Improving Freight System Performance in Metropolitan Areas: Planning Guide

Improving Freight System Performance in Metropolitan Areas: Planning GuideNCFRP – Report 33

Freight flows are physical manifestations of the manufacturing and consumer economies that are foundations of modern life. Transportation policy seeks to ensure that freight is moved as efficiently as possible, as hampering the flow of cargo is bound to have a negative effect on the economy. If freight shipments are delayed or unreliable, the economy accrues economic losses in the form of reduced economic output due to a lack of input materials, increased inventories to account for the unreliability of deliveries, and higher production costs due to inefficient or unreliable freight transport. At the same time, freight activity produces negative effects, given that freight-vehicle traffic creates congestion, pollution, noise, and infrastructure damage. Public policy strives to maximize the net social benefits of freight activity, maximizing the benefits of reliable freight flows while minimizing the negative externalities of freight-vehicle traffic.

Achieving this goal is a challenge, however: The functioning of the freight system is influenced by the decisions of multiple agents—most notably shippers and receivers—that are primarily concerned with the profitability of their businesses and not naturally inclined to participate in public policy making. The system is also very large and multifaceted. It is important to consider all available freight modes, as well as the infrastructure and operations carried by each of them. Analyses also need to account for multiple vehicle classes, including the delivery vans and small trucks that produce about 80% of freight traffic, and the complex interactions between freight activities in the urban core and those in the suburbs, where most deliveries originate. There is a chronic lack of data and fundamental knowledge about how the system works, and how best to induce behavior changes among the system’s participants, in order to achieve public policy goals. The lack of research means that there is no accepted body of knowledge to help policymakers decide how best to tackle freight issues. Moreover, the research available is dispersed across a collection of reports and journal articles that are out of reach to many professionals. Complicating the matter further, no comprehensive catalog exists of public-sector initiatives that could be used to address freight issues.

Scope of Guide

Throughout this Planning Guide (the Guide), the term “initiatives” refers to the entire spectrum of mechanisms that the public sector can use to foster sustainable practices. Such initiatives include projects, programs, and policies.

The main objective of the Guide is to help fill this void by

(a) outlining the basic elements of an urban freight transportation decision-making (DM) process,

(b) providing guidance on how to identify potential public-sector initiatives, and

(c) introducing a complete catalog of those that could be considered by public agencies.

To develop the Guide, the research team identified the various initiatives that have been used or proposed for use in the near term, produced a comprehensive classification system, and conducted a critical examination of evidence concerning the performance of the initiatives. During the review process, the team elected to include all of the initiatives identified, discussing in each case the potential pros and cons that the initiative could bring to the system. The review of more than 150 references led to the identification of 54 initiatives, which were then classified into eight major groups as follows:

  • Infrastructure management
  • Parking/loading areas management
  • Vehicle-related strategies
  • Traffic management
  • Pricing, incentives, and taxation
  • Logistical management
  • Freight demand/land use management
  • Stakeholder engagement

The groups were organized as part of a continuum, with supply initiatives at one end, demand-related initiatives at the other, and operational and financial strategies in the middle, under a constant interaction with the corresponding key stakeholders.

General Guidance and a Framework for DM

The Guide is designed to provide practitioners with general guidance and a framework for DM, together with a comprehensive list, information, and descriptions of public-sector initiatives. Case studies have been included to complement and add illustrative depth to decision frameworks and to provide real-life examples from a number of U.S. cities showing some of the intricacies involved in planning, from choice to implementation: costs and benefits, stakeholder groups and funding arrangements involved, unintended effects, and compromises in approach and effects.


The Guide has limitations worth mentioning. To start, the Guide is not a substitute for the due diligence required to properly analyze the potential of any particular initiative to address a given urban freight issue. In-depth analyses must always be conducted to ensure selection of the most appropriate path. Such analyses require an adequate diagnosis of the problem, an objective analysis of potential solution alternatives, careful consideration of the associated benefits and costs, assessment and consideration of trade-offs involved, and identification of potential unintended consequences. The Guide’s main objective is to provide guidance regarding the alternatives that could be considered in a variety of common freight system situations/scenarios. It is intended to be general, as it is not possible to discuss the myriad, highly specific application environments that characterize freight practice in the United States.

Types of initiatives

The initiatives presented in this Guide have been adopted into practice or are on the verge of being adopted. Futuristic ideas are not presented, because there is not enough research on their applicability for improving the freight system. This Guide also focuses on changes that will directly impact freight performance within a metropolitan area.

Focus on Metropolitan and Urban Areas

Throughout this Guide, the terms metropolitan and urban are frequently used. Although the Guide is intended to focus on the metropolitan area, the bulk of the issues in freight system performance are in the urban area. The Guide is intended to serve as a comprehensive reference for all aspects of an urban area, from the urban core to more suburban and exurban (urban fringe) areas which, combined together, encompass the metropolitan area.

It is recognized that some improvements to outlying areas such as ports and terminals could also impact the freight performance. For purposes of this Guide, however, improvements to such outlying areas are not covered in detail. Other tools are available that could aid decision makers in making improvements at these other locations. For example, the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) and the U.S. DOT Maritime Administration are developing a port investment plan toolkit (American Association of Port Authorities 2013). Such resources will supplement this Guide.

“Initiative Selector” Tool

In addition to this electronic version of the planning guide, an “Initiative Selector” tool has been developed. The Initiative Selector is an HTML webpage that acts as a decision-support system to aid in the selection of possible alternatives for various problems. For a given set of inputs, the Initiative Selector provides practitioners with suggestions about potential initiatives that could be implemented to fix the given problem. The Initiative Selector is by no means a replacement for engineering and planning; rather, it offers solutions that might be considered for various situations and would help in minimizing the time devoted by planners to look for alternatives applicable to their local needs. The Initiative Selector can be found at

Freight Trip Generation (FTG) software

Finally, this Guide is accompanied by Freight Trip Generation (FTG) software that serves as a tool for planners to identify main locations where freight is an issue in terms of freight trips produced and attracted. Uses and specifications for the FTG software are described in the Appendix.

The Guide contains three sections and some back matter:

Section 1 provides a basic overview of key components of an urban freight DM process.

Section 2 presents succinct discussions of public-sector initiatives that could be considered, including summary tables for each initiative presented in the Guide, together with planning and design considerations, and references for further reading.

Section 3 describes nine case studies from diverse cities across the United States that offer lessons for transportation professionals. The back matter presents the references cited in the Guide as well as the supporting Appendix.

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