As you’re optimizing your supply chain, you may compare  freight modes and wonder if you’re using the right mix for your business.  

Below, we’ve rounded-up statistics and data on air, rail, ocean, and over-the-road freight. By perusing these numbers, you’ll get a sense of how other companies are leveraging modes within the United States and across the globe. You may also gain some new insights around mixing up your freight modes to support your organization’s goals and your budget. First, we’ll start with some stats on U.S. domestic freight. 

How Far Does Freight Move in The U.S.? 

As you may know, some modes of transportation are better suited for longer distances, while others shine at short distances. As you make decisions in this arena, you might find it useful to understand just how far most freight moves within the United States.  

As you can see from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics data below: The majority of the freight in the U.S. travels fewer than 100 miles.  

  • Additionally, more than half travels fewer than 250 miles. 
  • Finally, 76.5% travels 749 miles or fewer.  

Now, if we look at freight by weight, instead of value, you might be curious whether the picture will change. The answer? Not really! The largest percentage of goods, both by weight and value, travels fewer than 100 miles. Additionally:

  • More than half of freight (measured by weight) moves fewer than 100 miles. 
  • Plus, 83.1% moves 499 miles or fewer. 
Freight Moved by Distance 
Distance in miles  Value Distance
Below 100  37.0%  50.5% 
100-250  14.9%  16.6% 
250-499  16.7%  16.0% 
500-749  7.9%  6.0% 
750-999  5.9%  3.3% 
1,000-1,499  7.6%  4.4% 
1,500-2,000  4.0%  1.8% 
2,000+  6.0%  1.3% 

ii

The bottom line? The large majority of freight moved within the U.S. is moved fewer than 750 miles!  Now that we have some sense of how far the majority of the freight in the U.S. is moving, let’s look at the modes that dominate domestically. 

Which Mode Dominates U.S. Freight?  

Within North America, it’s no surprise that trucking dominates as the most popular freight mode. In fact, more than 4x as much freight by value moves by truck than its nearest competitor, rail freight.  

How Do Commodities Move in the U.S.? 

Truck

Since we discovered earlier that trucking dominates the movement of freight in the U.S., looking at the dominant commodities moved by truck gives us a peek into the most common freight moving around the country. You’ll note that cereal grains make the list again, which is no surprise given their versatility.  

“Mixed freight” also hits the top of the value list. If you aren’t familiar with what this entails, mixed freight includes grocery store items, restaurant supplies, hardware, plumbing supplies, office supplies, and other miscellaneous products.vii According to the Bureau of Transportation Services’ most recent Commodity Flow Survey, mixed freight is the largest commodity moved in the U.S. by value of goods.viii As such, it makes sense that it tops the list of the most popular freight mode.  Plus, over the road trucking has implemented innovations to reduce the carbon footprint – read more on our blog The Rise of Electric Vehicles

Top 5 Commodities Moved by Truck:

  • Mixed freight 
  • Electronics 
  • Motorized and other vehicles 
  • Machinery 
  • Other prepared foodstuffs 
  • Gravel and crushed stone 
  • Nonmetallic mineral products 
  • Cereal grains 
  • Other prepared foodstuffs 
  • Waste and scrap 
Rail

Not all of us think of rail when we wake up and eat our Wheaties, but, as you can see, cereal grains make up a huge portion of rail freight in the U.S., both in value and weight. To be clear, the commodity called “cereal grains” involves much more than simply ingredients for consumer cereals like Wheaties. Cereal grains most commonly include wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rough rice. Additionally, these grains can be used for feeding both animals and human beings.v 

Like cereal grains, basic chemicals also make both lists. This commodity is often used as raw materials for creating consumer products. When you consider the fact that the chemical industry is one of the United States’ largest manufacturing industries,vi it makes sense that chemicals make up a significant portion of U.S. rail freight. 

Top 5 Commodities Moved by Rail Freight:

  • Motorized and other vehicles 
  • Plastics and rubber 
  • Basic chemicals 
  • Cereal grains 
  • Coal 
  • Cereal grains 
  • Basic chemicals 
  • Gravel and crushed stone 
  • Fertilizers 
Water

As you look at the list of commodities moved by water, many are obviously useful. Diesel, gasoline, petroleum, and other fossil fuel products have both consumer, professional, and industrial applications. 

 However, there’s one less obvious commodity on this list, one that topped the rail and truck freight commodity lists as well: gravel and crushed stone. Why is this commodity such a big one in the U.S.? Crushed stone is the unsung hero of domestic construction and infrastructure projects. In addition to being used in highway construction, it’s also used for building homes. Crushed stone also plays a role in railroad ballast, glass manufacture, and roofing granules, among many, many other applications.ix Once you understand its usages, it’s clear why this commodity makes multiple appearances on the greatest-hits list of U.S. freight modes.  Plus, ocean freight partners are making moves toward sustainability, read more on our blog The Green Technology That’s Powering Ocean Freight

Top 5 Commodities Moved by Water:

  • Diesel and other fuel oils 
  • Gasoline, kerosene, and ethanol 
  • Crude petroleum 
  • Other fossil fuel products 
  • Basic chemicals 
  • Diesel and other fuel oils 
  • Crude petroleum 
  • Other fossil fuel products 
  • Gasoline, kerosene, and ethanol 
  • Gravel and crushed stone 
Air  

A number of companies today are looking at air freight as a means to expedite freight in response to the ocean freight delays across the globe. While air freight can be a useful freight mode, it’s important to select the right products, especially since air freight can be one of the most expensive ways to move freight. 

One of the items we often recommend for air freight? Electronics. As you can see, it dominates both categories below, as the #1 commodity moved via air freight, whether you’re looking at value or weight. Want to learn more? Check out our recent blog Statistics on Air Freight

Top 5 Commodities Moved by Air Freight:

  • Electronics 
  • Precision instruments 
  • Other transportation equipment 
  • Machinery 
  • Pharmaceutical products 
  • Electronics 
  • Other transportation equipment 
  • Machinery 
  • Precision instruments 
  • Textiles and leather 
Pipeline

In the past, we haven’t highlighted freight that moves via pipelineHowever, we included it in this data set, since its numbers were comparable to that moved by vessel. If you’re curious what commodities move via this mode, fossil fuel products and crude petroleum dominate this arena. Additionally, a significant amount of diesel and other fuel oils, as well as gasoline, kerosene, and ethanol travel via pipeline in the U.S. Finally, a relatively small amount of gravel and crushed stone as well as a few chemical products also move via pipeline in the U.S.iii 

Fossil fuel products

Crude petroleum

Gasoline, kerosene, and ethanol

Diesel and other fuel oils

Gravel and crushed stone

Chemical products and preparations 

Before we close out, let’s widen our lens and take a quick look at a few U.S.–international freight statistics. 

When Looking at U.S. and International Freight, What Mode Dominates? 

Above, we discovered that over-the-road freight dominates within the U.S. Obviously, when we take a more global view, we’d expect that top player to change. When moving between the U.S. and international destinations, water dominates in terms of value, with air freight fairly close behind. That said, when you look at these same modes in terms of weight, air freight falls to last. Given the high-value nature of air freight, along with the fact that the mode is impractical for heavy commodities, the shift makes complete sense. 

U.S.–International Freight Trade by Mode 

Value in U.S. Dollars

Value in Short Tons

Which Gateways Dominate? 

Finally, a little trivia in terms of the country’s most dominant U.S.–international freight gateways. When you take into account total trade—import and export—the top freight gateways in the U.S. by cargo value are: 

  • Land: Laredo, TX, followed by Detroit, MI 
  • Water: New York, NY, nearly tied with the Port of Los Angeles, CA 
  • Air: JFK Airport, NY and Chicago, IL x 

Get the Stats, Know the Facts 

For some, freight statistics represent an amusing dip into the “did you know?” realm of noteworthy trivia. For those in the logistics industry, these stats may go beyond fun facts and, instead, spark some new ideas around freight modes and supply chain optimization. As you look at the way freight moves around the U.S., we hope this data got you thinking—and offered you a new way to look at the way your own freight moves around the country. 

Want to talk with one of our experts about your mix of freight modes? Just reach out to us for a complimentary consultation. We’ll help you take a holistic view of your business so you can ensure that you’re maximizing your efficiency, while staying within budget. 

i https://data.bts.gov/stories/s/Moving-Goods-in-the-United-States/bcyt-rqmu

ii https://explore.dot.gov/views/Dashboard_PortbyCommodity/Overview?:iid=3&:isGuestRedirectFromVizportal=y&:embed=y;

iii https://data.bts.gov/stories/s/Moving-Goods-in-the-United-States/bcyt-rqmu

iv https://commodity.com/soft-agricultural/

vi https://www.energy.gov/eere/vehicles/articles/fotw-1069-february-18-2019-most-valuable-commodities-shipped-motor-vehicles

vii https://www.energy.gov/eere/vehicles/articles/fotw-1069-february-18-2019-most-valuable-commodities-shipped-motor-vehicles

viii https://geology.com/articles/crushed-stone/

ix https://data.bts.gov/stories/s/International-Freight-Gateways/4s7k-yxvu

x https://data.bts.gov/stories/s/International-Freight-Gateways/4s7k-yxvu

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