and truck operators that require specialized equipment, such as flatbeds, tankers, or refrigerated trailers). 

Figure 5-4

Employment in the truck, rail, water, and pipeline industries has grown since 2000, while air transport has experienced a decline in the number of employees. Between 2000 and 2016, air transport employment declined by 22.5 percent. Trucking in 2015 accounted for nearly 29.2 percent of total transportation and warehousing sector employment.

Table 5-4

Freight transportation jobs are not limited to for-hire carriers. Truck driving is by far the largest freight transportation occupation in the United States, and many drivers work for retailers and other establishments with shipper-owned trucks. There were approximately 2.99 million truck drivers in 2016; about 57.0 percent of these professionals drive heavy/tractor trailer trucks, 28.7 percent drive light/delivery service trucks, and about 14.3 percent are driver/sales workers. 

Table 5-5

Average hourly wages for different freight-related occupations vary widely. In 2016 ship engineers and captains and pilots of water vessels were among the highest paid freight transportation occupations.

Table 5-6

From 2010 to 2016, the prices charged for transportation purchased from carriers and support activities have gone up in all industries shown in table 5-7. Rail transportation prices increased by 12.4 percent and air prices by 6.8 percent. 

Table 5-7

Prices for diesel and jet fuel peaked in summer 2008, followed by a sharp decline during the economic recession. Between 2011 and 2014, diesel and jet fuel prices were relatively stable, with shorter term or less severe changes. In 2015 both diesel and jet fuel prices declined before trending upward in the first five months of 2016.

Figure 5-5

Updated: Friday, October 13, 2017