Trains, Planes, and Automobiles

When many of us think about our nation’s large and robust transportation and warehousing sector, we think of large trucks on the highway, delivery confirmations on Amazon packages that couldn’t get here soon enough, and the mirage of a locomotive hurling down a narrow track. What many of us don’t consider is how vital this sector is, both to our everyday lives as consumers and our nation’s economy. I might be speaking for myself, but until digging deeper into this sector and its many industries for an ongoing project, I did not truly understand its tremendous role on the national stage.

The key to learning and understanding this industry is taking small bites, when you try to confront the complexities of this sector head-on, you might get dizzy. For instance, the device you are reading this on is the product of a masterfully created supply chain, orchestrated at the global scale. The many small parts that comprise our phones and computers have probably collectively taken more road trips and flights than we have in our lives. It is bewilderingly hard to comprehend how consumer products end up on store shelves or our doorstep without examining the process.

Let’s take a step back (I promise this is going somewhere) and think about the distribution of goods in our national economy, a good analogy for this the human body. Let’s “flesh” this out a bit, if you will.  Think of our nations manufacturers like our many cells- digesting, consuming, producing- and think of our cities, towns, and counties as muscles, or collections of many cells. These muscles produce energy, but also require nutrients- enter or nation’s roadways, railways, ports, and commercial airports, A.K.A. the veins.

That makes our trucks, trains, planes, and ships our blood cells, delivering goods to and from our many producers. The heart is our nation’s many warehouses, distribution centers, dispatches, ports, and airports. From these ‘hearts’ goods are stored, shipped, loaded, unloaded, and moved all over the country and, in many cases, the world. The heart is an impressive organ, but it wouldn’t beat with the brain, or in this case, the millions of hard-working people that keep the trains on time. Systems engineers, software developers, dispatchers, truckers, pilots, and captains are only a few of the millions of people that make your morning cup of coffee possible. Just like the interworking of our bodies, the transportation industry is tremendously complex while simultaneously both incredible and beautiful.

So, next time a truck cuts you off on the highway or a passing train wakes you up at three in the morning, take a deep breath and remember the beauty and complexity and absolute necessity of our nation’s vast transportation sector, then curse and swear.

Zach Jackson
Master’s Candidate, Urban and Regional Planning
Graduate Research Assistant, Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development

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