Improving the energy efficiency of freight in the United States through commodity-based analysis: Justification and implementation

Francis M. Vanek, Edward K. Morlok

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    89 Citations (Scopus)


    Efforts to reduce energy use in freight transportation usually center around 'mode-based' approaches, namely improving the energy efficiency of energy intensive modes, such as truck, and shifting more freight to energy efficient modes, such as rail. In the first part of this paper we review the recent trends and future prospects for these mode-based approaches, finding that despite substantial improvement in the technological efficiency of freight modes and robust growth in the use of intermodal rail since 1980, total freight energy use across all modes in the US has grown by approximately 33%, with proportional growth in carbon emissions. In the second part of the paper we propose use of a 'commodity-based' approach, in which freight energy use is disaggregated by contribution of major commodity groups, in order to support efficiency improvement at the commodity level. Two potential applications of the commodity based approach, namely (1) life cycle analysis of energy-use for major commodity groups and (2) spatial analysis of freight patterns, are demonstrated using the 1993 US Commodity Flow Survey data. Results of these preliminary findings suggest that commodity groups vary widely in the ratio of energy use in production to energy use in transport, and that for many commodity groups, there may be substantial opportunities for saving energy by redistributing flow patterns. Through development of the commodity-based approach, we also identify the collaborative involvement of shippers and carriers as a key point in improving energy efficiency, since it can be used to both make the mode-based approach more effective and address new issues such as the underlying growth in tonne-km. Benefits for air quality and other transportation issues are also discussed.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)11-29
    Number of pages19
    JournalTransportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2000


    • Commodity flows
    • Energy use
    • Freight
    • Green logistics


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