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Transportation in the United Statesmarker is facilitated by road, air, rail, and water networks. The vast majority of passenger travel occurs by automobile for shorter distances, and airplane for longer distances. In descending order, most cargoes travel by railroad, truck, pipeline, or boat; air shipping is typically used only for perishables and premium express shipments.

Ownership and jurisdiction

Roads accessible to the public are generally owned and maintained by the federal, state or local governments, though there are some private highways. The overwhelming majority of roads are maintained by state and local governments; the federal government directly maintains only roads on federal lands and at federal facilities (like military bases). However, many state highways, including those designated as part of the Interstate Highway System, are federal-aid highways funded by the federal government, which raises funding through its ability to impose uniform fuel and income taxes across the nation, and then exercises its powers under the federal Constitution's Spending and Commerce Clauses to disburse funds back to the states for the construction and maintenance of a uniform nationwide highway system.

There are both public and private owners of the country's many passenger and freight rail systems, bus systems, water ferries, and dams. Civilian airlines are all privately owned and financed. Many airports are owned and operated by local governments, but there are also smaller private airports. The Transportation Security Administration has provided security at most major airports since 2001.

The United States Department of Transportation and its divisions provide regulation, supervision, and funding for all aspects of transportation, except for customs, immigration, and security, which are the responsibility of the United States Department of Homeland Securitymarker. Each state has its own Department of Transportation, which builds and maintains state highways, and depending upon the state, may either directly operate other modes of transportation or may merely supervise the operation of such systems.

Aviation law is almost entirely a federal matter, while automobile traffic laws are enforced by state and local police. Economic jurisdiction over the tidelands is shared between the state and federal governments, while the United States Coast Guard is the primary enforcer of maritime law and security.

Mode share

In most American cities, the majority of commutes are made by singly-occupied automobiles.


Mode of passenger transport Passenger-miles
Highway — total 4,884,557 88.79%
Passenger vehicles, motorcycles 4,520,810 82.18%
Trucks 222,836 4.05%
Buses 162,908 2.96%
Air Carriers 583,689 10.61%
Rail — total 30,972 0.56%
Transit 16,118 0.29%
Commuter 9,473 0.17%
Intercity/Amtrak 5,381 0.10%
All other modes (e.g., ferryboats) 2,091 0.04%
Source: 2005 estimates by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Passenger transportation is dominated by a network of over 3.9 million miles of highways which is pervasive and highly developed by global standards. Passenger transportation is dominated by passenger vehicles (including cars, trucks, vans, and motorcycles), which account for 86% of passenger-miles traveled. The remaining 14% was handled by planes, trains, and buses.

As of 2003, there were 759 automobiles per 1,000 Americans, compared to 472 per 1,000 inhabitants of the European Union the following year. The U.S. intercity passenger rail system is relatively weak. Bicycle usage is minimal.


Mode of intercity
freight transport
Ton-miles (millions) Percent
Air 15,731 0.35%
Truck 1,293,326 28.50%
Railroad 1,733,777 38.21%
Domestic water transportation 591,276 13.03%
Coastwise 263,464 5.81%
Lakewise 51,924 1.14%
Internal 274,367 6.05%
Intraport 1,521 0.03%
Pipeline 903,811 19.92%
Oil and oil products 572,000 12.60%
Natural Gas 331,811 7.31%
Source: 2005 estimates by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics

By contrast, freight transportation is handled by a variety of networks. The largest carriers of freight, by weight, are trucks (60%), followed by pipelines (18%), rail (10%), ship (8%), and air (0.01%). Other modes of transportation such as parcel and intermodal accounted for about 3% of the remainder. Planes are commonly used only for perishables and premium express shipments. The difference in percentage of train's share by ton-miles and by weight (10% vs 38%) is accounted for by the extreme efficiency of trains. A train can pull fifty boxcars full of freight while a truck only pulls one. Trucks surpass trains in the weight category due to the large numbers of them, while trains surpass trucks in the ton-miles category due to the vast distances they travel while carrying large amounts of freight.

Usually cargo, apart from petroleum and other bulk commodities, is imported in containers through seaports, then distributed by road and rail. The quasi-governmental United States Postal Service has a monopoly on letter delivery (except for express services) but several large private companies such as FedEx and UPSmarker compete in the package and cargo delivery market.
Truck transport in Eastern Washington


With any transportation decision, speed to destination is an important factor in choosing any particular type of infrastructure. Overland transportation in the late 18th century was by horse, and water and river transportation was primarily by sailing vessel. The United States population was centered on its Atlantic coast, with all major population centers located on a natural harbor or navigable waterway. Low population density between these centers resulted in heavily reliance on coastwise and riverboat shipping. The first government expenditures on highway transportation were funded to speed the delivery of overland mail, such as the Boston Post Road between New York City and Boston. Due to the distance between these population centers and the cost to maintain the road, many highways in the late 18th century and early 19th century were private (i.e Plank roads and other turnpikes). Most highways, however, were unimproved and impassable at least some of the year by wagon. Economic expansion in the late 18th century to early 19th century spurred the building of canals to speed goods to market, of which the most prominently successful example was the Erie Canal.

Railroads brought the canal boom to a sudden end, providing a quick, scheduled and year round transport which quickly spread to interconnect the states by the end of the 19th century. As part of the industrialization of the United States after the Civil War, railroads, led by the transcontinental rail system in the 1860s, expanded quickly across the United States to serve industries and the growing cities. During the late 19th century, railroads often built redundant routes to a competitor’s road or built through sparsely populated regions that generated little traffic. These marginal rail routes survived the pricing pressures of competition, or the lack of revenue generated by low traffic, as long as railroads provided the only efficient economical way to move goods and people across the United States. In addition to the intercity passenger network running on Class I and II railroads, a large network of interurban (trolley or "street running") rail lines extended out from the cities and interchanged passenger and freight traffic with the railroads and also provided competition.

The advent of the automobile signaled the end of railroads as the predominant transportation for people and began an era of mobility in the United States that added greatly to its economic output. The early 20th century Lincoln Highway and other auto trails gave way in the 1920s to an early national highway system making the automobile a preferable way to travel for most Americans. Interurban rail service declined, followed by trolley cars due in part to the advent of motorized busses and the lack of dedicated rights-of-way but also by deliberate efforts to dismantle urban rail infrastructure (see Great American streetcar scandal). The scarcity of industrial materials during World War Two slowed the growth of the automobile, briefly reemphasizing much of the nation's declining rail network. In the 1950s, the United States renewed building a network of high-capacity, high-speed highways to link its vast territory. The most important element is the Interstate Highway system, first commissioned in the 1950s by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and modeled after the German Autobahn system.

With the advent of commercial airline industry, intercity rail began to suffer a loss of ridership. As the civil air transportation network of airports and other infrastructure expanded, air travel became more accessible to the general population of the United States. Technological advances ushered in the jet age, which increased airline capacity, while decreasing travel times and the cost of flights. The economical efficiency of flying severely decreased intercity rail ridership by the late 1960s to a point where railroads could no longer profitably operate their network of passenger trains. By the early 1970s almost all passenger rail operation and ownership had been transferred to various municipal, state and federal agencies. Rail transportation in the United States remains heavily subsidized as a percentage of cost of the ticket.

Railroads continued to decline as motor freight captured a significant portion of the less-than-carload business. This loss of business, when combined the highly regulated operating environment and constrained pricing power, forced many railroads into receivership and the nationalization of several critical carriers into the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). Deregulation of the railroad industry with the Staggers Act in 1980 created a regulatory environment more favorable to the economics of the railroad industry. In the 1990s, the increase in foreign trade and intermodal shipping containers led to a revival of the freight railroads, which have effectively consolidated into two eastern and two western private transportation networks: Union Pacific and BNSF in the west, and CSX and Norfolk Southern in the east.

Wartime expediency encouraged long distance pipeline transport, which was greatly expanded in the middle 20th century to take over most of the domestic long-haul market.

Road transportation

Infrastructure and private automobile use

In comparison to most of the Western world, the United States relies much more heavily on its roads both for commercial and personal transit. Car ownership is nearly universal except in few of the largest cities where extensive mass transit systems have been built.

With the creation of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in the 1950s, both long-distance trips and daily commutes became dominated by private automobile usage. This network of freeways meets federal standards and receives substantial federal funding and is particularly well-developed. The entire system, , has a total length of 46,837 miles (75,376 km), making it both the largest expressway system in the world and the largest public works project in US history.

The Interstate system is a part of a larger National Highway System, comprising 160,000 miles (256,000 kilometers) of roadway, a fraction of the total mileage of roads. The system serves nearly all major US cities. Many Interstates pass, sometimes with controversy, through downtown areas. The distribution of virtually all goods and services involves Interstate highways at some point. Residents of American cities commonly use urban Interstates to travel to their places of work. The vast majority of long-distance travel, whether for vacation or business, uses the national road network; of these trips, about one-third (by the total number of miles driven in the country in 2003) utilize the Interstate system.

In addition to the routes of the Interstate system, there are those of the US Highway system, not to be confused with the above mentioned National Highway System. These networks are further supplemented by the individual networks of State Highways, and other jurisdictional highways such as those of counties, municipal streets, or federal agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Altogether there are more than 4,209,835 km of paved roads in the U.S. (including 75,040 km of expressways), and 2,255,964 km of unpaved roads.

All highways are maintained by state governments, although they receive federal aid to build and maintain freeways signed as part of the 46,000 mile (75,000 km) nationwide Interstate highway network. A large number of expressways are actually government-operated toll roads in most East Coast and Midwest states. West Coast freeways are generally free to users (no toll charged per use), although since the 1990s there have been some small experiments with toll roads operated by private companies.

After the collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridgemarker in Minnesota in August 2007, the backlog of road and especially bridge maintenance across the country became a prominent political issue.

Intercity bus

Greyhound Lines is the largest intercity bus company in the United States, with routes in all parts of the continental U.S.. There are also many smaller regional bus companies, many of which use the terminal and booking facilities provided by Greyhound. The bus is, in most cases, the least expensive way to travel long distances in the United States.


Traffic congestion, especially at rush hour, is a problem in many of the country's larger cities.


The trucking industry provides an essential service to the American economy by transporting large quantities of raw materials, works in process, and finished goods over land, typically from manufacturing plants to retail distribution centers. Trucks are also vitally important to the construction industry, as dump trucks and portable concrete mixers are necessary to move the large amounts of rocks, dirt, concrete, and other building materials used in construction.

In modern times, railroads are primarily used to haul bulk quantities of cargo over long distances. Unless a manufacturing facility has a direct connection to the railroad, the remainder of the trip must be handled by truck. With today's demand for "just in time" freight, shipment by rail cannot meet the rapid and flexible demands of America's modern industry.

Roadway links with adjacent countries and non-contiguous parts of the US

Air transportation

The United States has advanced air transportation infrastructure which utilizes approximately 5,000 paved runways. In terms of passengers, seventeen of the world's thirty busiest airports in 2004 were in the U.S., including the world's busiest, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airportmarker. In terms of cargo, in the same year, twelve of the world's thirty busiest airports were in the U.S., including the world's busiest, Memphis International Airportmarker. Private aircraft are also used for medical emergencies, government agencies, large businesses, and individuals, see general aviation).

Due to the size of the United States and the generally large distance between major cities, air transportation is the preferred method of travel for trips over 300 miles, such as for business travelers and long distance vacation travelers. For cities closer together, such as Bostonmarker and New York Citymarker, New York and Washington D.C.marker, and Philadelphiamarker and D.C., air travel does not carry a majority of intercity traffic.

There is no single national flag airline; passenger airlines in the United States are completely privatized. There are over 200 domestic passenger and cargo airlines and a number of international carriers. There is currently no direct government regulation of ticket pricing, although the federal government retains jurisdiction over aircraft safety, pilot training, and accident investigations (through the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board). The Transportation Security Administration provides security at airports.

With numerous airlines competing for traffic on the same intercity pairs (routes), ticket prices tend to be very competitive between carriers resulting in low industry profit margins. This has made the airline industry prone to bankruptcy due to ridership declines precipitated by economic recessions or other events such as the September 11th terrorist attacks. The industry primarily operates on a "Hub and Spoke" system. In the hub and spoke model, a given airline has a predominate operating position out of a given airport, and feeds passengers to and from the hub as a way of maximizing the number of passengers on a given flight. Examples of airline hubs include Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, US Airways in Charlotte or American Airlines in Dallas.

Public airports are usually constructed and operated by local governments (the main exceptions are federal military bases). Like rail and highway systems, the federal government subsidizes air travel with $14 billion of federal funds going to airport operations in 2002.

Air cargo comprises a large number of daily flights in the United States and are operated by private parcel companies such as FedEx and United Parcel Servicemarker. These organizations operate some of the largest fleets in the world. Most air cargo moved by these organizations is time sensitive overnight and 2nd day parcels. The U.S. Postal Service also moves much of its letters and time sensitive parcels via air, but on regularly scheduled passenger flights. At one time the U.S. Mail charged a premium for letters sent by airmail, but no longer does (excepting time sensitive parcels).


Ranking of Major Airports by Lowest

On-Time Arrival Performance (2007)
Airport % on time
LaGuardiamarker 58.48
Newarkmarker 59.45
JFKmarker 62.84
Chicago O'Haremarker 65.88
Philadelphiamarker 66.54
Boston Loganmarker 69.68
San Franciscomarker 69.75
Miamimarker 70.99
Charlotte Douglasmarker 71.30
Seattle-Tacomamarker 71.43
Largest 32 airports average 73.03
Airline delays have been the subject of some controversy, prompting a GAO audit and Congressional debate in 2007-08.

Roughly one in four passengers experienced a passenger trip delay in 2007 and the average duration of delay experienced by these passengers was 1 hour 54 minutes. 24% of flights were delayed and 2% were cancelled entirely. Overall, passengers were delayed 320 million hours in 2007 with an estimated deadweight economic loss of up to $41 billion.

An average of 40% of passenger aircraft delays in the U.S. originated in the New York metropolitan area, some in the area and others due to cascading effects. One-third of aircraft in the national airspace system move through the New York area at some point during a typical day.

Takeoff and landing scheduling caps have been imposed on Washington Reagan National, Chicago O'Hare, and the three New York airports at various times since 1968, and are one of the mitigation measures in place as of 2008. Other short-term measures have been taken, including minor procedural changes, use of military airspace on peak travel days, and appointment of a "New York Airspace Czar" (Director for the New York Area Program Integration Office). The New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia airspace is being "redesigned" incrementally, with completion estimated in 2012. The Bush Administration has announced plans to auction some takeoff and landing slots at the New York airports, but in 2008, many members of Congress were skeptical of the plan.

Longer-term solutions include increasing capacity by building more runways, and implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System which would allow more direct flight paths.

Network statistics

  • Airports: 14,951 (2008 est.)

  • Airports with paved runways:
    • Total: 5,146
    • Over 10,000 ft: (3,047 m): 190
    • 8,000 ft (2,438 m) to 10,000 ft (3,047 m): 227
    • 5,000 ft (1,524 m) to 8,000 ft (2,437 m): 1,464
    • 3,000 ft (914 m) to 5,000 ft (1,523 m): 2,307
    • under 3,000 ft (914 m): 958 (1999 est.)

  • Airports with unpaved runways:
    • Total: 9,805
    • 8,000 ft (2,438 m) to 10,000 ft (3,047 m): (2,437 m): 6
    • 5,000 ft (1,524 m) to 8,000 ft (2,437 m): 156
    • 3,000 ft (914 m) to 5,000 ft (1,523 m): 1,734
    • Under 3,000 ft (914 m): 7,909 (1999 est.)



Grand Central Terminal, New York City

Passenger trains were formerly a dominant mode of transportation, up until the mid-twentieth century. The introduction of jet airplanes on major U.S. routes and the completion of the Interstate Highway system accelerated a decline in intercity rail passenger demand during the 1960s, resulting in the sharp curtailment of passenger service by private railroads. This led to the creation of National Railroad Passenger Corporation (branded as Amtrak) by the Federal Government in 1971 to maintain limited intercity rail passenger service in most parts of the country. Amtrak serves most major cities but, especially in parts of the west, often by only one or two trains per day. (It does not, however, send any trains to Las Vegas, Nevadamarker or Phoenix, Arizonamarker.) More frequent service is available in regional corridors between major cities, particularly the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C.marker, New York Citymarker and Bostonmarker, between New York Citymarker and Albanymarker, around Chicagomarker, and in parts of Californiamarker and the Pacific Northwest. The federal government provides an annual subsidy, which was $521 million in 2002.


The U.S. makes extensive use of its rail system for freight, according to the American Association of Railroads: "U.S. freight railroads are the world's busiest, moving more freight than any rail system in any other country. In fact, U.S. railroads move more than four times as much freight as do all of Western Europe's freight railroads combined."

Nearly all railroad corridors (not including local transit rail systems) are owned by private companies, which provide freight service. Amtrak pays these companies for the rights to use the tracks for passenger service. There are approximately 150,000 mi (240,000 km) of mainline rail routes in the United States — the world's longest national railroad network (although not its densest, a position belonging to Central European countries). See List of United States railroads

Freight rail transportation in Chicago is a major national bottleneck (about one-third of the nation's freight trains pass through the region), and the subject of a $1.5B infrastructure improvement project.

Railway links with adjacent countries

The rail gauge is standard gauge , except for Russia, which is broad gauge 1520 mm (4 ft 11  in). Another exception is the gauge White Pass and Yukon Route from Skagwaymarker, Alaskamarker to Whitehorsemarker, Yukonmarker by way of Bennettmarker, British Columbiamarker.

Mass transit

30th Street Station, Philadelphia

The number of miles traveled by vehicles in the United States fell by 3.6% in 2008, while the number of trips taken on mass transit increased by 4.0%. At least part of the drop in urban driving can be explained by the 4% increase in the use of public transportation.

Most medium-sized cities have some sort of local public transportation, usually a network of fixed bus routes. Larger cities tend to have metro rail systems (also known as heavy rail in the U.S.) and/or light rail systems for high-capacity passenger service within the urban area.


On June 26, 2008, the House passed the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act (H.R. 6052), which gives grants to mass transit authorities to lower fares for commuters pinched at the pump and expand transit services. The bill also:

  • Requires that all Federal agencies offer their employees transit pass transportation fringe benefits. Federal agencies within the National Capital Region have successful transit pass benefits programs.
  • Increases the Federal cost-share of grants for construction of additional parking facilities at the end of subway lines from 80 to 100 percent to cover an increase in the number of people taking mass transit.
  • Creates a pilot program for vanpool demonstration projects in urban and rural areas.
  • Increases federal help for local governments to purchase alternative fuel buses, locomotives and ferries from 90 to 100 percent.

Water transportation

Water transport is largely used for freight. Fishing and pleasure boats are numerous, and passenger service connects many of the nation's islands and remote coastal areas, crosses lakes, rivers, and harbors, and provides alternative access to Alaskamarker which bypasses Canadamarker.Several major seaports in the United States include New York to the east, Houston and New Orleans on the gulf coast, Los Angeles to the west. The interior of the U.S. also has major shipping channels, via the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi River. The first water link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, the Erie Canal, allowed the rapid expansion of agriculture and industry in the Midwest and made New York City the economic center of the country.


The United States has of navigable inland channels (rivers and canals), exclusive of the Great Lakesmarker. Out of this is used in commerce. Saint Lawrence Seaway of , including the Saint Lawrence River of , shared with Canada.

Ports and harbors

United States ports and harbors include:

Merchant marine

Most US exports and imports are on foreign ships. The Jones Act bars foreign ships from US internal trade, thus creating this "Jones Act fleet".

Ferry service is available in many parts of the country, including the Great Lakesmarker region, Washingtonmarker state, and the New York Citymarker area. Alaskamarker is served by long-distance ferry routes that connect it to the rest of the country, and connect remote areas not connected by roads.


The federal military has a dedicated system of bases with runways, aircraft, watercraft, conventional cars and trucks, and armored and special-purpose vehicles. During times of war, it may commandeer private infrastructure and vehicles as authorized by Congress and the President.

Pipeline statistics

  • Petroleum products: 224,620 km
  • Natural gas: 548,665 km (2006)


Most roads are free to drive on in a privately purchased or rented automobile or in a hired taxicab, but there are also some toll roads and toll bridges. Most other forms of transportation charge a fee for use.

Government funding of transportation exists at many levels. Federal funding for highway, rail, bus, water, air, and other forms of transportation is allocated by Congress for several years at a time. The current authorization bill is the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), which runs from 2005 to 2009. A Congressionally chartered committee is considering future funding issues.

Though earmarks are often made for specific projects, the allocation of most federal dollars is controlled by Metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and state governments. Usually "matching" funds are required from local sources. All projects have a sponsoring agency that will receive the funding from the various federal and local sources, and be responsible for implementing the project directly or through contracts. Large projects require a Major Investment Study and a both a Draft and a Final Environmental Impact Review. A patchwork of federal laws and accounts govern the allocation of federal transportation dollars, most of which is reserved for capital projects, not operating expenses. Some roads are federally designated as part of the National Highway System and get preferential funding as a result, but outside of Washington D.C., are not owned by the federal government.

State governments are sovereign entities which use their powers of taxation both to match federal grants, and provide for local transportation needs. Different states have different systems for dividing responsibility for funding and maintaining road and transit networks between the state department of transportation, counties, municipalities, and other entities. Typically large cities are responsible for local roads, finances with block grants and local property taxes, and the state is responsible for major roads that receive state and federally designations. Many mass transit agencies are quasi-independent and subsidized branches of a state, county, or city government.

Economic impact

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): "Transportation’s vital importance to the U.S. economy is underscored by the fact that more than $1 out of every $10 produced in the U.S. gross domestic product is related to transportation activity. This includes all aspects of transportation, including the movement of goods and the purchase of all transportation-related products and services as well as the movement of people." Employment in the transportation and material moving industry accounted for 7.4% of all employment, and was the 5th largest employment group in the United States.

Environmental impacts

Two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption is due to the transportation sector.
 The “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007” has a significant impact on U.S. Energy Policy. The US — an important export country for food stocks — will convert 18% of its grain output to ethanol in 2008. Across the US, 25% of the whole corn crop went to ethanol in 2007. The percentage of corn going to biofuel is expected to go up. In 2006, U.S. Senators introduced the BioFuels Security Act.

See also



All modes

Mass transportation


External links

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