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August 30, 2022Episode 40. Of Needles and Haystacks: For truck drivers, finding a parking space is tougher than ever.
FEATURING: Nicole Katsikides
The COVID-19 pandemic helped to expose a chronic shortage of truck drivers in America – and a scarcity of places for those truckers to park, too. That has big implications for how we get the products we need, and how much we pay for them.
About Our Guest
Nicole Katsikides has worked in transportation planning, policy, and operations for agencies like the Maryland Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, and now at TTI for over 20 years. Her focus is on freight mobility and efficiency solutions. She is a member of the Transportation Research Board’s Freight Planning and Logistics Committee and Trucking Industry Research Committee. Nicole is also an adjunct professor for freight logistics at the Community College of Baltimore County.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:18):
Hello, again. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another, and why that’s rarely as simple as we might want it to be. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The COVID-19 outbreak helped to expose a chronic shortage of truck drivers in America. And the pandemic has also helped to shed light on yet another scarcity, a dearth of places for those truckers to park and rest before continuing their tiring cross-country journeys. That’s a much bigger issue than most of us may realize. Here to help us understand why, is Nicole Katsikides, a research scientist at TTI and an expert on this little-known, but very consequential topic in the trucking universe. Thank you for joining us today, Nicole.
Nicole Katsikides (guest) (01:17):
Happy to be here. Thank you so much.
Bernie Fette (01:20):
So, the trucking industry that you study is all about supply and demand. It’s about delivering things to address a need or a shortage of those things, but the industry has a couple of supply and demand challenges of its own that you and I were actually discussing last week. For one, there’s a shortage of drivers. And another one, the one that we’re focusing on today, is a shortage of places where those drivers can park their trucks — something that quite a few of us perhaps didn’t know about. The demand for parking spaces is much greater than the supply. So can we begin our conversation by asking you to frame the issue for us? Maybe just paint a picture for how extensive this problem is?
Nicole Katsikides (02:04):
Sure. Well, first off, let me say that the issue of truck parking is very complex. It’s very multifaceted and involves a mix of public and private sector entities, industries. And then you have drivers who represent major industries, as well as private drivers. They call them owner-operator. And of course the fleet drivers. So there’s a mix of a lot of people and a lot of interests involved in truck parking. But to put things into context, there’s about 3 million trucks that are registered in the United States that are considered the heavier trucks, but overall there’s about 158 million trucks registered in the United States. And there’s only 313,000 parking spaces in the United States, both public and private. So you have a lot of trucks operating and you only have a small percentage of parking spaces available. And when you think about, okay, so not all of those trucks are operating all day or every day, but there are over 302 billion vehicle miles that are traveled by trucks every year.
Nicole Katsikides (03:12):
So that’s a lot of truck movement and it’s a lot of activity. And one of these problems is that drivers need rest and drivers need places to park. And so when you consider all the trucks that are operating in the United States, all the vehicle miles traveled, there’s not a lot of places for truckers to park. And it’s easy for a lot of people to think, well, why don’t they just build more? Why doesn’t an industry provide it? And truck parking is one of these really complicated problems where it’s not lucrative for the private sector to build parking. It’s not easy to build parking because a lot of citizens don’t want it. And so you get into the situation with the not-in-my-backyard mentality or nimbyism where citizens hear the word truck parking, or if there’s even a proposal to have truck parking or expand truck parking, they don’t want it because they have a very negative perception about it. And they don’t really make a connection between the trucks that bring their goods to say Target or Walmart or wherever they’re shopping and the need for parking.
Bernie Fette (04:15):
Nicole, you mentioned something about the question of why we just don’t expect the industry to build more parking spaces. Part of the issue is that the industry itself operates on extremely thin margins, right? And it’s extremely competitive. Does that also figure into the reason why the industry is not providing a lot more parking?
Nicole Katsikides (04:36):
Yes. So industry in itself is broken into different categories, but a lot of the private truck parking locations, they make their money from fuel and amenities and they only have enough parking that they can afford within those margins. So adding parking is not their money-maker. They exist as a stop for fuel, food, showers, things like that. And then the truckers go on their way. So they’re not providing a lot of truck parking, and adding more only adds to the cost of doing business for them. So that’s where we have a market problem there.
Bernie Fette (05:10):
This is a problem that’s getting worse, is it?
Nicole Katsikides (05:11):
Yes, it’s definitely a problem that’s getting worse because the economy is growing and people are demanding more goods. There’s more product that’s moving every day. That product moves primarily by truck. And so the demand for parking continues to grow considerably. There’s another part of this, which has to do with the evolution to automated trucks, which we can talk about later, but right now, and at least for the immediate foreseeable future, it’s something that continues to be a problem. And it’s a safety challenge for many. And so it’s something that we need to try to work together to resolve.
Bernie Fette (05:48):
So it’s been a problem for quite a while, it’s getting worse, but it really only started to attract considerable attention several years ago. I think that when we talked once before you mentioned something called Ryan’s Law could you help us understand how Ryan’s Law and the story behind that and how that helped bring greater attention to this issue?
Nicole Katsikides (06:10):
Absolutely. So truck parking had been on the radar of law enforcement types back in the early 2000s because there had been issues of trucks parked on ramps and shoulders and the whole issue with drivers needing hours of rest and where to put them and where they should go and that sort of thing. But what happened in 2009 was a trucker by the name of Jason Rivenberg. He was traveling in South Carolina and he needed a place to park. And so truckers had gotten into, and they still do have like this network of communication where they share information about safe places to park, best places to go, that sort of thing. So they had shared information with Jason that there was an abandoned gas lot in South Carolina that truckers parked in and you could park there. And he did that and somebody broke into his truck and murdered him for just the $7 in his pocket.
Nicole Katsikides (07:03):
And so when this happened, there was this uproar among the trucking community. Like we really need to do something about this. And it was his wife, Hope, who worked with her congressman in New York and got a movement together. And they were supported by these trucking organizations like Real Women In Trucking who came up and said, you know, this is a problem that demands attention. And they were able to get to Capitol Hill and they were able to get, uh, Jason’s Law passed in the surface transportation law, Moving Ahead For Progress In The 21st Century, in 2012.
Bernie Fette (07:35):
What does that law provide for? What does it put on the books that wasn’t there before?
Nicole Katsikides (07:39):
So what it did was it put, uh, the focus on truck parking by requiring the United States Department of Transportation to study truck parking, evaluate the capability of states to provide adequate truck parking, evaluate volumes, and to develop a system of metrics, to measure truck parking going forward. And it required USDOT to do this assessment every couple of years. And when that happened, that was the catalyst that helped bring a lot of the stakeholders together to bring the attention, to bring states on board who, you know, state DOT types they’re really stretched thin. They have to do a lot with few resources and a truck parking hadn’t been something that many states had been focused on. And so this law and this effort to study it really helped to bring that discussion into focus for many states and the trucking stakeholders.
Bernie Fette (08:33):
And this is an example of how public policy fits into a solution mix. And I think it would be great if we could talk about solutions to the problem a little more broadly later in our discussion. But before we do that, I wanted to ask you, now that this issue is getting a lot more attention, if you could explain for those of us who aren’t truck drivers, why is this something that we should care about? What are the implications for instance, for us as consumers?
Nicole Katsikides (08:58):
Well, when truckers can’t find safe and adequate parking, there’s a couple of things that happen. One it’s a safety issue. And so truckers are parked in places where they don’t fit. And so when they’re in places like ramps and shoulders of roadways or highways, or they’re parked, maybe in lots that aren’t designed for them to be, and they’re mixing with regular traffic, passenger cars, there are safety challenges that happen. There have been crashes and problems because trucks are slower than passenger cars. And so sometimes when trucks are trying to get off of the ramp and back into traffic, there have been crashes where passenger cars have hit these trucks. And this has been a problem that many in the law enforcement community have identified. The other issue is an economic one because when there’s issues with the lack of truck parking, it’s more difficult for truckers to serve that area in urban areas where there’s high demand for product. What it becomes more of a truck parking tax, I like to call it, because it adds to the cost of doing business. They are stuck driving around, looking for parking, which adds to the cost of fuel and time and delay and ends up adding to the cost or gets tacked on in some way to the price of the good, which consumers have to pay. So when you’re in an area where there’s problems, that is gonna eventually add to the price of goods. In some areas like more rural areas where it’s a challenge, and there are cases of this too, then maybe truckers don’t serve these areas. And so it’s harder to get goods. And so those goods become more expensive because it’s harder to get those types of things shipped into that area. So it really does have a negative effect on consumers. It hits them in the wallet and they don’t realize it, and it hits them in jobs as well, because it’s an added issue and goods movement, or supply chains, are all about becoming more efficient. And so when you have something like truck parking, that’s creating inefficiencies and problems, it’s definitely having an impact on business and jobs and costs.
Bernie Fette (10:57):
This sounds a little like the dilemma concerning roadway space in terms of scarcity of those parking spaces. Just in Texas, for example, the number of registered vehicles has roughly tripled — up by about 200 percent — over the last 50 years, but the amount of lane miles that have been built to accommodate those vehicles has only grown by about 20 or 25 percent, just by a fraction. Truck parking seems to be seeing the same dilemma. There simply isn’t enough supply to keep up with the demand. So when we talk broadly about infrastructure needs in the United States, where does the truck parking issue belong in that discussion?
Nicole Katsikides (11:36):
Truck parking is a very critical part of that discussion. And so while the focus has largely been on adding capacity or finding ways to reduce congestion on roadways, or to maybe have modal shifts, to get people and goods, using different modes and to alleviate some of the congestion and, and space needs on highways, it’s important to consider the truck parking as part of that discussion, right there along parallel with all of that, because the transportation network in the United States is an important part of any U.S. business supply chain and when it is not available or inefficient, that only makes it harder for U.S. businesses to operate and to function. So having that truck parking element as part of the capacity and efficiency discussions that we have with roadways, I think is important because it is an element that is adding to some of the challenges that are happening on the roadway as well.
Bernie Fette (12:34):
And it seems to be one that’s been at least somewhat overlooked in that conversation.
Nicole Katsikides (12:40):
Yes. And I think that’s because there hasn’t been a clear understanding of who owns the truck parking issue. Who’s the champion? Who is responsible for building parking? And there’s, and that’s where it gets complicated because you have public lots and you have private lots, and states have tried to build different types of parking. But then there’s the private sector. And so the solutions involved in trying to solve for this really involve partnerships between these two entities, public and private, unlike ever before.
Bernie Fette (13:11):
Now we’re starting to touch on the solutions, which I hope that we can get into a little bit more in detail, but I’d kinda like to start with one specific solution that some people are talking about. There’s been a lot of work going into building self-driving long haul trucks. Mm-hmm, <affirmative> A lot of experts believe in fact, that self-driving trucks will be in widespread use long before self-driving passenger cars are. So will that bring any improvement? Is there any hope there? Is it oversimplifying to say that those self-driving trucks don’t need to park because they don’t involve a human driver?
Nicole Katsikides (13:48):
Yes. I think it’s oversimplifying. And I think it’s important that we, as part of the transportation community, are talking about not only the truck parking here and now, and how to help the human drivers, but also what this looks like as it evolves, because these self-driving trucks are here now, and there is a real push to get these things operational on the roadway. And what I’ve been thinking about this issue is that automated, trucking and automated truck transfer hubs is the new truck parking. So we need truck parking along right away and, and in areas with easy access to highways and such. But going forward, we’re looking at these automated trucks and we know that they’re gonna operate along our highway network, but they’re also going to need to transfer whatever they’re carrying to another truck that goes right into urban areas or rural areas. Yeah.
Bernie Fette (14:42):
Which is where you talk about your last mile.
Nicole Katsikides (14:44):
Exactly. Yeah. Middle-mile and last-mile operations. And so it needs to connect and transfer, whatever it is they’re carrying. It could be to another truck. It could be to a truck driven by a human. It could be to another automated truck for a particular leg, or it could be to a robot or a drone. There’s all kinds of concepts that are being unveiled and put into operation. And so to me, when I think about the truck parking issue, I think it’s important to think about, okay, today we need something to support the human drivers, but as we evolve over the next couple years, and I’m not talking like 15, 20 years from now, I’m talking like in the next five to 10 years, we’re gonna see an evolution. We need to figure out where we’re going to have these transfer hubs. And so we’re starting to see some of these automated companies buying property and having concepts and developing these transfer hubs so they can have that type of operation.
Nicole Katsikides (15:35):
But to me, that’s not really too different from truck parking because you need to have the truck pull in somewhere. You need to have a place for it to charge, cuz it’s likely gonna be electric. You need to have a place for the trailers to be switched or for the freight to transfer. And it may involve for a while human drivers who are taking it to the middle or last mile or first mile. And so that’s where I see this evolving. And I don’t think that this need for truck parking is gonna go away simply because we’re going to have automated trucks in the next, you know, five to 10 years. Right?
Bernie Fette (16:07):
So if, if self-driving trucks, aren’t the magic solution that some might say that they are, you’ve talked a little bit about how this is something that requires a partnership of problem solvers. When we think about, or talk about solutions to infrastructure problems, we’re often talking about public sector entities first — actions by government agencies — but there are other groups working on this. As you had mentioned to me before specifically, you mentioned the group called Real Women In Trucking. Can you tell us what’s happening with that group and what sort of a role that group or groups like it play in meeting this challenge?
Nicole Katsikides (16:46):
Well, there’s a number of industry groups out there who are doing different things for trucking owner-operator, independent drivers association, American Trucking Association, ATA, and Real Women In Trucking in particular — they were involved in the Jason’s law effort and they continued to be involved in a very grassroots way of reaching truckers through different types of mediums, whether it’s Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or radio shows. And their goal has been to try to educate truckers about how they can be involved in the discussion. And they’ve done some great things, great outreach. And I think it’s because of them that they had a lot of truckers respond to some of the surveys and things that have been out there seeking to know the best solutions or best practices that truckers would prefer when it comes to solving for truck parking. So again, there’s a lot of industry groups that have been doing a lot of things. Real Women In Trucking in particular has been very vocal and involved and they’ve even were involved in a recent Hollywood production, a movie that brought to light for more, uh, human trafficking. But it also, if you watch the movie, they put on the screen, a lot of the trucking issues that truckers face day to day, which is pretty cool.
Bernie Fette (17:58):
You talked a little about how complex the problem is, and it sounds like the solutions might need to be equally complex?
Nicole Katsikides (18:07):
Yes. So I’ve been involved in helping the State of Maryland with their truck parking work for a long time. And, and um, now I’m helping Texas and some other states. And it’s very interesting to me that there’s a lot of options to help the truck parking problem. Some of them are low hanging fruit, and I know that’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s true. So for example, a state DOT if it’s not too costly and if it’s easy to do, and they’re not gonna face the nimbyism that I talked about, they can re-stripe and maybe add a couple of spaces at existing lots. They can maybe add capacity by paving a little bit more space at existing lots. And that has been the easier thing to do because it’s already an established lot. And they’re just trying to squeeze out extra capacity.
Nicole Katsikides (18:55):
Some of the more complex, but necessary solutions have involved figuring out how to make truck parking more lucrative or make it work for the private sector. So for example, one solution that Maryland DOT has been looking at is where they have excess property near private truck parking locations or fuel stops. And do they have maybe a half an acre or so, or an acre next to some of these locations that could be donated to the private sector and the private sector develops it for parking. And so that way it takes the cost of purchasing property from the private sector and makes it more profitable for the private sector to expand parking if they could, you know, just trying to make it cheaper by offering the property for a very low rate or free. So there are some property options there. There’s also a lot of efforts that involve just trying to make truckers aware of what’s available.
Nicole Katsikides (19:50):
So trying to get information about where truck parking is and if it’s full or not, and this involves a range of things, and this is where it can get expensive, especially if it involves outfitting lots with cameras and sensors to have that kind of real-time information. But there’s some other options that states are exploring such as just simply providing historical data on whether there’s a lot of trucks stopped there. So there’s information solutions. There’s brick and mortar solutions. There’s some what we call public-private partnership solutions where states can either offer funds or incentives to build parking. A big part of the solution though, is the local governments. If state DOT people are already strapped, local governments are even more pressed to do more with less. They have less funding. They have to do a lot of different things. Plus they’re dealing day to day with citizens who don’t like truck parking. So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the public perception side, as well as working with locals on when they build an industrial facility or when they engage in economic development, understanding how to maybe add in some parking to support those economic activities. That’s a major lift for part of the solutions.
Bernie Fette (21:03):
And definitely again, very complex. This is starting to resemble for me anyway, starting to resemble an octopus. There’s a lot of tentacles here.
Nicole Katsikides (21:11):
Bernie Fette (21:13):
I know that your expertise goes beyond the somewhat narrow issue of parking though. You’re looking at supply chains too, right?
Nicole Katsikides (21:20):
Bernie Fette (21:21):
So looking ahead, in the event of another huge disruption — you know, like a global public health crisis — mm-hmm <affirmative> in terms of supply chains, how ready are we?
Nicole Katsikides (21:33):
I think that we’ve learned a lot from this pandemic situation, but I think if today, if we all heard that there was another pandemic, another global health scare, or even a huge disaster of some sort, and especially if it affected where we get most of our products. So like if it affected the production of things and everything just kind of shut down again, I don’t think we’re in a real better place because I think that anytime you shut down this, uh, production, I liken it to an airplane engine. That thing gets shut down and it takes a while for it to get spun up. And so if you shut down production, like for example, what happened with COVID, to get that spun back up again, and to get it to that equilibrium where the supply chain is working, the just-in-time type of elements that were built into supply chains to get that back, take some time.
Nicole Katsikides (22:32):
And so we’re in this recovery phase now. And it’s getting better, but it’s still not great. We’re still having trouble getting parts and things, you know, it’s like spinning back up that engine. It takes some time to get back to the equilibrium that we had. And there were always fixes within the supply chain, or always trying to make it more lean or more efficient, but shutting it down completely is going to have another wave of problems. There have been a lot of lessons learned, I think though, by companies, in terms of inventory and having extra product on hand, especially when it comes to like pharmaceuticals and baby formula and healthcare products and things like that. And we’re kind of getting into the weeds of a true public policy problem, because I think governments need to think about if there is something like this, what types of goods do we need to make sure that we have enough to support the nation if things get shut down again? Other things are more expendable. You don’t need ’em as much, you know, um, like video games, for example. But important products, you’re gonna need to have a stockpile. And that gets into some economic issues that get into the whole discussion of, um, supply and demand and excess and costs and things like that. But I don’t think we’re too much better off, actually, in my opinion. I think we’ve learned a lot and we can have some important products on hand that we need, like healthcare products, but then anytime you shut down production, it’s gonna take some time to get spun back up again in order to have that flow.
Bernie Fette (24:04):
So we have some lessons learned, still some areas for improvement or room for improvement.
Nicole Katsikides (24:08):
Bernie Fette (24:09):
There’s one test in particular that we’ll be experiencing in the not too distant future, one that might hit close to home for many of us. It’s September, as we’re having this conversation. We’re not far off from holiday shopping and shipping season. Given what we’ve been talking about, as consumers, what should we expect?
Nicole Katsikides (24:32):
So I think it’s important that just like last year, we’re a little bit leaner in terms of supply chains. And so it’s important if you wanna shop for the holidays, do it sooner than later. In fact, if you drive by your favorite big box store, right now, you might notice a bunch of containers in the parking lot. All of that is full of Christmas stuff. The stuff that, yeah, the stuff that is gonna be out there for the holiday shopping, the stuff that gets put on the shelves around October, end of September, that’s all shipped well before the end of the year.
Bernie Fette (25:04):
It’s sitting there and waiting.
Nicole Katsikides (25:06):
It’s sitting there and waiting, but that’s what they have. And so if you wait and you don’t get it and you don’t do your shopping. I’m always a early shopper because of this and my experience with supply chains. If you wait, you’re gonna be in jeopardy of not having it. And so we’re leaner, they’re making less, they’re having less inventory for some of these things and it’s harder to get. So if I were you, I would go shopping sooner than later. And also know that if you do order things, probably past October, you could be looking at a month or two wait to get any product. And if you’re in December, unless it’s something they have a lot of excess of, you’re probably out of luck. So you do not wanna wait. And unlike past years where maybe they had more inventory coming behind those boxes, that containers that you see at like Target and Walmart and whatever right now, there’s probably a lot less of that. And also with some of the supply chain issues, it’s even slower to get to you. So shop early. Get it done. And, you know, just expect long shipping times, if you do order anything after October.
Bernie Fette (26:10):
I never would’ve realized it before this conversation, but obviously your job has given you an advantage over the rest of us in at least that respect.
Nicole Katsikides (26:19):
True. <laugh> yeah. I’m always done my shopping by the end of September. <laugh>
Bernie Fette (26:24):
Tell us what it is that makes you excited to come to work every day.
Nicole Katsikides (26:29):
I just love this stuff. I love solving problems for the, I I’ve been in the public sector my whole career. And even though I do a lot with the private sector, I just really love solving things for the public. Even though it can be a thankless job sometimes. And people may not always appreciate all the work that goes into all the things that people like, transportation planners or us researchers at TTI, and, you know, our DOTs do. I just really enjoy, uh, understanding these issues and trying to solve them and working with people to try to solve them and learning about these types of things like supply chains. When I started out in my career, I never thought that I would end up in freight and doing things with freight and having this information in my head that I, that I know now, but it’s, I love to learn and working on these different things gives me that opportunity to learn something new every day. And I enjoy it. And TTI is, if you don’t mind me saying so here, is such a wonderful place, that people are so fantastic and everybody, no matter what their function is at TTI, they’re all the best of the best. And I it’s been a pleasure to be part of the TTI family for these past five years.
Bernie Fette (27:37):
Nicole Katsikides. Full-time research scientist at TTI and part-time expert on holiday shopping.
Nicole Katsikides (27:45):
Yes, that’s right. <laugh>
Bernie Fette (27:47):
Thank you, Nicole, for helping us understand a problem that so many of us really haven’t known very much about until now. Thanks again.
Nicole Katsikides (27:55):
Thank you. It was an honor to do this. So thanks for having me.
Bernie Fette (28:00):
More than 158 million trucks are registered in the U.S., of which about 3 million are heavy trucks — what we typically call 18-wheelers, but there are fewer than 313,000 public and private parking spaces available. Those trucks are not all on the road at the same time, of course, but if they were, that means only one parking space for every 504 trucks. It’s a problem that multiple parties are working to address before it gets much worse. Thanks for listening. Next time, we’ll visit with Lisa Minjares and take a close look at the youngest drivers on the road — those who are also some of the most dangerous. Please join us again in two weeks. And if you would please, give us a review, subscribe and share this episode. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.