There’s an old saying in the trucking industry: “We deliver everything but babies.” And to a certain extent, that is true. Take a look around you. Much of what you see was likely freight cargo at one time.
The subject of freight transport is of ever-growing importance, especially since COVID-19 changed the way we work and live, accelerating a shift in demand from brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce and home delivery. Think about it. All those Amazon orders we’ve been placing are one of the reasons we’re seeing more freight traffic on our highways!
The Atlanta region is a crossroads between the growing Port of Savannah—the largest and fastest-growing container terminal in America—and the rest of the Southeast, with Atlanta serving as a launching pad for freight distribution. In fact, the city was once dubbed “Terminus” because of its location at the end of the Western and Atlantic railroad line.
The Atlanta region continues to live up to the former nickname, with concentrations of warehousing and distribution facilities clustered together for economies of scale. Many of these are sited close to elements of Atlanta’s robust and diverse transportation network, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), numerous intermodal rail yards and major interstates.
While Georgia has had a statewide freight and logistics plan for a number of years, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) has recently spearheaded more regional-level freight planning to address more localized needs.
In 2016, ARC’s Regional Freight Mobility Plan Update identified several freight clusters (or sub-areas with concentrations of freight activity) throughout the region and launched a regional Freight Cluster Plan program. This unique program considers the movement and operations of freight traffic within and around these freight clusters, as well as the impacts on neighborhoods, commercial districts and other land uses in the area.
Gresham Smith has been fortunate to work on several of these projects over the past few years, studying how freight movement and operations impact the people who live, work and travel in these communities, and then developing solutions for improvements. These improvements support the safe and efficient movement of freight in each area while bolstering economic development.
In this post, we explore some of the needs, challenges and opportunities associated with these projects.
More Than Just Truck Movement
It’s important to clarify that these studies are not just about how to make trucks travel more quickly between “Point A and Point B.” Freight planning also incorporates safety, equity, workforce access, curbside management, staging and parking, as well as consideration of the multimodal environment—the interactions between trucks, pedestrians and cyclists.
In order to plan for efficient freight movement, we need to understand where trucks are, where they’re going, and where they’ll need to go in the future. These studies use a range of data sets to look at travel patterns, as well as key origins and destinations—such as warehouses, airports and interstates—using everything from regional travel demand models and “big data” (e.g., GPS data collected from cell phones) to location-specific traffic counts and field observations.
It’s also critical to consider safety and how truck traffic interacts with other modes of travel in a community. What are the trade-offs between improving intersections for easier truck movements and providing safe crossings for pedestrians? Where are the railroad crossings where trucks may get “stuck” on the tracks? Are there any low-clearance overpasses that trucks might regularly hit?
Stakeholder engagement helps us planners to understand both needs and opportunities from the perspective of people working in the industry.
In partnership with Atlanta-based urban planning and consulting firm PEQ, we prepared a Stakeholder and Outreach Strategy as part of the Aerotropolis Atlanta Freight Cluster Plan that included activities designed to engage a cross section of local government agencies, freight and logistics companies, and business organizations.
The team conducted several outreach activities that engaged roughly 100 stakeholders, including interviews with owners and operators of distribution centers as well as independent, fleet and third-party logistics company truck drivers.
Their firsthand observations provided insight into challenges such as outdated intersection designs and narrow lanes that don’t adequately accommodate tractor-trailers, the lack of truck staging and parking areas, and inadequate directional and wayfinding signage. They also helped our team identify opportunities for improvements where they are most needed.
At the Aerotropolis Atlanta Freight Forum, Gresham Smith’s Erin Thoresen takes notes about opportunities for improvement identified by key stakeholders.
Tailoring Solutions for Each Community
While all of these studies aim to improve freight mobility, each area has unique considerations. For example, in the Aerotropolis and Tucker Summit Community Improvement Districts (CIDs), the studies focused on traffic operations and access to jobs via public transportation. Bus stops, shelters and intersection improvements were considered in both these studies.
In Spalding County, however, the study focused more on moving trucks more efficiently along truck routes and positioning the county for a future truck bypass, which would spur economic development and help reduce truck traffic in the city of Griffin.
In addition to infrastructure projects and roadway improvements, these plans consider policies and strategies to mitigate conflicts between industrial/freight-oriented land uses and adjacent residential areas. They also look at how to promote strategic redevelopment and infill development to attract and retain industrial uses and jobs in areas where it makes the most sense.
Ultimately, it’s important to ensure that the recommendations are actually implementable. This entails developing financially feasible work programs with a range of funding strategies reflective of local resources, priorities and funding partners.
For the Aerotropolis Freight Cluster Plan, this meant working with Modern Mobility Partners to project future revenues for the CIDs, estimating local match funds and cost-sharing from local jurisdictions, and developing a financially feasible plan of recommended projects that could be initiated within a 10-year time frame.
Keeping Our Communities Trucking!
Local freight planning can mean many things for different people and organizations. One common denominator is that it enables states, regional planning agencies and CIDs to coordinate effectively with local governments. It also allows projects to take advantage of federal and state dollars through the support of regional planning entities.
At the end of the day, local freight plans can map potential paths to establish functional, economically competitive and attractive freight clusters for residents and visitors alike.
Thanks to the technical expertise of our planners, traffic engineers and roadway designers—as well as our collaborative approach working with a range of partners—Gresham Smith has successfully delivered not only these freight cluster plans in Metro Atlanta, but also plans and infrastructure projects sensitive to freight needs across the Southeast for state DOTs, regional metropolitan planning organizations and local governments.
“Managing freight traffic is a major issue that will need to be addressed in the Atlanta region over the next decade. We’re proud to work with ARC and local CIDs to study how freight operations impact the local community and identify solutions that support the safe and efficient movement of freight to keep the region’s economy moving forward.”
State Transportation Leader