We might be having the completely wrong conversation about truck parking

truck parking on highway

When Desiree Wood moved to Henderson, Nevada, in 2020, she expected her new home to be surrounded by desert land and mountains. What she found instead was trucks — a lot of them — parked all over vacant Bureau of Land Management lots.

That’s because of the glut of warehouses in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb. One warehouse services Levi Strauss. Another belongs to Smith’s, a grocery chain owned by Kroger. The biggest warehouse complex is Amazon. So truck drivers flock to Henderson, shuttling jeans, grocery orders and Amazon packages to and fro. Wood was a full-time truck driver from 2007 to 2019, and she said she didn’t mind the trucks aplenty. 

There are publicly owned rest areas and big travel centers, of course. But truck drivers usually struggle to find spots; almost half of commercial truck stops operate at more than 100% capacity on weeknights. Then, there’s the fact that truckers might wait overnight to load or unload at warehouses that don’t let them park there. 

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It’s unclear what the parking policies are at Levi’s, Amazon and Kroger, none of which responded to FreightWaves’ requests for comments. But according to Wood, those drivers were parking on federal land.

Until recently.

Warehouses, and the truck drivers who service them, aren’t welcome additions to most neighborhoods. So Wood wasn’t surprised when she noticed signs cropping up on those vacant lots where truckers liked to park. Clark County, where Henderson is located, began providing language for signs that said “NO VEHICLES, NO TRESPASSING” on those truck parking areas. Dirt piles also appeared on the lots, preventing truck parking.

Dan Kulin, the spokesperson for Clark County, said he is not aware of the county putting piles of dirt on the federal land. He said Clark County did not create or place the signs Wood has seen.

“County officials have been working with the Southern Nevada Freight Advisory Committee to look for parking solutions for the truck drivers in our community,” he wrote in an email to FreightWaves. 

Desiree Wood noticed dirt piles on vacant federal land where truck drivers used to park in Henderson, Nevada. (Photo courtesy of Desiree Wood)
Clark County provided the language for this sign banning vehicles and trespassing, citing health risks associated with dust. (Photo courtesy of Desiree Wood)

Sparse truck parking is hardly an issue unique to Henderson. Americans living anywhere from New York City to Longview, Texas, to Ramsay, Montana, don’t want semi-trucks scattered around their homes, despite the crucial role that truckers serve. It’s another example of “NIMBYism,” or “Not In My Backyard.” A place like Henderson, where Zillow data says property values have increased threefold in the past 10 years, is no exception.

A 2016 study from the American Transportation Research Institute says that the average truck driver spends 56 minutes per day looking for parking, which translates to $4,600 in lost wages every year. A long-haul truck driver, of course, has to park each night to sleep — and the growth of trucking has outpaced how many parking spots are available to America’s 2 million truck drivers. 

As a result, more than half of truck drivers park illegally at least three times a week, according to the American Trucking Associations. The shoulders of freeways or on- and off-ramps are the most common. “You’re parking someplace where it’s not really safe and where somebody can hit you,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., in a phone interview with FreightWaves.

This issue will likely only get worse. One federal study found that freight tonnage will increase by 51% between 2007 and 2040, but 75% of private truck stops said in 2015 they do not plan on adding parking capacity. Around 87% of all truck parking is at private truck stops.

“We need space for commercial vehicle drivers to sleep safely,” said Wood, who is now a full-time advocate for drivers as the president and founder of Real Women in Trucking. “We’re serving the community.”

Simply increasing the supply of truck parking is one obvious solution. To that end, Bost has introduced a bill to authorize $755 million to build more truck parking spaces. That cash could be used by state transportation authorities to expand or build truck parking. Those states may also partner with private rest areas, as long as those firms pledge not to charge for the publicly funded parking.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved Bost’s trucking bill last week. That legislation may soon be put before the full House, where it is likely to garner bipartisan support. (Quick disclosure: Bost ran his family’s trucking business for 10 years but left in 1992 to pursue public office. His brother and cousin are now at the helm of the flatbedder, which was founded in 1935.)

Not everyone agrees with this solution to the truck parking crisis.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Steve Viscelli, a sociologist and former truck driver, proposed another fix. We could reduce the demand for truck parking spaces — even without reducing how much freight is moved by truck.

Here’s why parking is a hot topic, and some solutions: 

‘I need those miles … but now I’m afraid when I’m sleeping’: The truck parking crisis 

Drivers and big trucking companies disagree on many topics, particularly when it comes to the controversial concept that we’re in the midst of a truck driver shortage. However, they are in consensus on at least one idea: There’s not nearly enough truck parking.

Big travel centers are more popular for newbie truckers, but they’re also the most crowded. Drivers who come too late for the best parking will park behind other trucks — meaning they’ll get a rude awakening in the morning when those drivers are backing out to start the day.

On the prowl for parking. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

In her driving days, Wood picked up a few secrets to find a spot. She usually shunned the big truck stops. Instead, Wood learned that out-of-the-way casinos had surprisingly robust parking. Food options were also a consideration; truck stops with newfangled Tesla chargers had the best restaurant options. And, if she had to drive around the crowded Northeast corridor, she’d often set her alarm for 2 a.m. so she could beat that traffic.

“I leave early and I park early,” Wood said. “I know a lot of out-of-the-way places. New drivers will only go to big chains — the company does not really teach them about going to the next exit and getting your food somewhere else.”

Tricks aside, there’s long been a truck parking crisis. Since as early as 1991, the trucking industry has been disquieted about lack of parking, citing it as a contributor to driver fatigue. The ATA said there are 11 truck drivers for every one parking space. In 2009, truck driver Jason Rivenburg was killed after parking overnight at an abandoned gas station. He was unable to park at the warehouse where he was scheduled to deliver a load of milk. Jason’s Law, enacted as a provision of a larger 2012 transportation bill, required the federal government to study each state’s truck parking abilities and authorized more highway funds for truck parking.

But another portion of that 2012 bill actually heightened issues around truck parking. The electronic logging device mandate now universally enforces the decades-old hours-of-service rules, which many drivers had skirted for years with paper logbooks. The electronic logs, though, mandate that drivers follow the HOS rules, which allow for 11 hours of driving after 10 consecutive hours off duty. This meant drivers, who may have before broken up their sleeping and driving schedules, suddenly found themselves roughly in alignment with each other on when to shut down and get some sleep, according to a letter from the American Economic Liberties Project

And if you happen to find good parking before your HOS clock runs out, Wood said truck drivers risk getting a call from their dispatchers telling them to keep hustling. For that matter, drivers might push it anyway, because they’re paid by mile not per hour. That could result in drivers parking in unsafe areas.

“I want to be safe but it’s costing me out of my paycheck,” Wood said. “I need those miles, I need that money, but now I’m afraid when I’m sleeping.” 

Further cutting into that paycheck is the increasing number of truck stops that charge for parking. A representative from a trade group that represents truck stops said that represents less than 1% of stops.

Still, Wood said some truck stops in the Las Vegas area can cost up to $25 — a chunk of cash for a new driver, who might bring in $400 a week. “That’s the difference between having a meal or not,” Wood said.

The American Trucking Associations, which represents mostly medium-sized and large trucking firms, has pushed for increased parking spots for years. So too has the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents small fleets. 

“Increasing the availability of safe and accessible truck parking has been a longtime goal of ATA and of the industry at large,” wrote Sean McNally, ATA vice president of public affairs, in an email. 

“Making sure drivers — particularly female drivers — can find safe and secure parking for federally mandated rest periods eases a huge area of anxiety and stress and can help keep good, hard-working drivers in this industry,” he added.

One major organization has another view on the pressure to increase truck parking: NATSO, previously the National Association of Truck Stop Operators. The group doesn’t understand why trucking companies don’t pay for truck parking themselves, in the same way that airlines contract with hotels so their pilots have a place to rest. 

“Truck parking is expensive to build and maintain,” wrote Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman, NATSO’s vice president for public affairs, in an email. “NATSO has long held that the best way to increase truck parking is for motor carriers to negotiate truck parking into their contracts the same way that they negotiate fuel contracts.” 

There could be another way around the issue

Viscelli of the University of Pennsylvania has something of a heterodox view on the parking issue. He said that it’s a “fundamental sign of inefficiency” that trucks are parked for so many hours a day — especially considering many of those drivers are waiting, often unpaid, for shipments. 

So, instead of merely increasing the amount of truck parking, Viscelli said we should reduce the number of drivers who have to work overnight. In the good ol’ days, before deregulation drove down the cost of trucking labor, companies had planned routes that relayed shipments across the U.S.

Let’s say we have two trailers: one headed east and one headed west. A Detroit-based driver hauling the westbound trailer could drive to Chicago. There, the driver meets a St. Louis-based driver who has an eastbound trailer. They can swap their trailers and head back to their home terminals, where they again swap their trailers with another driver. 

“You’re getting way more efficiency out of the system,” Viscelli said. “You lose that when you go to the random point-to-point, but you can only do that if labor is super cheap and super flexible.

Bost didn’t agree. When he ran his family’s trucking business, his customers needed blasting agents, ammonium nitrate and other sensitive chemicals quickly. A set route isn’t possible for the likes of Bost Truck Service, which employs eight drivers, according to a federal database.

“Most people I know who run businesses, especially a trucking company, they look for every way in the world to save themselves time and money,” Bost said. “If that routing ability is there, they’ll get it done.”

However, Viscelli pointed out that the current system isn’t exactly efficient either. Annual turnover rates at large truckload companies average around 94%, with many of those drivers likely reconsidering the industry due to the stress of being away from home for potentially weeks at a time. A recent study from the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics said truck drivers spend around 6.5 hours a day actually driving — though they are federally authorized to drive up to 11 — thanks to a slew of inefficiencies that leave drivers sitting around waiting for shipments rather than actually driving.

“The capital investment that trucking companies make is into the truck,” Viscelli said. “Why is it that that asset is sitting two-thirds of the day? Big firms are lucky to be operating these trucks seven hours a day. The reason is, of course, that we use this labor inefficiently and why do we use it inefficiently? Because it’s unpaid.”

The ATA’s McNally didn’t comment on the pony-express model and NATSO’s charge that trucking companies should pay for their own parking. “There are a number of ideas aimed at providing a solution to this problem — both public and private — and the government has a role in providing leadership and most importantly money to get the ball moving,” McNally wrote. “We aren’t interested in picking winners and losers among those solutions, but we support and appreciate policy makers on Capitol Hill and in the Department of Transportation that are tackling this problem.”

The issue reminds me a bit of the ol’ “big boats” issue, where industry continually expands and then finds that the infrastructure it relied on doesn’t work anymore. So, it goes to the taxpayer for help. We might grumble about the “eyesores” of parked trucks and expanded warehouses, but it’s inarguable that we benefit from a supply chain infrastructure that means “free shipping” and one-day delivery. 

This article was updated with a statement provided to FreightWaves by Clark County after publication.

Do you work in the trucking industry? Email rpremack@freightwaves.com with your feedback and insights.

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Source: freightwaves - We might be having the completely wrong conversation about truck parking
Editor: Rachel Premack