Truck traffic illustrates the good, and the bad, of congestion. When the economy is improving (and gas is cheaper), the number of deliveries and service calls goes up. But, truck traffic on streets not designed for large vehicles or heavy volume causes accidents and increases gridlock and general congestion.
There are really two different kinds of problems:
Trucks in places they shouldn't be. The current toll system--where some routes into Manhattan charge tolls and others are free--creates bad incentives. For example, trucks going from Long Island to New Jersey should go across the Verrazano Bridge and the Staten Island Expressway, both designed for heavier traffic. But a truck can save up to $80 in tolls by using the Manhattan Bridge and Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn streets, which are older and not designed for this kind of traffic. The larger the truck, the more the toll savings--and the worse the impact on neighborhood congestion, safety, and air quality. To read about and discuss one idea for dealing with this problem, go to Topic 4.1 - The "toll swap".
Trucks in places they need to go. Congestion and other problems from commercial vehicles that need to make pickups, deliveries, or service calls in the CBA and surrounding neighborhoods is trickier. Some people argue that NYC should require "off-hour deliveries" (OHD). In fact, NYC was the first to actually study how OHD would work. A 2010 pilot project, with 8 delivery companies and 25 business customers, found that makings deliveries between 7 PM and 6 AM significantly improved travel time, shortened delivery stops, and saved parking tickets and fines. Drivers really liked it, and customers benefited from having deliveries reliably there on time. (See report, PDF, p. 62-62)
So why not make this the law for everyone? Researchers from RPI who worked on the pilot concluded that OHD is a great idea in the right circumstances. The change obviously increases costs if businesses that ship and accept deliveries have to hire people to cover the new hours ("staffed deliveries"). In fact, after the pilot was over, all the staffed delivery customers went back to daytime deliveries because the pilot subsidies stopped. Also, area residents may be affected by nighttime noise. Other studies have found that banning large-truck daytime deliveries not only raises costs but also creates new problems, like companies dividing daytime deliveries among more smaller trucks (See studies cited p.41). And the Federal Highway Administration worries about where large trucks will park while waiting to get into the delivery area. The RPI researchers advised NYC to aim for OHD in 14-21% of staffed deliveries and 40% of unassisted deliveries. (At the time of the pilot, NYC had only 4-5% total OHDs). NYC-DOT continues to recruit carriers and customers to switch to OHD.
Related topic: Topic 3.5 - More enforcement against trucks and vans that double park and idle.
A longer term solution might be the proposed Cross Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel. The huge majority of NYC and Long Islands freight comes in by truck, and this is expected to increase in the future. The proposed tunnel, between Jersey City and Brooklyn, is predicted to take 700-900 trucks a day off roads in the region. The Port Authority and the Federal Highway Authority just issued the Tier 1 final environmental impact statement, which narrows the proposed alternatives (PDF) to a basic rail tunnel and an enhanced railcar float system (carrying rail cars on barges). Planning and approval still have a long way to go--and it's an open question where the money would come from (PDF). The tunnel would reduce a lot more truck traffic, but is also a lot more expensive.
►Will the "toll swap" encourage trucks to use the routes designed for heavier traffic?
►What do you think about the Cross Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel as a possible long-term solution?