New data is needed to develop a national freight policy

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 9/23/2014

How much freight is being moved by truck? Does anyone really know?

It doesn’t sound like that hard a question but the truth is, existing info is dated and no longer usable. Some of the surveys and studies that yielded that data lost their funding years ago.

It’s critical to have fresh, accurate and well researched facts in order to establish a national freight policy. The current highway law – Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21 – calls for the development of such a policy. The Transportation Research Board was tasked with identifying new efficient methods of compiling information on truck activity and recently released its suggestions in a new study.

In order to effectively implement new policies, the TRB identified some key questions that should be answered. One main question is simply how much freight is moved by trucks and what type? Also, how much road traffic is generated by the movement of freight?

Truck data is the most crucial modality to account for since trucks compose about 70 percent of total tonnage and value shipped in the U.S., according to the study. 

Before finding methods of gathering information to answer those questions, the TRB had to find what data points needed to be assessed. The following data points are those that the study found to be crucial for freight policy and planning:

  • Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT): Measure of the extent of motor vehicle operation within a specific geographic area over a given period of time.
  • Tons/Ton-Miles: Total weight of the entire shipment/shipment weight multiplied by the mileage traveled by the shipment.
  • Value/Value-Miles: Market value of shipments multiplied by the mileage traveled by the shipment.
  • Origin-Destination (O/D) Flows: The start and end points for a particular truck trip.
  • Vehicle Speed: Velocity of a vehicle.
  • Transportation Cost: Cost of freight movement by truck.

The study acknowledged that currently there are no comprehensive, longitudinal statistics that are required to efficiently answer these questions. To answer these questions, and consequentially effectively shape policies required by MAP-21, the TRBcame up with three different approaches to obtain the data needed:

  • GPS tracking: Suggests requiring all trucks, or a statistically significant number of trucks, to report GPS data for all trips.
  • Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey (VIUS): Originally a census conducted every five years starting in 1967, it was scrapped due to funding in 2002. TRB recommends a revamped version of VIUS.
  • Agent-based models: “The ABM models specifically simulate the simultaneous operations and interactions of multiple agents (firms and individuals) that could provide the best source of information on trucking activities.” Essentially, a computer simulation using fleets, drivers and other sources to map and predict the trucking industry ecosystem.

“It is vital to the country and to the trucking industry that the most efficient use of data be acquired to target those corridors that are the most in need of improvements, especially when there is little or no interest in passing a long-term highway funding bill,” said Andrew King, the research assistant for the OOIDA Foundation – the research arm of the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association.

GPS tracking and VIUs could be realized within five years. An agent-based model would be more of a long-term strategy. With a goal of assessing current information-gathering processes and suggesting more efficient methods accordingly, the Transportation Research Board reviewed literature, evaluated datasets and interviewed key informants for the study. TRB studies are recommendations and do not necessarily have any bearing on future legislation.

“The OOIDA Foundation appreciates the Transportation Research Board’s approach to improve upon already existing data collecting strategies,” King said. “However, it is important to move beyond continual research and begin implementing an effect plan to improve our nation’s highways.”

Editor’s note: The TRB’s study is titled “Making Trucks Count: Innovative Strategies for Obtaining Comprehensive Truck Activity Data,”

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