Noel Massie's days are dominated by two things: trucks and minutes. He has too many of one, too little of the other — the defining struggle between traffic and time that bedevils America's goods-movement industry, not to mention everyone else trying to get from here to there every day.
"I am in the business of minutes," says Massie, until recently president of United Parcel Services' Southern California region, now manager of national operations at the company's Atlanta headquarters. "If the plane leaves at 7, you either get there or somebody doesn't get what they need in time. Brain scans for someone's surgery. Tissue samples for the lab. You can't mess that up. Minutes make us or break us."
Lately those minutes are braking bad for Massie — pun intended. The rise of e-commerce and the allure of next-day and same-day delivery, for all its convenience to consumers, has hit transportation like a tidal wave. UPS' model has shifted from efficient business-to-business deliveries of whole truckloads of goods to those same truckloads dropped off a parcel at a time at a hundred different doorsteps. The number of trips required to deliver the same amount of goods has multiplied by several orders of magnitude in just a few years.
Traffic jams are the enemy in this new reality, a $160-billion yearly hit to the national economy, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and the traffic data company Inrix. Every minute added to the average daily route of a UPS driver costs the company $12.5 million.
Massie blames inadequate investment in roads and a national gas tax, which is supposed to pay for our highways but falls short by half and has been unchanged since 1993. It seems we want all the advantages of world-class people movement and goods movement, but we won't pay for it.
Worse, when we do spend, we skimp on "boring" maintenance (the backlog is now $3.6 trillion) and go for flashy projects with great ribbon-cutting appeal but little effect on traffic jams. Remember Carmageddon? The $1.3-billion lane expansion of a 10-mile stretch of the 405 made the rush-hour drive over the Sepulveda Pass slower, not quicker. The problem is "induced demand" — more lanes attract more cars.
Meanwhile, a bridge over a wash on Interstate 10 in Hell, Calif. (you can't make this up), faced the usual deferred maintenance. When a storm demolished it last year, the cost in delays and extra fuel for the trucking industry came to $2.5 million a day. And that was just one bridge; the American Road and Transportation Builders Assn. says there are 58,495 of them in as bad or worse condition.
In Los Angeles, not only do we have the worst traffic in the country, but the goods-movement part of the picture is projected to double in the metropolitan area by 2035. It doesn't help that the same consumers who want quick delivery of their online orders tend to hate and oppose the trucking industry that makes it all possible. One famous battleground: the incomplete 710 Freeway, part of the most important goods-movement corridor on the continent, connecting America's biggest port complex to the rest of the country.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are solutions that won't break the bank and don't involve big construction projects (OK, not for the 710 — that requires either a tunnel or extending the surface freeway).
1. Pay your own way
End the gas tax and replace it with congestion pricing: a user fee for major highways that goes up at peak times and drops off as traffic diminishes. Half the trips during rush hour are not work-related; they could be shifted to other times. Congestion pricing provides the incentive that's now missing for drivers to make that shift.
Congestion pricing requires very little infrastructure investment beyond electronic toll scanners and a billing system. Drivers hate tolls, but they're no more regressive than the gas tax and have the benefit of actually fixing traffic. After London established congestion pricing, it saw a 30% reduction in congestion, a 14% reduction in trip times and a 9% drop in carbon emissions.
2. Forget 9 to 5
This is a no brainer, not least because it doesn't have the public toxicity of tolls. Through a voluntary program or with tax incentives, persuade major employers to stagger work start and finish times during the week. Letting just 10% of employees work at home one day, or even a half day, a week would have a dramatic effect on congestion. These combined strategies would be far more effective than adding lanes to any of L.A.'s freeways.
3. Convert car pool lanes
The diamond lanes are a failure. Fewer than 9% of commuters car pool, less than half the number 35 years ago. Converting car pool lanes to dedicated big-rig lanes in major goods-movement corridors would do much more to provide congestion relief. Using the lanes for express buses only would be a cheap alternative to building new rail systems.
4. Walk to school
The city of Los Angeles recently calculated that half of all trips in the metropolitan area are under three miles — easy walking or biking distance. Yet 84% of those short trips are made in cars, including school drop offs. In 1969, just under half of American children walked or biked to school. By 2009, the walkers and bikers had dropped to 13%. Because the school bell coincides with rush hour, the generational shift away from walking and biking to class adds to traffic at the worst possible time of day. With P.E. credits as incentives for kids, and with parent volunteers as safety monitors, bike and walking paths could improve our health, our air and our traffic jams.
Edward Humes's latest book is "Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation."