We don't get it. Again. This time, what has us puzzled is why people so often assume "logistics" is only about freight. The logistics components of our supply chain management professional organizations are all about moving goods, from node to node in the supply chain, from port to distribution networks, from wherever to market. We don't get into how best to move people—ever.
Why not? In Europe, the scope of logistics practice and research encompasses the transport of human beings. Not that Europe always has to be the model for U.S. practice, but addressing challenges and opportunities in both product and people movement seems to us to be not only natural, but necessary.
We're not necessarily talking about leisure travel, family vacations, visits to Mickey Mouse, or over the river and through the woods at Thanksgiving. But it seems logical to contemplate issues in how to get people to work, and in how to make business travel efficient and effective. The next level would entail how to bundle these folks into what transport modes to find the right balance of time, cost, and ergonomic considerations.
In Billy Joel's words, "You may be right, I may be crazy," but all this people movement consumes enormous resources today. And whatever challenges we face right now will only intensify as economic recovery takes hold.
One of those challenges, of course, is how to accommodate the rising volume of both freight and passenger traffic on roads that are already near—or over—capacity. The highways are jammed at all hours of the day and night in logistics hub locations and on the main arteries of commerce. Many cities are plagued with crippling traffic standstills at any hour, and for no apparent reason.
Passenger rail is being touted as a solution in many localities, but that raises a whole host of other concerns. In some places, a toe-in-the-water approach to reintroducing passenger rail is to establish service using the same tracks that freight runs on. That might sound reasonable until you consider that the rail industry is already struggling with significant capacity and infrastructure constraints. The tier one railroads are double tracking and double stacking as fast as they can, but these projects require sizeable capital investments.
High-speed rail is also being promoted as a solution on the passenger side, but that seems highly impractical to us. In no way could track be shared with freight movement. Further, the lanes with sufficient population bases to make high-speed rail remotely feasible are very, very few.
Light rail systems (which make use of electric railcars) are also being widely endorsed for both intra- and inter-urban applications. Again, there is the capital requirement, which can run into the billions of dollars for even limited development. That reservation is followed by uncertainty about: 1) the length of the learning curve, i.e., how many generations would it take for light rail to gain widespread acceptance; and 2) whether people who won't ride buses in sufficient numbers to make them pay off will ever ride trains.
We don't want to give the impression that we're anti-train, or anti-solution. We love train travel, and use it whenever it is both available and a sensible alternative.
But we're also realists. Selling the public on mass transit will be an uphill battle. When passenger rail and buses were in their heyday, there was no interstate highway system and even the four-lane highway was a novelty. Air travel was a curiosity, with extremely limited capacity. The ability to change a flat tire was a requisite driving skill. Many families did not own even one automobile, and a three-car garage was unheard of outside the enclaves of the fabulously wealthy.
In sum, these old-time transport modes were not "alternatives," they were practical necessities used by relatively large numbers of people who had no other reasonable choices.
Today, the landscape has been radically altered. In point of fact, in many cities (somewhat excepting those with large commuting populations), mass transit has become the carriage of last resort for those who can't afford the preferred modes.
The whole ball of wax
Questions of public attitude aside, there's an umbrella issue, we think, of how to plan and solve problems in the complete universe of the logistics of moving people. What's going on with buses? How should long-distance and local buses be configured? What's the mix of styles and capacities for use in big cities, small towns, and long-distance travel? Are there dedicated-lane alternatives that make sense for all constituencies? What are the green impacts of decisions and alternatives?
Similarly, what about trains? What kinds make sense in what environments? How can they be paid for? How should they network/integrate? What are the real target markets? How can they be greener in addition to simply hauling more bodies at one time?
And on the road, again, what are the infrastructure needs specific to people movement? Can one solution make all the problems go away? If not, how can we mix and match alternatives with an eye toward adjusting the mix as conditions change?
Within vehicles, how can we—in market-attractive ways—design more purpose-built automobiles for commuting, local shopping, long-distance travel, group movement (e.g., car pools), and transport to multimodal terminals? How much greener can we get? How can we accelerate alternative fuel development?
One emerging concept is car-sharing. Zipcar is a nationwide (plus London and Vancouver) membership organization, a pay-per-use alternative to auto ownership and upkeep. Others include I-Go in Chicago, PhillyCar-Share in Philadelphia, and City CarShare in Northern California.
What about trucks? How long for hybrid and alternative fuel versions to leave the realm of noble experiment and become mainstream choices? How serious will we get—and how soon—about these options for heavy-duty over-the-road carriage? Can we afford another round of emission regulation that drives down fuel efficiency and drives up fuel consumption at a time of oil price volatility?
And along with these questions, is anyone thinking about—independent of funding mechanisms—the importance of a nationally integrated system of carriage for both goods and people, operating on a master-planned and maintained physical infrastructure, to domestic economic performance and environmental health?
And for our profession?
Whether the debate takes place at the national or local level, we are persuaded that any discussion of people logistics could benefit mightily from the energy and creativity of the professional logistics and supply chain community—and their professional associations. This community has been a critical part of re-ordering how we handle and move—and plan for—products and materials to the point at which we are world leaders in the field.
It seems that we ought to be seeing that we have common cause with the professionals specializing in people logistics, and that we ought to invite them into our big tent. Imagine the power and potential of adding our talents and insights to theirs (and theirs to ours).
Maybe the time has come to work together on options and solutions in moving people, integrating the resulting initiatives with freight movement programs and practices whenever their interests or venues coincide.