Chicago’s rail and intermodal facilities, pollution, and COVID-19

One of Chicago’s advantages is its transportation sector, particularly the railroad and truck traffic that passes in and through the region. But, the railyards and intermodal facilities where rail and truck traffic converge can cause a lot of pollution, even during COVID-19:

But for reasons that have yet to be fully explained, people in Chicago and its suburbs aren’t breathing dramatically cleaner air during the pandemic…

Likely culprits include buildings, factories and diesel engines that burn coal, oil or natural gas. Diesel emissions in particular remain a chronic problem in Chicago, a racially segregated freight hub where rail yards, warehouses and intermodal facilities are concentrated in low-income, predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods.

“We already have roughly double the amount of heavy-duty traffic than other major cities in the country,” said Zac Adelman, executive director of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, a group of state officials from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin…

During the past decade, scientists at the U.S. EPA have discovered daily spikes of soot pollution near intermodal facilities in Chicago and other cities that far exceed average urban concentrations.

The article primarily focuses on Chicago where intermodal and railroad facilities tend to be located near poorer residents. Leaders have sought to move traffic away from the center of Chicago and more to the edges of the region, but this means this is also a problem for the entire region. With numerous facilities far from Chicago, such as in Will County or as far as New Rochelle near Rockford, the air quality for millions is affected. It would also be worth looking at where the suburban and exurban facilities are located; what residents are most affected? How far away are these facilities from wealthier communities?

The article also suggests new regulations mandating cleaner locomotives and trucks would help. How this would play within a region that relies on the transportation industry – Chicago was not only the convergence center for Midwest commodities, it also developed the capacity to move those goods throughout the United States and world – would be interesting to watch. Suburbanites would not like the pollution if they knew about it or were concerned about it in their own neighborhoods or elsewhere nor do they like the inconveniences of a lot of rail and truck traffic. Yet, they like cheaper goods and jobs, perhaps even more so if the immediate problems of pollution are borne by other residents of the region.

Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Need bigger garages and parking spaces for bigger vehicles

Americans’ interest in bigger vehicles means more space needs to be devoted to their storage:

Across America, the drive for bigger vehicles is bumping into physical limitations. SUVs and pickups are getting so large that they’re struggling to fit into some home and parking garages and public parking spaces.

Homeowners may need to think twice about purchasing larger vehicles, while parking lot operators are starting to charge oversize fees to accommodate behemoth SUVs and trucks…

“Nowadays, there’s people buying Dodge Rams, Ford pickups that don’t fit, and they’ll park them outside,” he said. “The difference here is this is an electric vehicle and … you need to plug it in. I’m not gonna spend $50,000, $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 on a vehicle and then have to run an extension cord outside the garage or an outside outlet.”…

While larger vehicles may pose some inconveniences, Americans don’t seem too bothered by it overall, at least if the vehicles being introduced by automakers are any indication.

This goes along with the idea that Americans should buy bigger houses to help store their stuff!

I first noticed this last year on a trip to New York City. In looking ahead of time for a parking garage, I saw that garages charged more for oversized vehicles. The article notes that this is largely confined to New York City but from other recent experiences seeing large vehicles in parking garages in the Chicago area, I would not be surprised if this idea spreads.

Another casualty to these large vehicles: lanes on roads and highways. A bigger vehicle means it takes up more of a lane, particularly on roadways with narrower lanes and tighter conditions. There is also less room for drifting from going straight ahead.

There is a focus in some places of reducing the number of parking spots as communities have long had generous numbers of spots compared to the average number of parkers. It would be interesting to see how a reduction in the number of parking spots might clash with a need to create bigger spots (which would take up more space per spot).

The expansion of warehouses in sprawling locations

While the example here is from Georgia, this describes a lot of development in the United States today:

An announcement this week says that the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company will anchor a new industrial park being developed on the property. The company will occupy 1.5 million square feet of warehouse space, in what the Atlanta Business Chronicle calls the “largest build-to-suit industrial space under construction in metro Atlanta.” Goodyear is expected to employ about 150 Georgians in the facility.

Individually, headlines like this represent wins. Jobs are created, and local tax bases are fortified. Warehouses, in particular, tend to bring in significantly more in property taxes than the businesses that occupy them demand in county services such as public safety. Their byproduct, however, is traffic. Specifically, truck traffic…

The middle stage of both manufacturing and distribution requires warehouses, and Georgia’s geographic position and our ports and airport logistics hubs make the warehousing industry a logical fit for the state. This extends from the Port of Savannah all the way down I-16, up I-75 into metro Atlanta, and all the way around the metro area and into North Georgia. It’s truly a statewide issue.

And much like the projected cascade of new residents, new warehouses are coming. There is a proposal to build out 1,400 acres with 18 million square feet of warehouse space in Butts county, about half way between Atlanta and Macon. Seven hundred acres adjacent to the Budweiser brewery in Cartersville, northwest of Atlanta, have also been sold to be developed as warehouse space.

To make a world of Amazons, Walmarts, and Walgreens possible, trucks are needed. Lots of trucks. The warehouses need to be in strategic locations near growing populations so that the time between warehouse and store or delivery is reduced. To make one or two day delivery possible or have real-time inventory, there need to be locations that have a lot of goods ready to go. Black Friday or the Christmas retail season cannot happen as easily without warehouses.

As noted above, warehouses provide jobs and property taxes. They are not often aesthetically pleasing as the primary goal is to store goods, not interact with the public. They often occupy key sites in and around intersections and highways. They contribute truck traffic. I would guess few people would want to live right next to one given the noise and lights involved.

All of this connects to sprawling development in the United States. American communities tend to be spread out as people seek out single-family homes of a certain size and with enough distance from communities they might find problematic. Decades of sprawl fueled by the American Dream, the federal government, and numerous other actors means that warehouses are a common part of the landscape. Outside any major metropolitan area, there are rows upon rows of warehouses.

For another example of how this all plays out, see the rise of intermodal facilities (and the negative effects these can have on communities).

Mapping vehicle emissions in the Chicago metropolitan region

The New York Times maps and discusses vehicle emissions across American metropolitan areas:

ChicagoVehicleEmissionsMap

Even as the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from its electric grid, largely by switching from coal power to less-polluting natural gas, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

The bulk of those emissions, nearly 60 percent, come from the country’s 250 million passenger cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent…

Suburban driving, including commuting, has been a major contributor to the expanding carbon footprint of urban areas, Dr. Gately said.

But, he added, “Even in the densest cities, the vast majority of trips still happen in a motor vehicle.” These trips include work commutes, school drop-offs and millions of other daily errands as well as freight deliveries and other business traffic, each of which contribute to planetary warming.

The United States has organized much of its society around driving. Plus, many Americans like driving or the benefits they believe driving offers. It will be hard to enact quick large-scale changes to this though smaller efforts (such as fleets of electric vehicles or denser suburban areas) could add up to change over time.

The data from the Chicago area is interesting. Like most metro areas, the emissions are centered on major highways with some of the areas with most emissions being the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, I-88 at I-294, and I-88 at I-355 (these are likely areas with high levels of congestion and gridlock). From the maps, it is hard to know how much of the emissions come from freight trucks but I would imagine the proportion could be high in the Chicago area given its central location, highways, and intermodal facilities. Chicago ranks 5th in total emissions – behind New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston – and the per-person emissions ranks on the low end of metropolitan areas. Although the region is the third largest metropolitan region in the United States, it does have more mass transit than a number of other regions.

One truck accident can impact a large area

Traffic patterns in a metropolitan region can be disrupted by what happens to just one vehicle. See this Washington, D.C. example involving a tanker truck:

A tanker truck overturned on the Inner Loop on the American Legion Bridge Thursday afternoon, closing the road and snarling traffic all over the D.C. area for hours.

Complicating the situation: That truck is loaded with 8,500 gallons of fuel, requiring a cleanup that will continue into the night. As of 8:45 p.m., about a quarter of the gasoline had been offloaded…

WTOP Traffic reporter Bob Marbourg stressed how tough it is to predict when lanes will reopen….

The accident occurred around 1:50 p.m., according to Corinne Geller of the Virginia State Police. Another vehicle struck the tanker as it overturned.

The same trucks that are essential to societal functioning can cause big problems. It sounds like there were some special circumstances in this case: the particular cargo of this truck – a flammable liquid – plus the location of the accident on a bridge within a region with a major river flowing through it with the accident occurring before evening rush hour. Change some of these variables – a less problematic cargo or a different location or an accident at 9 PM – and the problem would be less.

At the same time, it may be depressing for drivers that just one accident could cause such a ripple effect. Traffic flow throughout a vast region can be a complex enterprise with hundreds of thousands of vehicles of different kinds traveling on different kinds of roads. Accidents are bound to occur as are other possible events that could impede traffic flow (construction, police activity, weather, etc.). With so many moving parts, it may not take all that much for traffic to slow down and then that delay to ripple through time and geography.

Are there ways to build more resilient road systems? What could be done to prevent such occurrences? Having multiple road options could help though duplicating highway destinations can be difficult. Limiting what kinds of vehicles are on certain roads could cut down on more rare accidents (like this one). Having response teams that can quickly respond to and clear accidents helps. Autonomous vehicles might be an answer in the long run. Thinking more broadly, relying more on transportation options like trains that move more people at a time could the stress on roads.

All of this may not be terribly relevant to the driver sitting in traffic because of this truck crash. Yet, thinking about how to minimize such incidents in the future could have large payoffs in terms of recovered time and energy.

 

Small Illinois town becomes intermodal facility and warehouse central; long-term benefits are not good

Elwood, Illinois is home to facilities of a number of important American companies but the small community experiences few benefits:

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit to it now, but when the CenterPoint Intermodal freight terminal opened in 2002, people in Elwood, Illinois, were excited. The plan was simple: shipping containers, arriving by train from the country’s major ports, were offloaded onto trucks at the facility, then driven to warehouses scattered about the area, where they were emptied, their contents stored. From there, those products—merchandise for Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot—were loaded into semis, and trucked to stores all over the country. Goods in, goods out. The arrangement was supposed to produce a windfall for Elwood and its 2,200 residents, giving them access to the highly lucrative logistics and warehousing industry. “People thought it was the greatest thing,” said Delilah Legrett, an Elwood native…

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt…

According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, at least 25,000 tractor trailers a day come through the Intermodals. That amounts to three million containers annually, carrying $65 billion worth of goods. A staggering $623 billion worth of freight traversed Will County infrastructure in 2015 alone, roughly equivalent to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s total GDP…

But when it comes to the long-term prospects for the region, optimism is scarce. Paul Buss’s son, who works as a building inspector in Joliet, told his dad there’s concern “these companies are gonna come in, they’re gonna build these buildings, and they’re gonna use them for however long they can get a tax break on them, and then they’ll move someplace else.” The threat of empty warehouses looms large.

The freight industry, composed of both railroads and trucks, has to be placed somewhere. The southern edge of the Chicago region is a logical place with close connections to major highways, cross-country railroad lines, airports, and both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River as well as proximity to the third largest metropolitan area in the United States. And there are likely benefits to these companies and industries to have a concentration of facilities rather than scattering them across multiple communities and regions.

But, the article suggests we should not view the communities where these facilities are placed just as collateral damage. There are real consequences to the trucks and trains that ship all the goods we need on a daily basis. People’s lives are affected. Could the facilities should be placed outside of towns and away from residences as possible?

Perhaps the true test of all of this is whether the next town that is chosen or selects itself as the possible next facility center turns down the opportunity or they dive headlong into the same issues.

 

Illustrating the importance of truck deliveries to American life

A 2012 infographic shows how vital truck delivers are in the United States:

Infographic Trucking Industry Facts

Four quick thoughts:

1. By days two and three, things are getting ugly. No new food? Certain supplies not available? No more gasoline?

2. This highlights the on-demand nature of many of our underlying social systems. We expect to have supplies readily available if needed and do not stockpile much (from food to medicine to fuel).

3. Many fictional apocalyptic tales feature major natural disasters, diseases, or government issues but a much more prosaic reason could cripple the trucking industry. It may not make for a thrilling story but this could be the real way the apocalypse comes quickly.

4. Shouldn’t we consider the trucking industry part of the national infrastructure? We often consider highways and railroad tracks important but the trucking industry itself matters.

Shipping via truck and railroad in a strong economy

If the economy is going well, the trucking and railroad industries have plenty of work to do:

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

The Cass Shipments Index does not include shipments of bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. But shipments of commodities were strong too, according to the Association of American Railroads. Excluding the carload category of coal, which is facing a structural decline in the US, carloads rose by 6.7% year-over-year, including grain, up 14.7%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 27%; and chemicals, up 4.6%. Of the 20 commodity carload categories, only five showed declines, including nonmetallic minerals, metallic ores, and the biggie, coal.

And intermodal traffic – shipments of containers and trailers via a combination of rail and truck – surged 6.9% in July compared to July last year, the AAR reported.

At the least, this is just a reminder of how goods make their way to stores and eventually buyer’s residences. Those trucks and trains may be a nuisance when you want to get where you want to go but this is how it works in our society.

A few other thoughts:

  1. It is hard to imagine drones could make up for all or even many of the goods shipped by trucks and trains. Or, imagine drones like swarms of locusts.
  2. The shipping industry is another one highly affected by economic swings. Like the construction and housing industries, when times are good, there is a lot of need for goods to be moved around. When a recession hits, all that equipment and all those employees are not needed.
  3. Of course, there is an international component to all of this where goods have to enter or leave countries. That all happens on a consistent even with all the rhetoric regarding trade wars and trade agreements. I remember going past some of the shipping yards in Hong Kong and being amazed at the size of the facilities: cargo containers in huge piles for as far as one could see.

American dilemma: electric cars vs. trucks

Americans like to drive but it is unclear whether they will be driving electric cars or trucks in the future:

The auto industry is at a crossroads, with the future of legacy automakers like Ford, General Motors Co and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV uncertain as governments float proposals to ban internal combustion engines over the next two decades.

But in the present, consumer enthusiasm for trucks and sport utility vehicles is strong, especially in the United States. And that is providing Ford, GM and other established automakers with billions in cash to mount a challenge to Tesla…

Electric cars are money losers, which explains why global automakers have been slow to roll them out until now. But regulatory and consumer pressures are forcing established automakers to put more electric vehicles in their fleets over the next several years. In a cash-intensive industry, profits from pickups and SUVs may give them a competitive edge.

Ford said on Thursday that the average price of one of its F-series pickups rose $2,800 to an average $45,400 a truck in the third quarter. Sales of F-series trucks, which range from spartan work trucks to Platinum models with the features – and price tags – of a European luxury sedan, were up nearly 11 percent to 658,636 vehicles for the first nine months of this year.

This is not just a consumer preference issue. There are potential repercussions for the auto industry (a fairly large one), urban and transportation planning, tax revenues for governments, and a whole space – the suburbs – built around driving around. Oh, and many Americans seem to prefer driving larger vehicles and intertwining their identity and the related activities with these vehicles.