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Putting a Charge into Freight

Catherine Lawson's guidebook for policymakers will aid more intelligent transportation planning and regulations involving freight traffic.

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 30, 2016) — It is hard to find any other component of the transportation system that is more varied and that involves more interacting parties than America’s freight system. Yet this complex organism, pervasive in modern life, is rarely studied, even though intelligent transportation planning and regulations involving freight traffic cannot be accomplished otherwise.

Urban transportation expert Catherine Lawson is a key part of a new research effort to fill this knowledge gap. Her National Cooperative Freight Research Program (NCFRP) project, conducted with her RPI colleague Professor Jose Holguin-Veras and other RPI research team members, has produced a guidebook for policymakers that allows assessment of the various facets of the Freight and Service Activity that take place in urban and metropolitan areas. It has just been released as a pre-publication by the National Academy of Sciences.

The guidebook gives policymakers improved establishment-level models that estimate:

  • Freight Trip Generation, the number of vehicle trips produced and attracted at a given establishment
  • Freight Production, the amount of cargo produced by the establishment, and
  • Service Trip Attraction, the number of vehicle trips that arrive at the establishment to perform a service activity.

The models will allow transportation practitioners to conduct sound “curb-management” —. the use of curb space involving vehicle parking and loading, bicycle parking, and passenger drop-off — be able to properly size loading and unloading areas, support traffic-impact analyses, and generally improve transportation planning and management, said Lawson.

NCFRP’s work required study of all the underlying supply chains (including business records) that satisfy the needs of the production-consumption links which comprise the production and distribution process. That information necessitated Lawson and her team be given special access to federal government databanks.

“This research required all of the participants to obtain and maintain sworn status with the Census Bureau and the IRS,” said Lawson. “We needed to commingle raw microdata from the Commodity Flow Survey, which produces extensive data on the movement of goods in the United States, and IRS employer records — something that has never been done before with these datasets.”

The work was conducted in a secure facility at the New York Federal Statistical Research Data Center Baruch Center for Economic Studies in the U.S. Census Bureau Office in New York City. Lawson and her team were able to use the facility through a special “seat” paid for by UAlbany’s Division for Research.

The resulting NCFRP report, “Using Commodity Flow Survey Microdata and Other Establishment Data to Estimate the Generation of Freight, Freight Trips, and Service Trips,” provides improved freight trip generation rates, or equivalent metrics, for different land use characteristics related to freight facilities and commercial operations. These will now better inform state and local decision-making.

Lawson is associate professor and chair in Geography and Planning, and director of both the Lewis Mumford Center and the Albany Visualization and Informatics Lab. She is featured in a profile in the September-October issue of TR News, the lead publication of the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board.

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