Trucks at Work

Filling the holes in modern memory

It’s proving interesting to watch the reaction build to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s new Beyond Traffic 2045 study issued this week. One story went so far as to explain why Americans should be “terrified” by the report’s findings.

The U.S. DOT is even going so far as to encourage the start of what the agency is calling a “national conversation” about the future of transportation in America based on the findings of this new report.

Two very large data points are critical to keep in mind here as this debate gets rolling. Specifically:

  • America’s population will grow by 70 million people by 2045, increasing from around 320 million to just shy of 400 million.
  • By 2045, freight volume will increase 45%, which will make reducing if not eliminating freight chokepoints all the more vital.

The DOT also firmly inserts U.S. transportation strategy into the increasingly volatile debate over climate change (or global warming or whatever they are calling it now) by stating in its report that “climate change will include global mean sea level rise, temperature increases, and more frequent and intense storm events, all of which will impact highways, bridges, public transportation, coastal ports and waterways.”

Whether or not those dire climatic predictions come true (FYI: Al Gore said global warming would cause the polar ice caps to melt away by 2013; two years later polar ice is still here and in fact expanding) is almost secondary (at least in my view) to America’s collective inability to not only recognize the vital function transportation and logistics serves in sustaining our current way of life but also figuring out ways to adequately pay for it.

Let’s start with the second part first. Simply put, solving America’s transportation issues boils down to two words: more money.

Yet this fascinating article published in Bloomberg View last year by Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, argues that maybe we are actually overpaying for our transportation needs in many ways.

Then we return to the first – and perhaps most troublesome – aspect of American transportation consciousness: there isn’t any.

Here’s an example: Back in 2012, during a speech given at the annual Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) meeting, Dan England – chairman and president of TL carrier C.R. England and then serving as chairman of the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) trade group – related an interesting story.

Engaged in a debate with local environmentalists at a planning meeting over the need to build a new trucking terminal on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah (C.R. England’s home base), England said that one of them gave him an exasperated look and said “You just don’t get it.”

What, England said he asked, didn’t he “get”?

“You see, we have the Internet, so soon we won’t need truckers like you,” the environmentalist replied.

Asked for further explanation, England said the activist basically said the ability to order goods over the Internet would eliminate the need for things like trucks, distribution centers, and the like.

“That’s an example of the mindset you are dealing with,” a still-incredulous England told the audience.

It’s a mindset tangentially illustrated by two recent articles worth reading; this blog post by Peggy Noonan for the Wall Street Journal and this story by Megan McArdle for Bloomberg View.

While both of those articles focus the recent “bread bags” comment made by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last month, the gist of them are very pertinent to our nation’s transportation issues: namely, that we’ve forgotten how quickly – and how much – the quality of life in America has improved in just a few short decades.

We forget that all of the goods now delivered on an almost same-day basis to our doors, that the tons of fresh foods appearing every day on grocery store shelves, even our ability to get up and travel thousands of miles across the country if not the world on a moment’s notice all relate back to a vast global transportation and logistics capability unknown to most of us even a few decades past.

It’s all become so routine that we forget just how much our modern way of living depends upon such worldwide interconnections between ships, trains, planes, and trucks.

Let’s hope, then, we can fill in those gaping memory holes – and soon.

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