We've all been in conversations like this, i'm sure, at one social event or another. Someone laments how bad the traffic is and before long, trucks come into the conversation—frequently in a negative way. They're too big, too dangerous, the cause of congestion. They ought to be banned from one place or another, or limited to when they can travel the highways or city streets.
My standard response is to point out that everyone in the room relies on trucks, that it's likely every article of clothing, every piece of furniture, every bit of food on the buffet table—and the plates the food is sitting on—moved by truck. It may not win the argument, but the point is taken. Even those who dislike trucks grudgingly admit their value.
I was thinking about all this while looking into a meeting taking place this month. From June 15-17, the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute will host a conference with the cumbersome title "International Conference on Efficient, Safe, and Sustainable Truck Transportation Systems for the Future." (The Web site address is more euphonious: magictrucks.org.) The meeting occurs in the shadow of last year's record high fuel prices, wide consideration of infrastructure investments, concerns about how emissions may be affecting the Earth's climate, and a worldwide economic recession.
Perhaps the key question for those attending the conference—one suggested by the organizers—is how to develop freight transportation policies that "support a vibrant economy while protecting environmental and public interests." The idea is to bring together policymakers, researchers, carriers, and shippers to examine data and research from around the world with the hope of guiding policy decisions with facts rather than the sorts of emotionally driven conversations I mentioned above.
The UMTRI conference takes place as Congress begins the long and complex task of developing the next highway bill and in the midst of a significant study by the Joint Transport Research Centre of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Transport Forum. The study aims to respond to public demands for improved safety and sustainable operations, along with what is widely expected to be a sharp rise in demand for freight transportation.
Those at the conference have their work cut out for them. Grappling with transportation policy was difficult enough when it involved balancing parochial economic and regional interests with national goals. Add to that issues of safety, security, global warming, and international trade, and finding a palatable policy recipe becomes nearly unachievable. But our economic health depends on it. Wish them luck.