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Center for Spatial Information and Research

GIS Analysis of Rural Supply and Distribution Chains


Rural economies are heavily dependent upon freight transportation (Nutley, 1998; Allen, 1990). Rural products, including farm outputs and light manufactures, are distributed to national markets and to seaports and airports for export; and in the opposite direction flow intermediate goods (e.g. fertilizer, components for small factories) and finished goods (e.g. motor vehicles, clothing) for rural consumers. Although there has been considerable research on food-miles associated with the production and movement of food (e.g. Iles, 2005; Weber and Matthews, 2008), better understanding rural logistics more generally is potentially important to achieving sustainable economic development. First, because the economic vitality of rural regions depends so heavily upon connections to the wider world, it is useful to examine the geography and density of those linkages. In particular, an evaluation of the relative importance of various linkages could contribute to more wisely aimed infrastructure (e.g. road) investments. Second and related to the last point, potential bottlenecks can be identified through mapping rural supply and distribution chains. Third, freight transportation is associated with significant environmental externalities. Careful assessment of freight flows and, indirectly, the societal costs of such flows could foster public discussion of regional freight transport policy and encourage consideration of so-called environmental supply chain management or green logistics (Hall, 2000; Khoo et al, 2001; Haven, 2007; Mason et al, 2008).

The objective of this project was to develop a methodology for gathering, visualizing, and exploring information about freight shipments to and from rural communities. Rural areas are almost inherently more dependent upon freight transportation than cities, and yet national transportation statistics tend to provide better data about the latter than the former.

The methodology for the project had two basic parts: a questionnaire survey of rural goods-producing companies in Washington State and the development of a geographic information system (GIS) to analyze the data collected through the survey. The 35-question survey asked questions about firm characteristics (e.g. number of employees, industry), transportation of inputs (e.g. fertilizer, logs, aluminum alloys), transportation of outputs (e.g. wheat, wood veneer, archery bows), and transportation problems and future activities. The survey was sent to a random sample of 192 farming, forestry, mining and manufacturing companies in 12 rural counties in Washington State; the firms were drawn from Hoover’s free online directory of companies. A total of 42 completed surveys were received, yielding a rather low response rate of 22 percent. Six of the surveys were completed on-line at a SurveyMonkey website established for the project. Overall the quality of the survey responses completed on paper and returned in business reply envelopes was superior to that of those completed on-line.

The GIS used the data collected from the surveys to display and analyze the sample companies’ inbound (i.e. raw materials) and outbound (i.e. finished products) freight transportation. Specifically, the GIS shows the main routes and modes used to move each company’s main raw materials from their primary sources and main finished products to their primary markets. The GIS automatically calculates how a particular shipment will move between a given origin and destination and a mode provided by the respondent. To do so, detailed layers portraying the highways, railways, and waterways of the United States as well as intermodal connection points among those networks were prepared; the system does not show international transportation.

After the inbound and outbound routes for each sample company were created, an open source tool (Hawths Enumerate Intersecting Features Tool) was used to find the density of traffic along relevant highway, railway, and waterway segments. The results of this analysis were displayed in specific layers in the GIS. Other layers were added to show data for the sample companies aggregated by industry (e.g. routes for all farming companies) and mode (e.g. all routes involving waterborne transportation). Another layer was added to show the aggregated activities of firms based on responses to survey questions about the adequacy of transportation infrastructure (e.g. all routes used by companies who reported that they face problems due to inadequate rail facilities). Finally, company specific maps were prepared as PNG files that pop-up when a user clicks on a company’s location on the main GIS display window. The PNG files arre hyperlinked through ArcGIS server, allowing multiple users to view ArcMap versions of all the results.

This research resulted in an online technical report and web-based PowerPoint module providing a step-by-step summary of the methods used, as well as the results of the analyses.