It's been said that logistics professionals are like offensive linemen: They're only noticed when they make a mistake. Or as a conference speaker recently quipped: "If your phone doesn't ring, don't complain. You're getting a compliment. It means you're doing your job well."
Most logistics professionals recognize and accept this. But there's a downside to being taken for granted, nonetheless. Over time, people forget how important logistics really is.
Years ago, a presenter at a small trade conference I attended made that point in a particularly memorable way. He showed two slides. The first showed a modern supermarket with its aisles full of shoppers and its shelves full of foodstuffs. "Now," the speaker said, "close your eyes for a moment and imagine this store in a world without logisticians." He flipped to the next slide and told everyone to open their eyes. What they saw on the screen was a picture of the same store with no customers. There were no customers because all the shelves were empty. The shelves were empty, the speaker said, because there were no logisticians. No logisticians means no distribution, and no distribution means commerce grinds to a halt.
What brought that to mind was a string of recent news reports about attempts to reduce road congestion in some of the nation's most densely populated areas.
Such initiatives are nothing new. Over a decade ago, California flirted with the idea of banning trucks from the interstate highways ringing its largest cities during rush hour. The initiative failed, thankfully, but the problem of congestion remains. And motorists' complaints continue to mount.
Now, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has come up with a new twist on that plan: congestion pricing for busy roads. The thought is that charging an exorbitant toll for traveling on the busiest roads at the busiest times will discourage motorists from doing so, thus reducing congestion. Trouble is, it won't work, and there is evidence to prove it.
In London, where a congestion pricing program is already in place, reports show that traffic jams have dropped by a mere 8 percent from pre-program levels and that congestion is already on the rise again. Despite a $14-per-vehicle fee, the program isn't producing much in the way of revenue either. To date, the city has spent nearly half of the money it has collected just to run the program.
Such pricing schemes are ineffective at best and excessively costly at worst. But consider the impact on motor freight carriers. Unlike consumers, truckers would not have the luxury of deciding whether to pay a premium to use busy roads at peak hours or wait for off-peak times. Because it's shippers, not truckers, who determine delivery schedules, truckers will either be forced to pay the extra fees or shift to nontoll routes and secondary roadways, thus adding to their costs.
Either way, the expenses will be passed on to the shipper, and then to the shipper's customer, and so on. Ultimately, it will be the same private motorists who complained about truck traffic in the first place who pay the price. And given that the costs of moving goods from the raw material stage to the point of final consumption represent as much as 75 percent of a product's end cost, it's likely to be a pretty hefty price.
But those motorists rarely stop to think about the implications of their actions, which means the clamor won't die down anytime soon. They may even get what they wished for. Then, they'll realize that trucks are only bad until you don't have them.