Uncommon Carriers, Full of Transport Insight

Samuel Spencer ’21
Contributing Writer

If one were to ask the average person to list the most significant technological advances of the past several hundred years, typical answers might range from personal computers to vaccines. Arguably, the most impactful has been the development of long-distance cargo transportation.  Because of the developments in transport, the average Minnesotan can walk into any supermarket and purchase fresh produce that was grown on another continent.  In the book Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee, staff writer for The New Yorker and college professor, delves deep into the world of cargo transportation by climbing aboard a series of cargo vessels and vehicles. His urbane writing style and sharp observational skills elucidate the very network on which our daily lives depend, yet so many of us take for granted. 

The first leg of his journey is in the cab of a tractor-trailer that routinely carries liquids from one coast to another. Contrary to the stereotype, many experienced long-haul truck drivers are not uncouth hillbillies with a third-grade education, but highly skilled professionals.  Planning a road trip in a vehicle with more than two axles is far more complicated than entering the destination into a GPS.  These massive vehicles are slow to accelerate, turn, as well as slow down; much like a game of chess, truck drivers must always be planning their next move.  There are many roads that are too large for a tractor trailer to navigate.  In addition, if the trailer is full of hazardous materials, there are many tunnels and bridges that are off-limits to hazmat cargo.  Given the demanding nature of the work, a skilled truck driver who owns his rig can earn over six figures a year. 

Even though a tremendous amount of goods are transported via truck, the world’s waterways are still the predominant mode of transport for many consumer goods. The United States’ rivers are a frequent method of transit for much of the building materials that end up as roads or skyscrapers. In the confines of a river, a typical ocean liner can only navigate so far. Barges pushed by tug boats are far more practical for traversing a shallow draught waterway, such as a river. One large tug can push up to six barges tied together with steel cable. Much like long distance truckers, river boat operators also must contend with recreational traffic.  Fortunately, the captain piloting the boat on which McPhee was traveling had never ran into a pleasure boat, but many of his colleagues had. The reality is that these boats are even less maneuverable than trucks or trains and cannot stop in time to avoid a boat that has crossed its path. These barges displace enough water to suck a jet ski underneath its hull and through the propellers without the helmsman noticing.

Perhaps the best example of the culmination of transportation advances is UPS.  This delivery company is arguably the most efficient courier in the world. Workers in world trade centers would send one another documents via UPS Next Day Air as it was much faster than the building’s internal mail distribution service.  It is worth noting that not all Next Day Air ends up in a plane; most Next Day Air is actually transported via truck. UPS also directly partners with other companies as well. Bentley Motors routinely uses UPS to overnight any parts to any dealer repairing a customer’s car. UPS warehouses contain so many Bentley parts, the company has sometimes relied on their supply to ship extra parts to the factory in England. For every company who is proud of their relationship with UPS, there is a company that has requested that the courier sign a nondisclosure to ensure that none of their costumers ever find out that there is a middleman.

Throughout the book, McPhee routinely discusses aspects of transportation in a fascinating way that frequently expanded my view on the subject.  In addition, I also have a newfound respect for the men and women who make our daily lives possible. Simultaneously, this book made me realize how many jobs are vulnerable to automation.While we are still years away from a fully self-driving truck or a UPS distribution center with no human involvement, it is possible that these jobs may be made obsolete in our lifetimes.  Whatever the future of cargo transit may hold, it will always be an integral part of our lives. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who may be interested in the topic.               

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