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Freight finds open roads and uncertainty as COVID-19 spreads across U.S.

March 25, 2020
Almost all high-traffic van lines are seeing rate spikes as carriers work to keep essential businesses stocked. And with a majority of Americans urged to limit travel, trucks are seeing less congestion on the roads as U.S. traffic patterns adjust.

The biggest pandemic in a century has disrupted the world and strained North American supply chains as the novel coronavirus — and economic uncertainty — spreads across the U.S.

“It would be tough to overstate the amount of change and the speed of transformation in freight flows,” DAT analyst Peggy Dorf said on March 23, the halfway point of the White House’s recommendation for a “15-Day Pause” to slow the spread of COVID-19. “It could be a while before life returns to normal, and it may be a ‘new normal’ at that.”

While the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force has suggested Americans practice social distancing, many states have taken further action: As of March 25, at least 175 million people in 17 states and some larger counties and cities, are being urged by local governments to stay home. Most of these jurisdictions have also closed non-essential businesses, putting the once-raging American economy in peril.

Most people, even if their jobs are deemed “unessential,” are still allowed to leave their homes for groceries and other necessities. The need to keep supermarket shelves stocked as worried Americans plan for the worst has led to rising freight rates.

During the week ending March 22, rates rose on 88 of 100 high-traffic van lanes tracked weekly by DAT. Only four lanes declined from the previous week. “Those price drops were small as well as few in number, and in every case, the rates rose on the return trip,” according to Dorf. “The biggest changes were on those ‘tweener’ lanes with lengths of haul in the  250- to 600-mile range, where a driver typically can't complete either a one-way or a roundtrip in a single day.”

Less congestion helps supply chain

With most Americans heeding the advice to work from home and avoid large gatherings, trucks have had more of the road to themselves as rush hour traffic has diminished. As responses to the COVID-19 pandemic increase, trucks have been moving faster than usual, according to new data from the American Transportation Research Institute

“ATRI’s real-time GPS data comes from more than a million trucks, allowing us to analyze freight flows, and so far in March, what we are seeing is an unprecedented level of truck movement,” ATRI President and COO Rebecca Brewster said on March 24. “Not only are trucks continuing to move, but they are doing so at speeds well in excess of normal traffic patterns.”

Spaghetti Junction in Atlanta, where I-85 and I-285 meet, normally sees average truck speeds of 15 mph during the afternoon rush. But during the third week of March, trucks were averaging 53 mph through the city. Brewster said this was typical of what ATRI has seen in other normally congested areas — particularly those subject to quarantines and lockdowns. “As other traffic dissipates, trucks continue to move, delivering much-needed relief supplies to markets, hospitals, gas stations and other essential businesses,” she said.

There are several COVID-19 factors changing traffic patterns, according to ATRI analysis. First is the dramatic reduction in commuter traffic, allowing trucks to operate at higher speeds, particularly during traditional rush hours. Another is the 24/7 truck operations that generate higher average truck speeds across nearly all hours of the day.

In New York City, trucks usually average 16 mph along I-495 in Queens; but they’ve been averaging 28 mph in late March, according to ATRI. Other data shows trucks traveling at the I-710 and I-105 junction in the morning are averaging 53 mph, more than double the typical 25 mph. And in Chicago, morning truck speeds are averaging 43 mph at the I-290 and I-90/I-94 intersection, also more than double the typical 20 mph average during rush hour. 

ATRI’s analysis used truck GPS data from more than a million heavy-duty trucks and the locations examined included some of the nation’s top truck choke points.

“Normally, ATRI’s bottleneck data is used to show us where the problems are on our highway system,” said Chris Spear, the American Trucking Associations president and CEO. “But during this period of extreme uncertainty, the data is showing us where the solution is — in the back of America’s trucks as professional drivers continue to quickly and safely deliver life-sustaining medical supplies, food, fuel and other essentials to Americans when they need it most.”

HOS relief, economic uncertainty 

Also helping trucks move more is relaxed hours-of-service rules for drivers transporting emergency relief in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued an expanded national emergency declaration on March 18. 

The “FMCSA is providing additional regulatory relief to our nation’s commercial drivers to get critically important medical supplies, food, and household goods to Americans in need,” FMCSA Acting Administrator Jim Mullen said. “The nation’s truck drivers are on the front lines of this effort and are critical to America’s supply chain. We will continue to support them and use our authority to protect the health and safety of the American people.”

The March 18 emergency declaration was an update on the initial March 13 declaration, which was the first time the FMCSA issued nationwide HOS relief. These declarations have typically targeted specific states or regions after natural disasters. 

“Supply chains have been stressed, so shippers have relied on flexibility from the spot market to deliver much-needed supplies,” according to DAT’s Pat Pitz. “Freight brokers and small trucking companies are active across the country to restock stores with food and essentials and to rush medical and sanitary supplies to hospitals, clinics, and crisis centers.”

About the Author

Josh Fisher | Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Josh Fisher has been with FleetOwner since 2017, covering everything from modern fleet management to operational efficiency, artificial intelligence, autonomous trucking, regulations, and emerging transportation technology. He is based in Maryland. 

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