How Much Blame Long-Haul Trucks Deserve for Awful Denver Traffic
CDOT via YouTube
If it seems as if every major thoroughfare in metro Denver is under construction right now, there are plenty of reasons for that, including the Central 70, I-25 South Gap and C-470 projects, among many others.

As a result, there are even more parts of the system where traffic regularly comes to a crawl, especially during morning and afternoon commutes or when it's raining or snowing — and the presence of long-haul trucks, whose large size and difficulty getting rolling again after stopping often seems to make a bad situation worse.

Can anything be done to mitigate the negative impact of these trucks by, for instance, restricting the times they can travel or requiring them to take alternate routes in order to help traffic flow at least a little better through cone zones? Not really, admits Jason Wallis, freight senior authority for the Colorado Department of Transportation — though the agency is trying to use the power of persuasion to get truckers to travel when they're less likely to contribute to clogs.

One example of the difference that can be made by keeping long-haul trucks off highways during regular commuting hours was the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Local officials afraid of television networks blasting images of their clogged highways across the globe decided to restrict the movement of trucks for the span of the games, and the tactic reduced traffic congestion by an estimated 60 percent.

A similar experiment in Denver is a non-starter, however. Under current law, Wallis says, "we are not able to limit specific vehicles except for certain safety reasons. There are some hazmat exceptions, but for daily purposes, we can't ban any particular vehicle."

Besides, Wallis doesn't think it's fair to blame semi-truckers for gridlock.

"They do contribute, but they're not the sole contributor," he maintains. "And the larger the volume gets, they actually have less impact. There's a tipping point where the system is so saturated that it's going to slow down overall regardless of the makeup of the vehicle."

Still, long-haul trucks aren't exactly the jackrabbits of the highway. As Wallis notes, "they take longer to accelerate, and they take up about six to eight car lengths, because they need additional room to stop and they carry so much weight. We're talking about up to 80,000 pounds on the interstates or 85,000 pounds on other state highways."

Problem is, "the trucking industry has very little room to maneuver when they actually do their transportation," he continues. "That's dictated quite a bit by their shippers and receivers. If they're given a window to pick up and deliver a load, they must do it during certain time periods."

When drivers have a choice, Wallis believes, "they try to avoid congested periods. But if they're supposed to make a delivery by 9 a.m., they could be charged a late fee if they don't arrive by then. So they really have very little control over when they drive. That's why we encourage them, just as we do with other commuters, to come in a little before or after rush hour instead of later, to spread those peak periods out a little bit, so they're not quite as intense."

In addition, he says, "we also encourage shippers and receivers to work with drivers to determine the best times for them to be on the road. We understand that they have to meet their business needs. A restaurant may say, 'No deliveries between eleven and two,' because that's their lunch hour. But maybe the restaurant could request delivery after two o'clock."

Big-box stores "tend to have more flexibility," Wallis points out, "because they have staff overnight and can receive those goods then. But smaller mom-and-pops that don't have somebody working 24/7 may really want delivery during business hours, and that puts everybody in the system at the same time."

CDOT wants to avoid this scenario, and so does the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, an industry group working on truckers' behalf. "They're also advocates for drivers to work with whoever their clients are to alter those hours — and we work with individual trucking companies on that, too," Wallis says. "But it's really up to who's paying their bill."

The department is studying some technological ideas to improve truck movement, including the concept of so-called "connected" vehicles, where each rig would be outfitted with a transmitter that would automatically share data about road conditions and more. And Wallis says CDOT staffers are "working on several strategies around truck parking. When trucks doing long haul across the country arrive in the city several hours early for their window, they often go to their location where they need to be right away" — and that can cause roadway blockages for extended periods of time. For this reason, he explains, "we're looking for alternative parking, where they can do their staging in a safe and secure location before they have to make their delivery."

The key, in Wallis's view, is "to look for some sort of collaborative solution. Long-haul truckers aren't here for their own purposes. They're here to deliver the goods we need every day. So we want to work with them, and with the public as a whole, to help make these issues better, rather than to look to restrictions and enforcement. Because we want to be business-friendly."

You'll want to be friendly to the trucker in the lane next to you, as well, since you'll probably be seeing him again — in the next traffic jam.