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What are the Five Modes of Transportation?

Cargo ship in the water full of shipping containers

Goods and materials travel around the globe every day. Our modern world moves enormous amounts of inventory from one point to another; yet in all that logistical flow, there are only five basic modes of transportation used: Road, Rail, Air, Water, and Pipe. These five modes of transportation each come with advantages and disadvantages.

Roadway Transportation

Roadways are the most utilized infrastructure in terms of transportation. According to a report titled Market Analysis and Insights: Global Road Freight Transportation Services Market discussed by MarketWatch, the global Road Freight Transportation Services market size was $1.72 trillion in 2020 and is projected to increase to 1.97 trillion by 2027.

Advantages of Roadway Transportation

Roads are everywhere, and that ubiquity means that roads can be used to deliver goods to the most remote locations and reduce lead times for short-distance transport. Whether by semi-trailer, box van, car, or rickshaw, roads can be used by most short-range deliveries quickly and economically.

They also require relatively low capital investment on the part of the business as most roads are built and maintained by governments. Small delivery companies abound in roadway transportation due to the relatively low overhead costs compared to the other modes.

Disadvantages of Roadway Transportation

The vast number of vehicles on modern roads are a significant contributor to pollution and climate change. In 2020, there were 207 million light, medium, and heavy-duty commercial trucks in the world, generating over 2366 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of 284 million homes’ energy use for one year.

Roadway transportation can only move a relatively small amount of cargo compared to rail or water, and it is not economically suited to long-distance distributions. Delivering product over roads also increase the risks of accidents, breakdowns, or weather/traffic delaying or damaging product.

Railway Transportation

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were 92.282 miles of Class I rail in the United States in 2019. This length of rail is less than 35% of what it was in 1960 when the Bureau first began publishing data. Yet despite that reduction, rail still represents an important mode of transportation in the U.S. as well as globally.

Advantages of Railway Transportation

Railway Transportation is capable of carrying more weight for greater distances with less fuel consumption than roadway transportation. This results in faster delivery times of larger quantities of product than roadway can achieve.

Another advantage is the ability to move bulk goods and products with minimal handling. Compared to roadway, rail is a safer and more dependable mode of transportation.

Disadvantages of Railway Transportation

Railway transportation requires vast amounts of capital in startup costs and maintenance. This can lead to consolidation of rail lines and a possible monopoly, which then can drive prices up for consumers.

Railways can also deliver goods only along their track lines. This requires combining another mode of transportation, such as road or water, to complete the delivery cycle.

Airway Transportation

Even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, there were 76,596.323 million cargo revenue ton-miles logged with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. A revenue ton-mile is one ton of revenue cargo (freight or mail) carried for one mile. Air cargo has become increasingly important for businesses looking to reduce lead times for critical components and supplies.

Airplane flying through a clouds and sunset

Advantages of Airway Transportation

Airway transportation is the fastest mode of the five discussed. Airlines have the ability to reach around the globe to any location with an accessible airport. Air cargo is best-suited for expensive, lightweight products such as microchips or biomedical supplies; or time-critical deliveries that must be delivered within hours rather than days or weeks.

Disadvantages of Airway Transportation

A large capital investment is required for airplanes, both in purchasing the aircraft and maintenance. Operational staff must be highly trained to properly operate today’s complex aircraft. If these personnel become sick, such as during the pandemic, thousands of flights may be delayed or canceled.

Aviation has been found to be responsible for 3.5 percent of all drivers of climate change mainly due to contrails and CO2 emissions. The threat of illness from pollution on humans can extend outward from an airport by as much as 25 miles.

Waterway Transportation

In 2019, water transport had an operating revenue in the US of 48 billion dollars. Water transport is the most common mode when moving goods globally, especially across oceans.

Advantages of Waterway Transportation

Cargo ships can carry enormous amounts of freight, making waterway the most economical mode of transportation. It is well suited to heavy or bulky goods- as well as standardized containers.

Disadvantages of Waterway Transportation

It is reported that the low-grade bunker fuel used by the world's 90,000 cargo ships contains up to 2,000 times the amount of sulfur compared to diesel fuel used in automobiles. This means that the 15 largest ships in the world can emit as much pollution as the world’s 760 million cars.

Threats of piracy and geopolitical instability can affect shipping choke points such as the Suez Canal which connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea; or the Malacca Strait which allows vessels to move from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean

Pipeline Transportation

In 2020, the United States reported 228,102 miles of oil pipeline and 1,647,688 miles of gas pipeline. The Trans Alaska Pipeline System, or TAPS, is over 800 miles long extending from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, and without which the oil-rich fields in northern Alaska would not be economically viable to transport for processing.

Advantages of Pipeline Transportation

Pipelines have the advantage over other modes of transportation when moving large quantities of liquids and gases because they are not as easily affected by weather or traffic. They also use less energy to move the product than others.

Disadvantages of Pipeline Transportation

Capital investment is high in permitting, land acquisition, and installation of pipeline systems. Environmental conservation groups are concerned with the long-term impact of pipelines on wildlife habitats. Buying the necessary land and right-of-way zones can be prohibitively expensive without large capital backing. The installation of the pipeline itself requires getting workers and material into often difficult terrain.

Pipelines can also be susceptible to cyberattacks as demonstrated last year when the Colonial Pipeline Company was affected by a ransomware attack. This modern threat to pipeline transportation can shut down large sections of network distribution affecting millions of people.


Most products today do not use one single mode of transportation but rather a combination

of modes. Smaller products can be driven to the airport and flown to a closer destination for last-mile delivery in another vehicle. Pipe ordered in one location can be placed on a railcar and then barged to a port for the continuation of its journey. Bulk goods can be placed on a barge, shipped downriver to a railcar for further transport. Crude oil is shipped by pipeline

to a port where it is then loaded onto an ocean vessel for transport to another country.

These five modes transport most of the goods and materials the world uses every day. Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each can give a company a better understanding of logistics when determining how best to deliver their product to their customer in the most efficient manner available.



Jason Kelly is currently completing an internship with ASCI. He is a senior at the University of Alaska Anchorage finishing his final semester for a bachelor’s degree in Global Logistics Supply Chain Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. He is also scheduled to receive an Occupational Endorsement Certificate in Business Analytics. His experience in logistics lies in oilfield supply, inventory consignments, and air cargo shipping.  

Contact us at or (907) 348-1610 if you would like to set up a free consultation appointment to help with your business’ inventory management needs.

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