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It’s time to end the war on trucks in our urban centres

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. on a panel whose theme was Balancing Freight Movement Needs in Livable Urban Areas.


Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. on a panel whose theme was Balancing Freight Movement Needs in Livable Urban Areas.

The session was aimed at planners, as were most of my fellow panelists who came from the University of Southern California, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and international transportation and infrastructure consulting firm, Wilbur Smith. One might ask what I could offer to an audience and panel like that?

My job was to talk about the urban transportation planning issues of importance to the trucking industry and that’s what I did. The following provides the gist of what I had to say. And, I must say that I was not tossed from the room and indeed I was pleasantly surprised to find that my fellow panelists and many in the audience seemed to agree with what I had to say.

I think it was generally acknowledged that most planners, and certainly their political masters, understand very little about goods movement. That admission is perhaps the most important first step in coming to grips with the challenges we face in urban goods movement.

Part of the problem (perhaps the root of the problem) is that too often goods movement in urban settings is at worst viewed as a necessary evil and at best it is taken for granted.

Historically, goods movement has been an afterthought – if not for planners than certainly for politicians. We see this attitude manifest itself in the debate over funding of transit versus roads; in the design of roads and intersections that do not accommodate modern truck configurations; in the lack of parking for trucks; and in the design of urban loading/unloading facilities, both old and new.

If urban communities and the people that plan and the elected officials that ultimately approve the transportation policies and plans developed by the planners really want to deal more effectively with freight transportation, they need to get beyond the myths about urban goods movement – such as getting the trucks off the road by using more rail; or that trucks are always running around half-empty; or that trucks are the main cause of congestion – and start dealing with realities.

Trucks are not going away. Indeed, as growth continues – as it most certainly will over time – there will be an even greater demand for goods movement. If we think things are bad today, we had better start looking for real solutions now to avoid total system failure in the future.

What truckers want is, I think, pretty simple even if the solutions are not. Basically, truckers want to be able to get into and out of cities quickly, with a minimum of disruption. They want to minimize or reduce the costs of operating in congested urban areas. With the price of fuel and the limits on a driver’s hours-of-service, that is critical.

In seeking solutions, I suggest we need to look at the following:
 
Encourage more off-peak deliveries

For the most part, truckers are doing this already – to the extent that they can control these things. I am often asked why we don’t do more of our deliveries at night.

I always respond the same way, by saying all our trucks have lights on them, so operating at night is not a problem for us so long as there is someone there to receive or ship the goods and that is often not the case.

If planners and policymakers want to address this, they are going to have to get into the heads of the entire supply chain, not just the truckers.

At the end of the day, truckers are service providers, responding to what their customers want and providing the conveyance. And, one more thing, city by-laws often ban night deliveries.

Clear traffic incidents more quickly
This is a long-standing and increasing problem that so far seems to have defied solution. It is multi-jurisdictional in approach so it’s not easy to fix, but we have got to find a better way.

Strategic infrastructure investment
If governments are serious about addressing goods movement concerns and creating liveable communities they have to be open to a better balance when it comes to planning for and making funds available for roads. Goods cannot move by transit. We’re going to have to examine the feasibility of truck-only or truck-dedicated lanes. Roads need to be designed that accommodate modern truck configurations.

Lately, the construction of roundabouts has been increasing in popularity. If that is something we are going to see more of, then it’s essential they be designed in such as way as to be able to handle at least the most popular truck configurations. When it comes to truck routes/bans there has to a way to de-politicize the ultimate decision-making.

Too often we have seen city planners come up with reasonable plans for truck routes, only to see the elected officials change it for purely political (not in my backyard) reasons. We’ve got to come up with sensible ticketing policies. The amount some of the couriers pay in parking tickets per year is insane.

It is not going to be easy, given that the footprint of most cities was established decades ago. Retrofits are hard to do.

But try we must if we are going to ensure our communities are liveable and competitive.


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