Root Causes

Identification of the Root Cause(s)

The task of identifying the root cause of a freight challenge may be the most important part of the DM process. With the root cause identified, a planner/manager can begin to determine the spectrum of potential solutions. On the other hand, the wrong identification can take the entire effort in the wrong direction.

It is imperative that the process be as unbiased, objective, and accurate as possible. This is of great relevance in urban freight. Although trucks may be the visible expression of freight activity, the sources of a problem involving trucks may lie elsewhere. For example, truck idling frequently is the result of the inability or unwillingness of receivers to accept deliveries, and the congestion produced in the vicinity of large buildings is frequently aggravated by delivery-time restrictions that shorten the period of time when deliveries can be made. In these situations, fining the drivers or charging higher tolls during peak traffic hours may fail to reduce the congestion because carriers cannot change delivery times without the concurrence of the receivers. Recognizing the chief role played by the receivers (the root cause) leads to a different set of solutions, such as the establishment of appointment systems for deliveries, allowing delivery trucks to use off-street parking spaces, and an off-hour delivery (OHD) program to induce receivers to accept deliveries outside regular business hours. The careful identification of the root causes of a problem can help lead to more appropriate, and therefore more effective solutions. The NCFRP Report 14: Guidebook for Understanding Urban Goods Movement provides an effective guideline for planners to understand the movement of different types of goods and how to collect data to evaluate their impacts (Rhodes et al. 2012). Another publication, NCFRP Report 23: Synthesis of Freight Research in Urban Transportation Planning (Giuliano et al. 2013) provides a good starting point for planning staff to get an overview of freight impacts, problems, and existing strategies, and eventually, to identify the root causes.

The identification process typically involves technical analyses (e.g., traffic counts, capacity and level-of-service analysis, and travel time and delay studies), and consultations with stakeholders to develop a solid idea about the potential reasons behind the problem. These consultations are very important to provide public-sector professionals, who may lack familiarity with the underpinnings of the freight system, with insights into real-world cause and effects.

To identify root causes of freight issues faced by the planning agencies, Freight Trip Generation (FTG) software has been created based on models developed by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The purpose of the FTG software is to recognize and categorize the level of freight trips produced and attracted by a particular study area of interest. A detailed description of how the FTG software works and a link to access the software are provided in the Appendix of this Guide. The careful identification of the root cause of the problem being addressed is the common key success factor in the case studies provided in Section 3.

Key tasks involved in the identification process are.

  • Stakeholder outreach and agency coordination.
    • Agency staff ask stakeholders, decision makers, and the agency leadership to identify what they view as a freight issue, as well as the factors that create it. Involvement at this stage will garner greater understanding and buy-in for the implementation of any ultimate solution.
  • Data collection, assessment, and analysis.
    • To minimize the risks of misinformation or being influenced by biased views of an issue, the agency staff seek input from multiple individuals within the same stakeholder group. In-depth interviews with company representatives, focus groups with selected private-sector representatives, and interviews with staff from trade groups provide invaluable information about the root causes of the freight issue. This information is carefully filtered by the agency staff to account for the inherent bias that may be reflected in the opinions stated by some stakeholders.
    • It is important to collect information to analyze and assess future conditions because issues and problems change over time. This is especially true with freight that is market-driven; new products, technologies, population shifts, and infrastructure changes can alter the way freight is transported.
  • Generation of outputs.
    • For each condition or issue of concern, agency staff develop a solid identification of the root causes that produce it and the analyses that support the conclusions.

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