It’s just before dawn at a former truck inspection area on I-40 a few miles west of Little Rock, AR. A thin layer of ice floats atop the water in the pavement’s potholes, visible as the sky lightens behind the still-bare trees across the highway. Trucks are lined up from ramp-to-ramp along the two narrow concrete ribbons. Two or three additional rows of trucks are parked in a less orderly fashion on the gravel that stretches to the trash-strewn ditch at the back of the lot.
The make-do parking area is essentially a wide spot along the busy East-West freight corridor between Memphis and Oklahoma City. It’s state-sanctioned, but there are no facilities other than a few trash cans on the island between the driving lanes, and large signs that say “Truck Parking Only” and warn of the $1,000 fine for littering.
Still, talk to the drivers and they’ll say this place is better than many, and they’ll take what they can get: There’s safety in numbers here, and it’s legal. Just a few miles down the road, trucks back onto the exit ramp of a closed weigh station, or park on the shoulders at small rural interchanges, surrounded by the flooded rice fields. Maybe they’ll be told to move on, or ticketed. Maybe not.
As the sun slowly emerges from a ground-clinging mist, drivers get out of their cabs and stretch. A few walk their dogs. One by one, the big diesels shake to life. Load by load, the freight begins to move again.
By the time the morning commuter rush clogs the Interstate, the truck parking area is nearly empty.
By the numbers
Every trucker is aware that a parking ticket isn’t the worst thing that can happen when, for any of number of reasons, he or she must park in a less-than-ideal location. Jason Rivenburg’s name has become synonymous with what can go wrong.
Rivenburg is the truck driver who was robbed and murdered in 2009 while parked at an abandoned gas station. He was just 12 mi. from his next-morning delivery destination, but the facility was not open and did not have a place for trucks to park; the gas station was an alternative recommended by other truckers familiar with the area. Wrong place, wrong time.
Rivenburg’s widow Hope has since dedicated herself to spreading the word about the need for safe truck parking. Along with trying to get the attention of policy makers, she sponsored a survey that found 39% of drivers take an hour or more to find parking. If they couldn’t find parking by mid-afternoon or early evening in either a rest area or private truck stop, the next suitable option is a well-lighted shopping area; however, drivers stated they worried during their rest period that they would be asked to leave or given a citation.
And a whopping 88% of drivers said they have felt unsafe while parked during a mandatory rest period or while waiting for pickup or delivery of a load over the previous 12 months.
MAP-21, the 2009 highway bill, required the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to conduct its own truck parking survey in Rivenburg’s name. Along with state departments of transportation, DOT surveyed safety officials, truckers and truck stop operators, and other trucking industry stakeholders.
The Jason’s Law Truck Parking Survey, published last August, shows most states reported having truck parking shortages occurring at all times of the day, every day of the week.
Among the key findings:
- The top five corridors cited by drivers and staff as having shortages are I-95, I-40, I-80, I-10 and I-81.
- Almost half of the state DOTs reported unofficial and/or illegal parking on freeway interchange ramps and shoulders of highways.
- More than 75% of truck drivers and almost 66% of logistics personnel reported regularly experiencing problems with finding safe parking locations when rest was needed.
- Ninety percent reported struggling to find safe and available parking during night hours.
- Regulations and restrictions related to hours of service influence route planning, and parking decisions can be a challenge for drivers when a trip is delayed or changed, but rest hours are necessary.
- A total of more than 300,000 truck parking spaces are documented in the report, including nearly 36,000 at public rest areas.
To follow up, DOT has formed the National Coalition on Truck Parking—made up of federal and state transportation agencies, along with trucking groups and law enforcement—to come up with solutions.
The American Trucking Assns. is a member of the coalition, and ATA’s research arm is hard at work generating additional data and analysis that will lead to those solutions.
Indeed, truck parking has been on the American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI’s) Top 10 issues list for several years running, and “managing critical truck parking” was selected by ATRI’s Research Advisory Committee as the most important research topic for 2015.
“It’s a perfect storm of challenges and issues for the industry and everyone in it,” says Dan Murray, ATRI vice president of research. “Particularly with the hours-of-service limits being a moving target, that’s going to dramatically dictate where a truck driver needs to stop.”
The other sticky wicket in coming up with sound and actionable truck parking data is the rise and fall of the economy, which has pushed traffic and congestion to record levels since the recovery from the Great Recession, he adds.
Murray credits DOT for its efforts. In addition to the research, the federal government also funded several state-based solutions, and most recently has awarded a contract to begin to coordinate those state programs hoping to jump-start an integrated, national solution.
Murray points to an experimental system tested along I-94 in Minnesota that used cameras to recognize rest-area parking availability down to the last spot, and to relay that information in real time.
“It worked really, really well,” he says. “The problem for the government and the private sector is the initial cost of those systems was extremely high. As an industry, and in the research world, we’ve got to find ways to get the price tag substantially lower.”
A technically less demanding solution already being deployed by truck stop operators is reserved parking. In a typical system, a limited number of spaces are offered and tracked via a mobile app.
But, ATRI discovered, drivers are not yet sold on the need to pay to park.
In the first in a planned series of technical memoranda focused on truck parking issues, ATRI’s Commercial Driver Perspectives on Truck Parking survey revealed several findings, including:
- Nearly half of commercial vehicle drivers surveyed would refuse to pay for reserved parking.
- Reservation parking systems near large metropolitan areas would have the highest utility.
- A disconnect exists between drivers’ interest in parking reservation systems and their willingness to pay for parking reservations.
“Truck drivers are certainly not going to pay for truck parking in the middle of the desert where there’s massive supply and little demand,” Murray says. “This whole parking reservation system is very challenging because a lot of the fleets don’t want to ante up, and drivers certainly don’t have the money—so that business model is still evolving.”
ATRI plans to look further at the issue in an upcoming report in the series titled Cost/Benefit Analysis of Truck Parking Reservation Systems: Impacts on Productivity and Safety.
Supply and demand
But the truck stops are already doing the math.
As in any market, the scarcity principle suggests the price for a scarce good should rise until an equilibrium is reached between supply and demand. Demand is—for the time being—at an all-time high. And even given the cycles of any economy, the long-term freight forecast is for continued growth.
So how about supply, and who controls it? Of the 308,920 total truck parking spaces at public rest areas and private trucks stops, only 36,222 spaces (12%) are public, and the other 272,698 spaces (88%) are privately held, according to the DOT parking survey. And that’s a decline in share of nearly 50% for public rest area spaces since a 2002 DOT parking survey.
While some of the share decline can be credited to state budget tightening, expansion in the private sector is the primary driver. The economics can get complicated because parking spaces—while quantifiable as a commodity—could also be seen as a necessary service provided to customers who purchase fuel, food, truck parts, showers, haircuts and shoeshines.
But as the ATRI driver survey notes, the prevalence of “I would not be willing to pay any amount” responses may stem from the initial rejection of an unfamiliar concept; in other words, truck parking has always been free and it should remain free.
Except that’s an overly simple view. Parking at truck stops has never been free. The truck stop owner has to pay for the land and the asphalt and for someone to pick up the trash. But historically, those costs have been absorbed into the price of other goods, such as hamburgers.
While market scarcity would seem to demand that such a premium commodity should no longer be given away—especially to truck drivers who do not buy hamburgers—there’s an even more subtle reason some truck stops now offer reserved parking and why some trucking companies and drivers are asking for it.
“This is commerce, and moving freight has a cost if it’s slowed down in any way,” says Tom Liutkus, TravelCenters of America senior vice president of marketing and public relations. “Reserve-It is our way of helping solve that issue.”
TravelCenters of America, which operates the brands TA and Petro Stopping Centers, rolled out its parking program three years ago. But the program is not for everyone, Liutkus emphasizes.
“A portion of drivers understand the economics. [They] have a certain load in a certain part of the country where there’s absolutely no way it can be late,” Liutkus says. “The drivers were very consistent in what they were telling us: In some cases, they start to look for available parking two to three hours before they need to shut down. They were very quick to understand that they would actually make money because they’re moving forward to their drop-off point, and they won’t have to spend time moving laterally, looking for a space.”
Drivers with hot loads, wide loads that need multiple parking spaces, and female drivers looking for a space close to the main building are among the regular customers of the Reserve-It program. And of TA/Petro’s nearly 40,000 parking spots, fewer than 3,000 are in the program, “so we’re not talking about a lot of spaces,” he suggests, noting that their average parking lot size is the largest in the industry.
The reserved spaces come at a fee of $10-$11, but the exact number is based on demand at each location. “After running it for nearly three years, we’ve got the model down pretty well,” Liutkus says. “We find it to be a fairly routine process.”
Pilot Flying J, the country’s largest truck stop chain with 650 locations and more than 65,000 parking spaces, has likewise listened to its customers and just launched the Find Parking program at 300 travel centers, according to Tim Wroblewski, operations support manager at Pilot Travel Centers.
“Drivers have told us it’s their number one worry when they wake up in the morning,” Wroblewski says, and he too cited company research that shows drivers shutting down as much as two hours early to secure a parking space.
The spaces can be booked online at a dedicated website (pfjpark.com), or with the help of a cashier at any location. The online tool can be used to find a truck stop, determine how many reserved spaces are open, and the cost, which will be $12-$15.
Wroblewski also points out that the number of spaces is less than 10% at any location, “so this is purely convenience for the driver.”
“It’s frustrating for us if someone is unable to find parking, so that’s why we’re committed to making sure drivers can get in and out of facilities,” he says. “The whole point is to take away that worry.”
A limited number of reserved and paid parking spaces may be a convenience and a near-term fix for some, but it doesn’t solve the parking problem—and could, theoretically, make it worse if the percentage of free spaces gets significantly lower (and truckers still won’t buy in).
Liutkus points out that for three years, TA has manually counted trucks and spaces every two hours and updates its TruckSmart app to reflect the latest totals. Recently, and potentially even more valuable than counting spaces and broadcasting the availability, it’s taken that historical data to develop an algorithm to predict availability at a specific location and time.
Similarly, Kelly Rhinehart, co-owner and founder of the Roady’s Truck Stops chain (325 locations, 51,000 parking spots), which is part of the Internet Truckstop Group, envisions using load board data and algorithms to predict freight traffic patterns in advance.
“Because of the freight density information we get from Truckstop.com, we know ahead of time if we’re going to have issues,” he says. “We can tell you before the trucks are in the lane what’s going to be happening in the next 24-48-72 hours.”
Rhinehart admits he’s “not necessarily a proponent” of paid parking, but he does acknowledge the convenience of an affordable reservation—and the customer demand for certainty.
Still, the industry needs a broader solution. And viable technology, such as with the Minnesota demonstration project, is coming online.
“Drivers are smart. If they have the information, they’ll do the right thing,” Rhinehart says. “The problem now is they may pass exits where parking is available, but they get 50 mi. down the road and you hear them on the CB looking for spots—but there aren’t any left. So then it gets dangerous.”
Rhinehart is confident the truck stop industry will invest in technology that makes parking management more efficient. However, at the end of the day, truck stop operators are still competitors with different business goals and needs.
“Getting everybody to jump on board is like herding cats, but I’m pretty excited,” he says. “I think the technology will be developed that basically will be a utility, like your power bill, but you’re paying your parking facilitator to be efficient. And that’s good for the whole market.”
ATRI’s Murray also advocates a cooperative solution, and he contends the momentum is building for a “sophisticated program where information is transferred to everybody who needs it.”
“There are 3.2 million truck drivers out there, and they’re not going to load 16 different apps on their smartphones and have 16 different transponders,” Murray says. “At the end of the day, there will be a national program to at least integrate all of these different systems—public and private, competing apps, etc. We’re either going to sink or swim as one national system.”
But that still doesn’t satisfy the need for more spaces in the right places.
“It’s never enough; we know we need substantially more capacity,” Murray says. “But we also know we can do a better job of managing the capacity that we have.”