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Policy Spotlight: the US’ new National Freight Strategic Plan

Safety, Infrastructure, and Innovation are the three focus areas of the new plan from the Department of Transport (DOT). What are the highlights and how does this plan stack up against current and future transportation trends? [1]

First, a bit of background. The plan is meant to detail the DOT's visions and goals for the national freight system – including rail, trucking, water freight, pipelines, and the infrastructure supporting these modes. The department will use the plan to guide freight policy and investments in programs and research needs, as well as provide a framework for multi-jurisdiction and multi-modal partnerships. This is the first time such a plan has been finalized by the DOT – a draft plan in 2016 somehow never resulted in an official plan despite being open for comments. [2]

The plan identifies certain challenges in the direction the current freight system is heading. Foremost of these are the growing population and economy together with the increasing shift towards e-commerce. These trends are changing land-use patterns and creating new demands for faster and cheaper delivery of goods, contributing to increased truck traffic. Another challenge mentioned is the deterioration of the state of infrastructure as a result of public funding not keeping up with rising maintenance costs. For example, aging locks along the inland waterways have become increasingly unreliable leading to unplanned closures and delays. 

Safety is also noted as a key concern, as the number of freight-related fatalities has increased in step with the level of freight activity. This is particularly stark in trucking, which makes up 89% of all freight transportation related fatalities. Due to increased trucking activity, the number of fatal crashes has increased 24 percent from 2010-2017, while the rate per million vehicle miles traveled has remained about the same. Key factors that may affect truck safety include increased traffic volume on the Nation’s highway networks, driver performance and behavior, and insufficient truck parking in rest zones. 

The plan has set its strategic objectives in terms of three areas, safety, infrastructure, and innovation. Some of the highlights are:

  • Under safety, the focus will be on minimizing the effects of fatigue and human error, as well as the development and adoption of freight safety technologies such as automation and driver assistance. 
  • For infrastructure, the objectives include prioritizing intermodal connectivity, enhancing first/last mile connectors, and developing a methodology to identify freight bottlenecks across modes. 
  • For innovation, they are to support the development and adoption of automation and connectivity, with special mention given to automated aerial drone technology, and to adopt regulatory frameworks that foster freight innovation (as well as eliminating ones that are identified as barriers to competition). 

 

Personal comments

The strategic plan seems to strike a balance between identifying the need to adapt to current and future trends (with a strong focus on the importance of first/last mile logistics as well as supporting innovations in connectivity, automation, intermodal freight, and aerial delivery drones) while also prioritizing the less-sexy fundamentals, such as arresting the worsening problems of infrastructure deterioration and truck-related fatalities. However, there is also a glaring lack of any mention about for instance electrification trends (particularly when it comes to trucking).  

While it may be commendable to identify the correct problems, a good plan also needs to include details about how specific quantities of resources should be mobilized in order to fulfill measurable goals. That being said, very few of the objectives in the DOT’s plan are what you could call SMART objectives that meet all the criteria of being specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. For example, the objective of "Minimize the effects of fatigue and human error on freight safety " does not come with any target in terms of reducing the number or rate of fatal transport truck-related crashes, despite the document discussing such rates in detail when identifying the problem. 

On the one hand, it is good to see documents like these as they provide a small level of reassurance that authorities are at least thinking about the right sorts of current and future challenges. However, without objectives guided by SMART principles, very little can be said about the ambition and adequacy of the Department's planned response. Effectively, it makes their effort ungradable which is not good from a transparency or accountability perspective. 

 

Written by Bobby Chen, RISE Mobility and Systems.

 

Sources

1. 2020-09-04. National Freight Strategic Plan – Executive Summary

2. 2019-12-27. US DOT dusts off national freight strategic plan