METRANS Urban Frieght Conference

Knowledge in Action:

Getting the Goods on a Moving Dilemma

By Steve Hymon

METRANS Urban Freight Conference

Each day in metro areas such as Southern California, millions of motorists steer onto the region’s roadways. Tens of thousands of other people take to the skies from one of the region’s airports. Others roll across the region aboard trains.

Simultaneously, another little transportation drama is playing on the region’s stage. Millions of tons of freight – the stuff we eat, the televisions we watch, the cars we drive (to name just a few) – are pouring into and out of the region on ships, trucks, trains and planes.

The inevitable result isn’t pretty – and it’s not just happening in Southern California. Moving people and freight across crowded urban areas contributes to traffic headaches, pollution and issues of equity – some communities, usually low-income locales, are besieged with freight traffic while others rarely see much more than a moving van.

In late October, more than 200 experts from the world of goods movement converged on the National Urban Freight Conference, held over three days in Long Beach. It was the kind of event in which high-tech issues – is a humid air system the best way to reduce some diesel emissions from freight? – mixed with broader questions such as whether freight movement and livable communities can coexist.

USC staff and students played a big role in the conference, which was organized by the METRANS Transportation Center, a research partnership between USC and Cal State University, Long Beach. The center’s mission is to solve transportation problems that bedevil large metro areas – and the movement of cargo certainly qualifies.

Southern California is “home to every conceivable urban freight problem you can imagine,” said Genevieve Giuliano, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development professor and the director of METRANS, during her opening remarks to the conference.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach combined are the busiest in the United States, and Los Angeles International Airport is the third-largest air freight hub in the nation. The region is also a major rail hub, with tracks radiating from Los Angeles to the rest of the country.

And where is all the freight going? Pointing to a map showing clusters of the nation’s population east of the Mississippi River, the Federal Highway Administration’s Mike Onder remarked that these “people need a constant supply of goods.”

Traffic and logistics aren’t the only issue. According to the California Air Resources Board, the ports – with their idling ships, trucks and trains – are the top source of air pollution in the region, contributing to 2,100 early deaths each year. Other studies have linked cancer to freight corridors.

Yet conference attendees also acknowledged that freight movement provides tens of thousands of jobs and contributes to the region’s quality of life. Thus emerged the conference’s central question: Can Southern California enjoy the benefits of freight movement without destroying communities the freight travels through?

One of the early panel discussions centered on that dilemma. While panelists debated the ability of the freight industry to make investments in cleaner equipment that would benefit communities near ports, freeways and rail yards, another member of the panel, School of Policy, Planning, and Development assistant professor Lisa Schweitzer took the less popular view.

She wasn’t so sure that freight and livable communities should mix. In her view, the problem is that trucks, trains and people-friendly neighborhoods are simply not compatible no matter how clean the trucks and trains may be.

Schweitzer joined another speaker in pointing to the fact that urban freight does not exist in a vacuum – it’s a product, to some degree, of people wanting more and more goods.

“No one is talking about wrestling a box of Cheerios from a child’s hands,” she said, “… but at some point, we have to say to ourselves that we can’t have everything.”

Kyle Reppert, a USC student pursuing a master’s degree in planning, was impressed with the range of issues at the conference – from the highly technical to the kind of big questions lay people could understand.

“You get a package in the mail, but you never really think about it coming off a cargo ship in L.A., being sent to someplace like Atlanta and then later being shipped back to someone in California,” Reppert said. “Even though I’m studying all of these transportation issues, there were a lot of things discussed at the conference that you never think about – and probably should.”

Photo by Cristina Salvador
METRANS director Genevieve Giuliano with conference keynote speaker Eddy Van de Voorde, University of Antwerp