Transportation systems are essential for both commerce and recreation. Transportation in the United States is facilitated by road, air, rail, and water networks. The vast majority of passenger travel occurs by automobile for shorter distances, and airplane for longer distances. Most cargo travels by air (typically only for perishables and premium express shipments), boat, pipeline, truck, or railroad. The main transportation systems in the US are outlined below.
The United States relies heavily on its roads both for commercial and personal transit. Car ownership is widespread except in few of the largest cities where extensive mass transit systems offer a convenient alternative. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System's creation in the 1950s inspired the usage of private automobiles for both long-distance trips as well as daily commutes. The system is the largest expressway system in the world, spanning a total of 75,376 km. The Interstate system is part of a larger National Highway System, comprising approximately 256,000 kilometers of roadway, a fraction of the total mileage of roads. The system serves almost all major US cities.
In addition to transportation by car, there are long-distance passenger buses that travel between major cities and stop in smaller towns along the way. Greyhound Lines is the largest intercity bus company in the United States, with routes to all parts of the continental US There are also many smaller regional bus companies. Bus travel may be of particular interest to students as it is one of the most affordable ways to travel long distances.
Air: The US has 14,893 airports, 5,174 of which have paved runways. There is no single national airline; passenger airlines in the United States are completely privatized. The US has over 200 domestic passenger and cargo airlines and a number of international carriers. The US has 17 out of the world's 30 busiest airports for passenger travel, including the busiest, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and it has 12 of the world's 30 busiest airports for cargo transport, including the busiest, Memphis International Airport (statistics from 2004). In addition to using air transport for passengers and cargo, private aircraft are also used for medical emergencies, government agencies, large businesses, and individual use.
Rail: Up until the mid-twentieth century, passenger trains were a popular mode of transportation. Now, however, railways are predominantly used for freight, especially in the US, where rail systems are employed extensively for this purpose. There is approximately 240,000 km of mainline rail routes in the United States-the world's longest national railroad network (although Central European countries have the densest railways).
Water Transport: Water transport has multiple functions. Its primary use is the transport of freight, but passenger service also connects many of the nation's islands and remote coastal areas and facilitates the crossing of lakes, rivers, and harbors. As well, fishing and pleasure boats are numerous.
Several major American seaports include New York to the east, Houston and New Orleans on the gulf coast, Los Angeles to the west. Aside from the Great Lakes, the United States has 41,009 km of navigable inland channels (rivers and canals). The interior of the U.S. has major shipping channels, via the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi River. The Erie Canal was the first water link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic and thus allowed rapid development in agriculture and industry in the Midwest, which made New York City the economic center of the country.
Public Transit: City and regional public transit may include bus, train, heavy and/or light rail, and underground subway systems. Hours of operation and cost vary, and a schedule (timetable) for exact times is usually available on the Internet or in the local telephone book. Taxis are also readily available in most urban areas.
Transportation Fast Facts
The first cross-US car trip left San Francisco in 1903--a time when there were no gas stations and there was less than 150 miles (240 kilometers) of paved roads between coasts.
The first Transcontinental Railroad in the US was completed in 1869, with the driving of the "last spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah.
The famous Wright brothers' first glider flight at Kitty Hawk took place in 1900, while their first successful, powered, piloted flight took place in 1903--lasting only 12 seconds.
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