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The New Geography of Freight

The introduction of new transport technologies to shipping and the movement of freight since 1909 played a dramatic role in reshaping American cities during the twentieth century. The automobile, in the form of the motorized truck, began to challenge the primacy of the railroad for long-distance freight hauling during World War I. Taking advantage of the rapid improvement of American highways, the first regional and national trucking lines were established in the 1920s and 1930s. At first, air freight service was mostly confined to postal operations, but as aircraft grew in size, private air freight carriers emerged between the wars. Federal Express (Fedex), founded in 1973, revolutionized the speed with time-sensitive packages could be delivered worldwide by fully integrating package pickup and delivery operations with the operations of the aircraft that would be carrying. Other freight carriers and postal services adopted their logistical model, greatly reducing the effective distance between places in a manner that anticipated the development of the Internet. The containerization of freight hauling, by which uniformly sized containers could be easily moved between ships, rail flatcars, and trucks, also increased the speed and agility of commercial traffic, further collapsing the distances between American cities and worldwide suppliers of industrial and consumer goods.  In West Coast cities such as Seattle, massive container ports developed in the 1980s and 1990s to accommodate the rapid growth of freight imports from the emerging industrial economies of East Asia. American cities that wished to maintain their national and global economic importance scrambled during the last decades to accommodate this new geography of freight, subsidizing the construction of intermodal freight handling facilities and airports with expanded freight capacities. Manufacturers discovered, nevertheless, that the increased mobility of freight meant that they could move their plants and warehouses to cheaper locations at the fringe of or beyond established metropolitan areas, or overseas, challenging the very notion of the industrial city that dominated Burnham’s vision of the American metropolis at the beginning of the twentieth century.