Answer has little to do with numbers

by Ingrid Phaneuf

OTTAWA, Ont. – Are there too many trucks on the road?

No, at least not according to Statistics Canada’s recently published report.

The misleadingly titled “Too Many Trucks on the Road?” released in May finds that the number of trucks on Canadian roads actually decreased by 0.2 per cent between 2000 and 2003. Compare that to the number of cars, which increased by a significantly larger 5.5 per cent during the same period.

But appearances can be deceiving, explains report author Gord Baldwin, as trucks travel greater distances than cars, making it likely that car drivers see more trucks actually on the road than registration counts would suggest.

Never mind the fact that, in 2003, based on provincial registration data, there were 27 cars for every truck. Based on the distances that vehicles travel, the likelihood that car drivers encounter trucks increased because trucks are driven 2.5 times more kilometres on average than cars.

And with the population on the rise and the economy growing, the competition is likely to get even more intense, the report predicts.

So states the introduction of the Statistics Canada survey, started in 1999, with funding from Transport Canada.

But the introduction and the remainder of the report differ substantially in tone and focus from the coverage provided in mainstream media outlets.

“More trucks battle for street space,” reads the headline of a Toronto Star article published in May. This headline would appear to be as misleading as the report’s, if it weren’t for the fact that Kevin McGovern, who wrote the article, crunched the numbers solely for Ontario, which did, in fact see an increase in large truck registrations over 2003.

“Clearly the numbers nationally are what they are, but the Toronto Star’s focus is on Ontario and Toronto,” explained McGovern, who is aware that certain myths about traffic congestion do have a life of their own.

“And in Toronto, the headline holds true.”

As to whether more large trucks registered in Ontario means more traffic congestion, that too is dependent on perception, said McGovern.

“I like to use the example of streetcars in Toronto. It’s easy for most people to form the opinion that they cause traffic congestion, because they start and stop in the middle of the street to let people on and off. But they could be carrying 60 people or so, who could be driving cars and causing more congestion instead.”

The same argument could be made for the increase of large trucks, which can carry more than smaller trucks, McGovern admitted.

Ontario has seen an increase in 18-wheelers of 11 per cent over the 2000-2003 period, according to the stats, which attributes the increase, in part, to the significant amount of cross border traffic in the province. According to the report, in 2003, freight originating in Ontario for long-distance trucking accounted for 38 per cent of domestic tonnage and 37 per cent of domestic revenues in Canada. Cross border trade has been one of the fastest growing sources of business, states the report, with road dominating as a means of transportation for trade between Canada and the U.S. in 2003.

(In total, over 53 per cent of Canadian export revenues and 79 per cent of Canadian import revenues were moved by truck in 2003.)

As to whether the rest of the country saw an increase in large trucks between 2000 and 2003, it has, according to the report.

Large trucks (weighing 15 tonnes or more and including straight trucks, tractor-trailers and vocational trucks) accounted for 282,192 in 2003, up from 270,155 in 2000. In comparison, small truck numbers (4.5 – 15 tonnes) declined from 391,291 to 378,258.

On the other hand, there were 17.8 million registered cars in 2003, which comes to 27 cars for every truck (small or large) registered, and 63 cars for every 18-wheeler registered in 2003, the latter figure up from 62 in 2000.

Yet again, when it comes to the issue of large truck traffic, perception is key, points out the report, as trucks are more “visible” on the road and not just because they are bigger, but also because they travel longer distances, making the likelihood of encountering them even greater.

Still even the distances traveled by trucks saw a decrease between 2000 and 2003, from 26.6 billion km to 25 billion kms.

The distance traveled by cars during the same period increased from 282 billion kms to 286 billion kms. Large trucks for their part, traveled 18.6 billion kms in 2003, averaging 66,640 kms per truck, again a decrease from 2000, when they averaged over 81,000 kms.

Needless to say, congestion was most prevalent on weekdays in 2003, when large trucks put in 20 per cent of their total estimated weekly travel on their peak day (Tuesday). Car traffic, by comparison, averaged out more evenly over the week, with an average of 12 to 16 per cent of the weekly total traveled daily.

The end result was that car drivers were much more likely to see more trucks on weekdays than during the weekend, states the report.

Time of day also figured in the public perception of truck traffic, adds the report. Cars, large and small trucks all competed for road space primarily between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., states the report.

Small trucks travelled 87 per cent of their kms during the day, while cars traveled 77 per cent of theirs and large trucks 68 per cent of their overall daily kms.

Still large trucks did the highest percentage of their travelling between midnight and 6 a.m. – 12 per cent of their daily kms, according to the report, compared to four per cent for small trucks and three per cent for cars.

“If more shippers were willing to have freight delivered at night when traffic volumes are at their lowest, some of the truck traffic could be taken out of the road during peak congestion periods,” states the Ontario Trucking Association, as quoted in the report.

Last, but certainly not least, the report treats truck congestion at border crossings in 2003, a situation that has since been significantly ameliorated by the creation of special programs and lanes to fast-track commercial cross border traffic.

There are far fewer cars for every truck crossing the border, states the report. In 2003, there were 27 cars per large and small truck based on registration across Canada, but only an average 4.5 personal vehicles for every truck crossing the border southbound into five U.S. destinations, including Detroit, Mich., Port Huron, Mich. Alexandria Bay, NY, Buffalo Niagara, NY, and Blaine, Wash. (This data was culled from U.S. Customs border crossing counts).

The trend was similar for northbound traffic crossing into Canada, states the report, with 4.5 personal vehicles for every truck (large and small) at the five aforementioned ports of entry in 2003.

Interestingly, there were 7.2 U.S. cars for each U.S. truck, while there were 3.4 Canadian cars for every Canadian truck crossing into Canada.

The report also shows how the number of Canadian cars relative to trucks changed at many border crossings between 1990 and 2004. For example, on the Sarnia/Port Huron bridge, the annual ratio of Canadian cars to trucks ranged from 1.2 to 12.1, while the annual ratio of U.S. cars to trucks ranged from 4.0 to 6.5.All of which is very fine and well, but none of which really tells us whether there are too many trucks on the road.

Are there too many trucks on the road? Even taking into account the numbers provided by the Statistics Canada report, timing and location determine the answer.

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