There’s no easy answer to the truck parking crisis, but I’m sure there’s a better answer than forcing drivers to choose between paying to park their boss’ truck or sleeping on a freeway on-ramp. In many parts of Canada and the U.S. there is insufficient parking available to meet demand. There are many reasons for that but mostly it’s because there’s no money to be made in truck parking.
If you go to the airport, you pay to park your car. Go to a baseball game and you pay to park your car. Go to the mall or the grocery story and the parking is usually free. Why the different approaches to parking? At some locations, someone has invested a lot of money to build that parking lot and they have a reasonable expectation of earning a profit from the people using that facility. In other cases, like at the mall, it’s assumed that if you park there, you’ll be spending money there, so the free parking is a cost the developers incur as a means of attracting paying customers.
There’s an interesting story behind how we came to have “free” parking at truck stops.
Almost 20 years ago, Fred Kirschner — then the operator of a 30-acre, 285-space TA/Petro Stopping Center near Scranton, Pennsylvania — explained to me that when longhaul trucking was still in its infancy in the 1960s, trucks typically stayed close to their home terminals and didn’t buy a lot of fuel on the road. But as the longhaul sector grew, and routes expanded, drivers started buying fuel from independent fuel retailers. Soon, diners and other facilities that catered to truck drivers began springing up close to those fuel retailers.
Seeing an opportunity, the oil companies began bringing all the services that drivers needed in house and under single ownership. Kirschner said it was drivers, at the time, who decided where to buy fuel, so truck stop operators began adding amenities to earn the drivers’ business such as repair shops, paved parking, truck washes, free showers, etc.
Over time, the big truck stops lost their monopoly on fuel to the discount fuel outlets, many of them built on a fraction of the acreage the big places occupied. They had lower overhead so could afford to sell fuel at lower prices. Fleets then began directing drivers to fuel at the discount locations, seemingly without regard for the fact the discount places offered few additional services for drivers, like sit-down restaurants, showers or even parking.
Not surprisingly, the parking lots at the big truck stops remained full, but the fuel lanes and the restaurants were like ghost towns. The showers were no longer free and restaurant prices went up because they were no longer subsidized by fuel sales.
It was a little different in Canada, but the result was the same. With the introduction of card-lock fueling and discounts negotiated at the corporate level, the few independent truck stops we had here folded. A few independent chains hung on for a while, but the services declined, the parking lots languished and they too eventually folded.
We still have many high-quality, driver-oriented truck stops or travel centers in Canada, but nowhere near enough of them — and nowhere near enough parking, especially in areas where it’s desperately needed, like any major city.
Free parking is simply no longer sustainable. Just imagine the cost of developing a 10-acre site in Mississauga or Burnaby or Dorval.
The cost of free parking
The owner of a mid-sized truck stop in rural New Brunswick told me some time back that each of the parking spots on his lot cost about $15,000 to develop, with permits, clearing and paving. His annual lot maintenance and snow removal costs ran about $75,000 about a decade ago. He says refuse services for the facility were close to $30,000 a year, and then there’s lighting, sewage and property taxes on top of it all. Given its location, that site would have been a relatively inexpensive to develop. The cost of developing a similar site near Dixie Road and Hwy. 401 in Mississauga would be orders of magnitude higher today.
Is it any wonder that we haven’t seen a new truck stop built anywhere close to an urban area—where they are really needed–in the past 20 or 30 years?
So, who should pay for all this much-needed parking?
It’s hard to view truck parking as anything but a cost of doing business for long-haul fleets, not different really from buying or repairing tires, replacing headlights and all the other costs associated with operating trucks. Truck fleets once paid for parking indirectly through marked-up fuel prices at the full-service truck stops. But discount fuel pricing and card-lock contracts didn’t leave the fuel retailers much margin upon which to develop or expand their parking facilities, so they stopped building big parking lots.
We are seeing more truck stops in the U.S. charging for parking now, and that’s really the only option we have. Most fleets, I think, reimburse drivers for those charges, but I’ve heard some drivers say if the decision to park at a certain location is discretionary, the charges are often not reimbursed.
To solve this, trucking will have to acknowledge that parking is part of the cost of moving a load across the country and get used to paying for it. The rates should reflect the parking costs, like fuel surcharges reflect the price of fuel. It’s the shipper that ultimately ought to pay for the overnight storage for the truck on which their loads are transported, the same way they ultimately pay for tires and headlights and all the other costs associated with operating trucks – it needs to be built into the rate.
In that conversation I had with Fred Kirschner back in 2003, he warned that fleets concerned about parking spaces for their trucks had better start thinking about building terminals or banding together to build terminals, because the truck stop chains aren’t going to build where the trucking companies want them to build. “It’s just too expensive, and you can’t get the permits anymore,” he said almost 20 years ago.
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