U.S. Freight on the Move: Highlights from the 2007 Commodity Flow Survey Preliminary Data

U.S. Freight on the Move: Highlights from the 2007 Commodity Flow Survey Preliminary Data

by Michael Margreta, Chester Ford, and M. Adhi Dipo


More than 13 billion tons of freight, valued at $11.8 trillion, were transported nearly 3.5 trillion ton-miles1 in the United States during 2007, according to preliminary estimates from the 2007 Commodity Flow Survey (CFS).2

The tonnage, value, and ton-miles of 2007 freight shipments all increased over 2002 totals. Tonnage was up 12 percent, inflation-adjusted value up 13 percent, and ton-miles up 11 percent (see box A).

On a typical day in 2007, over 35.7 million tons of goods, valued at $32.4 billion, moved nearly 9.6 billion ton-miles on the nation's transportation network. Nearly 93 percent of the total tonnage and 81 percent of the total value of freight were shipped by means of a single transportation mode, while the remainder was shipped using two or more modes.

The CFS, a survey of shippers sponsored by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) in partnership with the Census Bureau, provides a detailed, multimodal picture of national freight flows. The survey is the only publicly available source of national commodity flow data for the highway mode. CFS data are collected every 5 years as a component of the national Economic Census and provide a benchmark on the value, tonnage, ton-miles, distance shipped, and mode used to transport commodities. Analysis and research utilizing CFS data are used to make decisions in the public and private sectors involving policy, infrastructure, and the economy.

The 2007 CFS data and results presented in this report are preliminary. The 2007 CFS was conducted from a sample of 102,369 establishments. Previous surveys were conducted in 1993, 1997, and 2002. Final CFS data are scheduled for release in December 2009.

How Did Freight Move?

By Truck3

Trucking is the largest mode in both value of shipments handled and tonnage. In the 2007 CFS preliminary data, truck shipments accounted for:

  • about $8.4 trillion worth of goods, an inflation-adjusted gain of 9.1 percent from 2002, and 71 percent of the total value of all shipments (table 1);
  • about 9.0 billion tons of goods, an increase of 14.2 percent from 2002, and 69 percent of all tonnage;
  • about 1.4 trillion ton-miles, representing 40 percent of all ton-miles; and
  • an average distance of 187 miles per shipment (see box B).

The CFS distinguishes between two categories of truck: for-hire4 and private.5 Both experienced significant growth over the 2002 CFS totals. Private truck tonnage increased by 18.8 percent to 4.9 billion tons, while for-hire truck tonnage grew 10.2 percent to 4.0 billion tons. Private trucks handled more than half the tonnage, while for-hire trucks carried over half the value (table 2). Historically in the CFS, goods with the largest total tonnage moved primarily by truck include gravel and crushed stone, gasoline, natural sands, fuel oils, and most mixed freight.

Goods moved by private truck typically travel much shorter distances than goods carried by for-hire trucks. The average miles per shipment by private truck in the 2007 CFS was 82 miles, compared to 527 miles by for-hire truck.

By Rail6

In the 2007 CFS, rail shipments accounted for:

  • nearly $388 billion worth of goods (compared to an inflation-adjusted value of $412 billion in 2002), about 3 percent of the total value of shipments by all modes (table 1);
  • over 1.9 billion tons of goods (matched the same weight in 2002), about 15 percent of the total tonnage;
  • about 1.3 trillion ton-miles, rail carried 37 percent of all ton-miles—the 1.3 trillion ton-miles moved by rail, when combined with the 1.4 trillion ton-miles by truck, resulted in 77 percent of the total U.S. ton-miles (table 1); and
  • an average distance of 691 miles per shipment, showing that rail is generally a long-haul mode.

Historically in the CFS, rail moves bulk shipments such as cereal grains, coal, and metallic ores.

By Water7

Whether via inland river, ocean, or the Great Lakes, waterborne shipments in the 2007 CFS preliminary data accounted for:

  • about $107 billion worth of goods (table 1), 1 percent of the total value of all shipments;
  • approximately 423 million tons of goods, 3 percent of all tonnage;
  • about 176 billion ton-miles, 5 percent of all ton-miles; and
  • an average distance of 330 miles per shipment.

The Mississippi River system is the most active waterway system in the country for freight transport,8 and shallow draft vessels, most of which travel the Mississippi River, carried the largest portion of waterborne freight in the United States (table 3).

Bulk, low-value commodities were primarily transported by rail and water modes. In 2007, water shipments were valued on average at $253 per ton, compared to $201 per ton for rail (table 4), the two lowest modal values per ton in the 2007 CFS. Historically in the CFS, the major commodity groups shipped in bulk via waterway are metallic ores and concentrates, bituminous coal, fertilizers, gravel and crushed stone, and natural sands.

By Other Modes

Demand continued to increase for time-specific deliveries of high-value products. The two modes noted for promoting quick delivery were air and parcel. The value of air and parcel shipments in 2007 totaled $1.81 trillion, an increase of 31.3 percent over the 2002 inflation-adjusted value of $1.38 trillion.

Historically in the CFS, the commodity groups shipped by air and parcel are generally considered to be high-value and low-weight: electronic and other electrical equipment, precision instruments, and pharmaceutical products.

At the high-value end, shipments by air (including truck drayage to/from the airport) were valued on average at $59,464 per ton, and the value of parcel shipments averaged $44,351 per ton (table 4).

Which Industries Were Shipping Goods?

Data by industry are being published for the first time in the 2007 Commodity Flow Survey. Shipments by manufacturing industries accounted for 45 percent of the value (table 5) and 41 percent of the commodity weight. Shipments by wholesalers accounted for 41 percent of the value and 30 percent of the weight captured by the 2007 CFS. Auxiliary establishments9 shipped nearly $1.28 trillion of freight, about 11 percent of the U.S. total value.

What Goods10 Were Being Shipped?

By value, electronic and other electrical equipment and modity groups by value were motorized and other vehicles,mixed freight11 were the leading commodity groups, at $1 gasoline and aviation turbine fuel, and pharmaceuticaltrillion and $974.6 billion (table 6), respectively (see box C).

These two commodity groups accounted for 17 percent of the total value of goods transported. Other leading commodity groups by value were motorized and other vehicles, gasoline and aviation turbine fuel, and pharmaceutical products, all of which totaled about $2.4 trillion or 20.3 percent of the total value of goods.

By weight, the leading commodity group was gravel and crushed stone, accounting for nearly 1.9 billion tons or about 14.5 percent of the total tons in the 2007 CFS (table 7). Gravel and crushed stone were moved mainly short distances with an average of 39 miles per shipment and a relatively low bulk value of $10 per ton.

In 2007, other leading commodity groups by weight included coal, nonmetallic minerals, and gasoline. Mixed freight was another commodity group with substantial tonnage— 313 million tons (see box C).

Among the commodity groups, coal generated the most ton-miles (table 8). A total of 1.2 billion tons of coal was moved 722 billion ton-miles, which was 20.7 percent of the total ton-miles recorded in the 2007 CFS. The primary U.S. coal deposits are found in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and in the states of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.12 Movements of coal averaged 115 miles per shipment. Texas received the most out-of-state coal shipments, while Canada and Brazil were the largest foreign destinations for U.S.-produced coal.13

1A ton-mile is defined as 1 ton of freight transported 1 mile.

2 Preliminary data tables 1 through 6 from the 2007 Commodity Flow Survey are available online at: http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/commodity_flow_survey/preliminary_tables_december_2008/index.html

3The type of truck shipments under discussion is single mode; that is, the shipments were not transported by any other mode, such as rail, water, or air.

4 For-hire means that the truck was operated on behalf of – or by – a nongovernmental business entity that provides transport services to its customers for compensation.

5 Private means that the truck is not available to any other business entity, nor the public, and is owned and/or operated by an individual, group, or nongovernmental business entity for its own purposes or benefits.

6The type of rail shipments under discussion is single mode; that is, the shipments were not transported by any other mode, such as truck, water, or air.

7The type of water shipments under discussion is single mode; that is, the shipments were not transported by any other mode, such as truck, rail, or air. Estimates in 2007 are not comparable to those in 2002 because waterborne mileages in the 2007 CFS were calculated using a different methodology.

8 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Navigation Data Center, The U.S. Waterway System -Transportation Facts, December 2008.

9Auxiliary establishments are those specifically involved in warehousing and storage, or as corporate, subsidiary, and regional managing offices.

10 Commodity goods in the CFS are classified by Standard Classification of Transported Goods (SCTG) codes. Developed as a joint effort of the United By weight, the leading commodity group was gravel and States and Canada, the SCTG is a hierarchical system that groups commodities crushed stone, accounting for nearly 1.9 billion tons orby transportation characteristics (volume, revenue, value, origin, and destination), similarities of goods, and industry-of-origin considerations, regardless of mode(s) of transport.

11 Mixed freight includes items (food also) for grocery and convenience stores, supplies and food for restaurants and fast-food chains, hardware or plumbing supplies, and office supplies.

12 Goode's World Atlas, 21st Edition, published by Rand McNally & Co., June 2006.

13 U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, U.S. domestic coal consumption by state: 2007 available at: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/coal/page/acr/table26.html, U.S. coal exports by country: 2007 available at: http://www.eia.doe.gov/fuelcoal.html

About this Report

This article was a collaborative effort on the part of the following from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS): Michael Margreta, Survey Statistician; Chester Ford, Transportation Industry Analyst; and M. Adhi Dipo, Transportation Analyst under contract from MacroSys Research and Technology. Promod Chandhok (BTS) provided assistance in statistical significance testing. BTS is a component of DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration. Other BTS contributors include: Ronald Duych, Joy Sharp, and Hossain Sanjani. Throughout this report, comparisons are made between two different entities (numbers, groups, classifications, categories, etc. developed from a sample), and an increase or decrease is cited as a percentage change or statistical difference. Such a change is only given if statistically significant at the 5 percent level, which indicates there is a 5 percent chance that a statistically significant difference will be claimed between two different entities from the sample when, in fact, no such difference truly exists in the entire population.

For related BTS data and publications: http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/
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