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OUTLOOK 2001: Inside the Numbers

Crossborder trucking is the industtry's engine of growth, but what the latest statistics reveal about some truck traffic patterns and which geographic regions are profiting the most may prove surprisi...


Crossborder trucking is the industtry’s engine of growth, but what the latest statistics reveal about some truck traffic patterns and which geographic regions are profiting the most may prove surprising.

In 1999, the last year for which complete records are available from Statistics Canada, there were 6.7 million trucks entering Canada from the U.S. an increase of 9.4 percent over 1998 and well over double the volumes seen before the two countries signed a free trade agreement in 1989. Assuming, as is likely, a balanced flow of trucks in both directions, doubling this count suggests a total of 13.3 million trucks crossing the border in both directions in 1999. That’s about one every two seconds!

These numbers are collected for Statistics Canada by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, whose border agents count trucks as they enter the country. And since they only classify a vehicle as a truck if it is designed to carry freight and is being used for commercial purposes, the numbers don’t include the pickups and other small vans being used for pleasure or to ferry passengers back and forth across the border.

Ontario accounts for the largest share of this truck traffic by a wide margin, 64 percent of the total. It also accounts for 65 percent of the trade with the U.S., so the concentration of trucks at this point is not surprising. What is surprising is that, since 1984, the growth rate in truck traffic at 5.9 percent per year in Ontario has been almost double the growth rate in the economy. In other words, the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the subsequent NAFTA have caused a marked increase in north-south trade flows at the expense of east-west flows.

Trade statistics bear this out. Between 1992 and 1998 international exports grew at an annual rate of 11.9 percent per year and international imports grew at an annual rate of 10.9 percent per year. Interprovincial trade, on the other hand, only grew by an average annual rate of 4.7 percent during this period. In 1989, the year the first free trade agreement was signed, Canada had $269 billion in trade with the U.S. By 1999 this had doubled to $559 billion. Of more importance for trucking, in 1989 trucks accounted for 56 percent of the exports from Canada to the U.S. measured by the value of the exports. In 1998 this had climbed to 61 percent. In terms of imports, trucking’s share is even more impressive. In 1989 trucks carried 67 percent of the imports into Canada and by 1998 this had increased to 80 percent.

Crossborder truck volumes in Ontario are also affected by trade from other regions and even some interprovincial trade patterns. About one-third of Quebec’s exports to the U.S., and even a small portion of Atlantic Canada’s, move by truck over Ontario highways to either border crossings at New York or Michigan. And then there is the freight moving from eastern Canada to western Canada on U.S. highways south of the Great Lakes.

But while Ontario continues to dominate truck flows between the two countries, the growth of truck traffic between the western provinces, except Saskatchewan, and the U.S. has actually been faster over the past 15 years. In Alberta, truck traffic across the border jumped by almost 13 percent between 1998 and 1999. Over the past 15 years it has been growing at an average annual rate of 7.1 percent.

There are 119 road crossings between the two countries plus half a dozen places where trucks can enter or leave the country by ferry. But, of all these places, the top dozen shown on the Busiest Truck Border Crossings table below accounted for 82 percent of truck traffic in 1999. The Ambassador Bridge alone accounts for one out of every four trucks crossing the border and about one-third of the total value of trade between Canada and the U.S. moving by truck.

The numbers shown on the table for the Ambassador Bridge and the Windsor Tunnel are guesswork as Statistics Canada adds the two crossing points together to preserve confidentiality before it releases the numbers. Ambassador Bridge is privately owned and it doesn’t like its traffic volumes known. However, having a good idea of the capacity of the tunnel, it is not difficult to estimate the volumes on the bridge. On the Ambassador Bridge and all other crossings shown on the table, the numbers are simply the actual count of inbound trucks, doubled to estimate two-way traffic and divided by 365 to get a rough idea of average daily volumes.

But while the Ambassador is by far the biggest crossing point, it is losing ground to its neighbour up river at Sarnia. The span on the Blue Water Bridge has recently been twinned and with a growth rate of almost 10 percent a year over the past 15 years, it is conceivable that it, someday, could take over as the busiest truck port on the border. However, nothing stands still and there are now talks of increasing the capacity of the Ambassador Bridge or, possibly, building an entirely new bridge downstream. There are also plans to twin the span at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, the third busiest truck port on the border.

The three major crossings in western Canada – Emerson-Pembina in Manitoba, Coutts-Sweetgrass in Alberta and the Douglas crossing to Blaine Washington in British Columbia – have also seen faster rates of growth than the Ambassador Bridge since the signing of the trade agreements.

The registration plate on a truck is not an absolute indicator of the nationality of the operator. Many firms on either side of the border have subsidiaries in the other country with vehicles registered there. Nevertheless, registration is a rough indication of which trucks from which country are dominating the border traffic. On this score, the lion’s share of the market goes to Canadian firms. In 1999, two-thirds of all trucks crossing the border carried Canadian plates. And that share is six percentage points higher than it was before the first free trade agreement in 1989.

Trucks Entering Canada in 1999

Number of Trucks Annual Growth Rate,
1984 – 1999
Nova Scotia (by ferry) 141 -19.0%
New Brunswick 279,174 3.9%
Quebec 909,929 4.3%
Ontario 4,258,911 5.9%
Manitoba 261,567 6.9%
Saskatchewan 95,172 4.4%
Alberta 126,071 7.1%
British Columbia 728,804 6.1%
Yukon 9,121 6.5%
Canada 6,668,890 5.6%

The Prairie provinces, with the exception of Saskatchewan, have taken the lead in terms of growth of import business from the U.S. while Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick (and Saskatchewan) have fallen behind the national average.

Busiest Truck Border Crossings in 1999

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Border Crossing Number of Trucks per Day, Annual Growth Rate,
both directions 1984 – 1999
Ambassador Bridge (Windsor-Detroit) 9,412 5.8%
Peace Bridge (Fort Erie-Buffalo) 4,123 5.7%
Blue Water Bridge (Sarnia-Port Huron) 3,869 9.9%
Queenston-Lewiston Bridge (Niagara River) 2,638 4.1%
Douglas (Pacific Highway-Interstate 5) 2,350 6.7%
Lacolle (Quebec 15-Interstate 87) 2,269 3.8%
Landsdowne-Alexandria Bay (St Lawrence River) 1,396 7.7%
Emerson (Manitoba 75-Interstate 29) 927 6.8%
Phillipsburg (Quebec 133-Interstate 89) 794 6.8%
Windsor tunnel (Windsor-Detroit) 767 4.3%
Rock Island (Quebec 55-Interstate 91) 656 8.3%
Coutts (Alberta 2-Interstate 15) 644 7.6%

While the Ambassador is by far the biggest crossing point, it is losing ground to its neighbour up river at Sarnia in terms of annual rate of growth. The three major crossings in western Canada – Emerson-Pembina in Manitoba, Coutts-Sweetgrass in Alberta and the Douglas crossing to Blaine Washington in British Columbia – have also seen faster rates of growth than the Ambassador Bridge since the signing of the free trade agreements.


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