Number Crunching in Transport

Friday, March 26, 2010


Sudhir Gota

Will more trucks on more roads yield higher GDP?

Under the changing climate many cities are initiating several city based passenger transport strategies to combat growing externalities from transport. When we hear interviews, read papers – we often see policy makers charting down the magic bullets to solve the negative spillovers from transport and most often they overlook one vital clog in the wheel – freight transport.

In Asian countries, trucks are the most visible freight carriers with mini vans playing significant roles within cities. The truck-freight growth often shadows GDP growth rates thus making policy makers assume that more trucks on road would invariably mean spiraling increase in GDP. More often this is misapprehension.

Though trucks offer highest flexibility, increase in trucks means high rebound congestion with each additional truck slowing down others and thus ensuring that that we are moving our freight while accelerating the consumption of valuable resources. In order to keep the movement easy on the pocket we often subsidize diesel with devastating consequences.

The other misapprehension floating in the market which many agencies quote is

Equipment utilization rates for the trucking fleet, which average 60,000 km to 100.000 km per truck-year, are less than a quarter o f those in developed economies

This is used as a basis for expanding roads without realizing the fact that average trucks in developed countries cover the same distances.

In order to understand the importance of trucks on environment and transport, let’s consider the case of China;

“Diesel vehicles (majority freight) constitute only 12% of total fleet in 2005. Since they are commercially operated, they travel length and breadth of the country accumulating mileages. This increases the share of diesel in total vehicle kilometer travel to nearly 29%. Since the trucks operate at low economy and efficiency, the share of diesel vehicle in total CO2 jumps to 72% and in PM emissions to 91%!!”

Or Thailand

“The share of total energy consumption is 51% for the freight transport mode, 32% for the nonurban passenger transport mode and 17% for the urban transport mode”

Or India

“Unfortunately the rail road mode share competition does not replicate zeno’s paradox. In 1950’s the rail-road ton-km share was 90%-10%. In 2000 it is 27%-73%. Volume in both the sectors show positive growth but rail represents slow growth, road represents high. With government doubling the investments on super highways roads would continue to attract more freight in future.

It’s clear that the freight contribution in transport is huge and thus provides the most opportunities. There are many reasons for the inefficiency in the Asian logistics sector, prime being fragmented market.

Majority of trucking industry is divided with multiple operators. Consider China, where majority oftrucking companies have on average around one truck and fewer than two employees. A decade earlier, India had 77% of fleet under operators owning 5 trucks or less and now 86% of total fleet is still under unorganized operators.

With no coordination this leads to high deadheading. In fact in many Asian countries deadheading amounts to nearly 30-40% of total truck VKT. There are ripple effects of such deadheading. In order to maximize the loaded movements, the operators have to resort to overloading which not only aggravates the injury to the road pavement but also consumes high energy. More often due to overloading, in order to silence the authorities, the truck drivers pay a huge bribe.

Having small operators’ to dominate the field mean that the vehicles being used to transport freight are not only old but also are size in-efficient. In fact the ratios in China and India are approximately 1:1 of truck trailers to truck tractors. This ratio is often 2-3 : 1 in developed countries. The impact of such inefficient vehicle fleet does not only pinch the pockets of operator but also the tax payers as higher axle loading of 2-3 axle trucks damages the road thus requiring frequent strengthening.

The pavement damages by overloaded trucks not only pinches the taxpayers’ pockets but also chokes the lungs and damages the environment as more often it disturbs the balance in speeds – first effect being reduction in average speeds to less than 20 kmph to tackle poor roads, the authorities starts slowly rebuilding the roads thus draining the resources and environment further and as soon as the roads are finished it increases the speeds beyond normal or beyond the limit where one can save energy thus increasing the fuel consumption.

It’s no surprise that authorities are changing the codes fast. Over the past decades many countries have increased the legal axle limits to accommodate such higher axle loads. India’s legal single axle load limit is now 10.2 tons, which used to be 8.16 tons decade earlier. Thailand’s maximum axle load limit is 8.2 tonnes while the truck-load limit is 25 tonnes, which was increased from 21 tonnes in 2006.

The impact of thicker pavement and overloading on environment is so complex that it is a detailed study topic inUC Berkeley Center for Future Urban Transport where many people are researching on it.

In the urban environment, the impact needs to be understood from the perspectives of traffic management and air pollution. Cities build bypasses after bypasses to push the trucks out of city limits which boomerangs with disastrous consequences because of sprawl and city freight distribution. In a city like Tianjin (China), trucks contribute 44% of PM and 54% of NOx emissions.

Consider the case of Delhi, experts here used the traffic management option commonly adopted in Asia i.e. to ban truck movement in daytime. Though this initially reduced the PM levels during the daytime, however, due to the rapid growth in truck numbers during the night time, the contribution of trucks to day-time PM levels is increasing as night time emissions linger into the daytime.

The problem is further compounded when there are multiple agencies having stakes in freight movement. One of the studies from Philippines listed down 41 agencies/organizations/institutions which needs to be brought together to discuss solutions.

Clearly, the magnitude of issues dictate urgent actions.

Wait for the next blog for solutions...

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