Research Brief

European freight transport demand has experienced virtually uninterrupted growth since the 1970s. This growth has been fueled in large part by changes in the structure and production methods of the manufacturing industry. These changes have led to increasingly more flexible, diverse, rapid, and tailored transport systems, with reductions in shipment size and increases in shipment frequency.

Freight transport is crucially important for the Dutch. The transport industry contributes over 34 billion guilders a year to national income and employs more than 340,000 people. The Port of Rotterdam and Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport are viewed as the engines of the Dutch economy that contribute to the Netherlands' position as the gateway to Europe. They also play a large part in determining the attractiveness of the country as a location for business and industry.

Road transport increased by more than 30 percent between 1980 and 1991 and now accounts for about 76 percent of all freight transport activity in Dutch territory. While this growth and its concomitant prosperity are likely to continue, they will also bring with them more congestion, emissions, accidents, and noise.

Continuing policy debate on the best way to handle freight transport problems in the Netherlands and the importance of this sector to the Dutch economy led the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, to commission a comprehensive study of the issues by RAND's European-American Center for Policy Analysis (EAC).

The study analyzed the benefits and costs of a broad range of policy options for mitigating the negative effects of the expected growth in road transport while retaining the economic benefits.

The study's methodology should be of interest to transport system analysts worldwide, and many of the conclusions should be directly applicable to the freight transport issues of other countries.

Research Approach

The problem originally posed to the research team was to find ways to shift freight off the highways and onto other modes of transportation (e.g., rail, water). However, initial analysis showed that this was too narrow a perspective, and more of a solution statement than a statement of the problem. There are other ways of dealing with the negative effects of road transport besides shifting it off the highways, such as making better use of existing infrastructure and trucks, or directly targeting negative effects (for example, building cleaner diesel engines to reduce air pollution).

Given these considerations, the researchers redefined the goal of the study and expanded its policy scope beyond mode-shift options.

It was also apparent that there were likely to be many policy possibilities, and that preferences among these policies would depend on the relative importance placed on their effects. For example, people concerned about environmental effects are likely to evaluate policy options differently from people concerned about economic effects. Thus, it would be necessary to assign various weights to the negative impacts, and these would need to be taken into consideration when developing alternative strategies.

While the Dutch had already developed various computer models of freight traffic and its impacts, none were sufficiently comprehensive to encompass the full range of possibilities. So the researchers developed a policy analysis model that enabled them to assess policy options extending out to the year 2015 for several alternative economic scenarios. They identified nearly 200 tactics that might be combined into various strategies for improving freight transport, screened them, and evaluated the effects of the remaining ones on a broad range of performance measures, including noise, safety, emissions, congestion, costs, added value to the economy, and employment. The tactics evaluated fell into three broad categories:

  • Direct mitigation tactics. These tactics focused on reducing one or more of the negative impacts at their source—for example, building cleaner diesels to reduce emissions, using speed limiters on trucks to reduce emissions and accidents.
  • Transport efficiency tactics. These tactics focused on using the truck fleet and transport infrastructure more efficiently—for example, rewarding truck drivers for more efficient driving, using larger trucks.
  • Mode shift tactics. These tactics were designed to stimulate the shift of freight off the roads and onto other modes of transport—for example, developing new waterways and rail spurs, designating freight-only rail lines.

The most cost-effective strategies for mitigating the negative effects of freight transport depend heavily on improving operational efficiency. The figure above shows one of many strategies the EAC developed through various combinations of nearly 200 tactics designed to improve freight operations. Because this strategy includes efficiency tactics at the top of its list, the costs associated with its implementation would increase only at the very margin of improvement, when other tactics are called into play.

Policy Conclusions

Using the policy analysis model, the researchers combined various tactics and weightings to produce a wide range of strategies for improving freight transport. Their use of the model led to a number of significant findings.

The most important tactics focus on improvements in transport efficiency. Efficiency tactics improve many negative impacts and by their nature tend to save money. For example, reducing the total number of kilometers traveled affects all impact measures and also reduces investment and operational costs. Two of the most promising tactics in this area are to permit 50 tonne trucks in the European Union and to use telecommunications to improve routing of trucks and provide real-time planning of pickup and delivery (thereby reducing empty trips and partial loads). In addition, many of these tactics do not rely on future technological developments; they can be implemented immediately. Finally, these tactics call for the involvement of many stakeholders, so the burden of implementation does not fall on a single agency or group.

Some direct mitigation tactics can effectively complement efficiency improvements. Although direct mitigation tactics can sometimes lead to dramatic improvements in certain negative impacts, they generally rank lower in cost-effectiveness than efficiency tactics because they focus on only a few impacts and have net positive costs. The importance of these tactics (e.g., using quieter tires, using electric vans in urban areas) lies in the fact that they can fill gaps among improvements provided by efficiency tactics by focusing on particular impacts. The costs of these tactics might be made more manageable by targeting the largest contributors to an impact. For example, they could be selectively implemented to target urban vehicles, international (or national) trucking, or specific commodities.

Mode-shift tactics are not the best solution for the Dutch. Mode-shift tactics are either not very cost-effective or have little effect. Waterway and rail improvements are relatively expensive, and they cannot realize much mode shift for a number of reasons. First, the average distance traveled by national freight is less than 50 kilometers, and rail or waterway transport would usually require truck transport to and away from these centers. Second, service characteristics of these modes are unfavorable to modern business practices. Third, mode-shift tactics that attempt to focus on the international movement of goods affect a relatively small quantity of transported goods, because these goods are already shipped mostly by water. It is possible, nonetheless, that better modal transfer facilities and attention to improving the freight servicing characteristics of waterways and rail will make these modes more attractive in the future.

Reducing the negative effects of road transport is everyone's business. Freight transport systems have only a limited ability to reduce the negative effects of road transport on such elements as the environment, congestion, and noise. Relative to passenger transport, freight is responsible for only a small part of the problem. Thus, significant mitigation of road transport impacts must include attention to passenger transportation as well as freight. Also, the government cannot reduce the negative impacts of road transport all by itself. Businesses, railway, inland shipping, passengers, and truckers must do their parts as well.

Use of Methods and Findings

Study results are being incorporated into the policymaking process. The Ministry is using the study's findings in its current negotiations with freight transport organizations concerning ways to mitigate negative impacts on the environment. The Ministry has also used the model developed in the study to determine which tactics to pursue further and to consider transportation issues in the larger context of the European Union, most notably in its recent discussions with Parliament about developing a new freight rail line from Rotterdam to Germany (the Betuweline). The government is looking into the possibility of applying the same general methodology to other segments of the transportation system, such as passenger and maritime transport.

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