Freight Transportation & the Economy


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 more than $6.7 trillion in 2018 (current U.S. dollars). Transportation equipment and structures (private and public) accounted for approximately 44.2 percent of the total U.S. assets in 2018. The components of transportation fixed assets and their 2018 values are private transportation equipment ($1.60 trillion), private transportation structures ($496 billion), and government transportation structures ($4.60 trillion).

Value of annual transportation infrastructure construction put in place

Federal, state, and local governments are a major source of funding for transportation infrastructure construction. In 2018 the value of government-funded transportation construction underway was nearly $125.7 billion, accounting for 88.3 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.

Gross domestic product (GDP) attributed to transportation by mode

Transportation’s total estimated contribution to U.S. GDP was $1,240.8 billion in 2018. For-hire transportation contributed $662.5 billion (3.2 percent) to U.S. GDP. In addition to using for-hire transportation services, many non-transportation industries also undertake transportation activities for their own purposes (called in-house transportation). In 2018, in-house transportation services (air, rail, truck, and water) contributed $229.8 billion (1.1 percent) to GDP. 
Trucking contributed the largest amount of all the freight modes, at $354.6 billion. For-hire transportation services contributed $163.7 billion while in-house trucking operations contributed $190.9 billion. In comparison, total household transportation’s contribution to GDP was $348.5 billion, larger than any of the other transportation modes.

Real quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) and Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI)

The Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI) measures the month-to-month volume of goods moved by the for-hire transportation industry, and the Gross domestic product (GDP) includes the monetary value of all goods and services produced within the U.S. The Freight TSI increased by 37.1 percent while the real GDP increased 41.6 percent between the third quarters of 2000 and 2018. The Freight TSI and GDP tend to rise and fall at the same time. The magnitude of growth and decline often is different because GDP includes many sectors besides transportation.

Freight Transportation Services Index (TSI) modal data

Trucking grew the fastest among the freight modes measured in the TSI. According to the American Railroad Association, rail intermodal growth was due largely to competitive pricing, track upgrades, and investment in rail intermodal terminals and other infrastructure. Rail carloads was the only mode to decline during this period.

Economic characteristics of transportation and warehousing establishments in freight-dominated modes

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.

Economic characteristics of freight railroads

In 2018, Class I freight and operating revenues increased 8.8 and 8.9 percent, respectively, over 2017 levels.  The $73.2 billion in freight revenue and $76.2 billion in operating revenue in 2018 represented respective increases of 121.1 and 123.5 percent since 2000.

Labor productivity in select transportation industries

Between 2000 and 2018, output-per-hour worked grew by 73.2 percent in air transportation and by 40.9 percent in line-haul railroading (line-haul railroads do not include switching and terminal operations or short-distance/local railroads). Long-distance, general-freight trucking output-per-hour worked grew by 24.6 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.)

Employment in for-hire transportation establishments primarily serving freight

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 2019, employment in the air transportation industry declined by 15.8 percent. Trucking in 2019 accounted for 27.3 percent of total transportation and warehousing sector employment.
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 3.13 million truck drivers in 2018; about 57.5 percent of these professionals drive heavy/tractor trailer trucks, 29.2 percent drive light/delivery service trucks, and about 13.3 percent are driver/sales workers.
Average hourly wages for different freight-related occupations vary widely. In 2018 ship engineers and captains and pilots of water vessels were among the highest paid freight transportation occupations.

Producer Price Indices (PPI) for select transportation services

From 2010 to 2019, the prices charged for transportation purchased from carriers and support activities have gone up in all industries shown in this table. Rail transportation prices increased by 26.6 percent while truck and air prices increased by 22.6 and 15.0 percent, respectively.

Monthly diesel and jet fuel prices

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 2016 both diesel and jet fuel prices declined before trending upward in October 2018 and have remained stable since then.

Recommended citation
U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Freight Facts and Figures (Washington, DC: 2019).

Freight Facts and Figures, developed by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, is a collection of charts and statistical tables about freight transportation in the United States. These interactive visualizations and tables provide a snapshot of freight movement; the extent, condition, and performance of the freight transportation system; the economic implications of freight movement; and the safety, energy, and environmental impacts of freight transportation.

More from Freight Facts & Figures 

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is the preeminent source of statistics on commercial aviation, multimodal freight activity, and transportation economics, and provides context to decision makers and the public for understanding statistics on transportation.