A few years ago, journalist Henry Grabar signed up for a news alert for “parking conflicts.” He expected jaw-slacking stories about suburbanites resorting to fisticuffs for a parking spot and communities bickering over availability.
Instead, the Slate journalist learned a lot about … truck drivers. Grabar argued in his new book, “Paved Paradise,” that Americans have devoted too much space and resources to residential parking. But he told me recently that America’s 2 million long-haul truck drivers do actually struggle to find spots, unlike most of us whiny drivers.
“The core distinction between the truck parking and car parking is that car parking is required by law in most jurisdictions for most land uses,” Grabar said. “Truck parking has become something that nobody wants in their neighborhood ever.”
A commonly cited study from the American Trucking Associations, an industry lobbyist group, says truck drivers spend an average of 56 minutes a day looking for parking, and that there’s just one spot for every 11 truck drivers. Parking headaches have only gotten worse with the full enforcement of the electronic logging device mandate in 2018, which requires truck drivers to do all their driving within a 14-hour window. In the past decade, the total miles driven by freight trucks have increased faster than the number of public and private rest stops, according to the Department of Transportation. In other words, as truckers contribute more to our American economy, we’re not giving much back to them.
“It’s almost like being homeless,” grain truck driver Mike Nichols, who is based in Wisconsin, told me last year about parking problems. “If you can’t find a place to park and you’re running out of hours, what do you do now? If you can’t find a place to park in a truck stop and you’re parked on an on- or off-ramp, that’s not a good place to be, because there are no bathroom facilities. That’s a huge quality-of-life issue.”
Truck driver parking isn’t just about asphalt. It’s also where drivers will eat, shower and use the bathroom. They need some level of security, like fences, an actual guard and lighting. For long-haul drivers, finding a place like this every night they work has become increasingly challenging. It also costs anywhere from $10 to $50 per night. Considering the thin margins that are standard in the trucking industry, especially among small businesses, such a recurring charge could be a crushing expense. Public rest stops allow drivers to park for free, but they aren’t typically stocked with, say, showers and food that’s not from a vending machine.
This is a pretty absurd situation that we’re asking truck drivers to deal with — in addition to their actual job hauling food, clothing, medicine and other necessities.
Drivers say they often park on the shoulders of freeways, in abandoned lots or in other unsafe locations. Occasionally, as in the case of the late truck driver Jason Rivenburg, shoddy parking availability can end in tragedy; Rivenburg was forced to park at an abandoned gas station one night in 2009. He was killed, leaving behind his wife and their three children.
Following Rivenburg’s senseless murder, Congress passed Jason’s Law in order to study the lack of truck parking in the U.S. Lawmakers have introduced and reintroduced a bill that would allocate a whopping $755 million to new truck parking. GovTrack, a nonpartisan group that tracks legislation, deemed that the bill has a 35% chance of actually being enacted. (Don’t hold your breath, in other words.)
In the meantime, entrepreneurs are rushing to fill the truck parking vacuum. I spoke to six such go-getters in the past week to learn about their businesses. Some are dabbling in apps that connect truck drivers and available lots, while others are actually buying local lots and developing them specifically for truck drivers. I also spoke to three investors in the logistics industry.
These conversations left me wondering who exactly should be charged with solving the truck parking shortage. A private-public partnership could infuse preexisting businesses with more cash, but such funding seems elusive. Plus, some may question why private businesses — like trucking companies — get to outsource this business expense to the public; it’s not as if pilots or flight attendants have their hotel stays billed to the taxpayer while away from home. Still, as freight economist Sebastian Guerrero said, ensuring these workers are well rested is also key for public safety.
“This is not just business, but a significant portion of the labor force that is on the road doing this very critical job,” said Guerrero, who studies truck parking. “All things pretty much have to be transported by truck at some point and in many cases multiple times. It is vital to the economy. It employs a very large share of the population.”
Like practically everything else in trucking, there’s no clear solution — but what we’re doing now is definitely not it.
The clear-eyed truck parking entrepreneurs …
Of the six truck parking entrepreneurs I spoke with, most did not have any sort of background in the trucking industry. In my opinion, that likely makes them the type of clear-eyed folks who can help tackle the problem, rather than accept lack of truck parking as inevitable.
Other entrepreneurs in the space are buying or leasing their own lots and developing them themselves. Take Realize Truck Parking, which has three truck parking lots nationwide. Cody Horchak, Realize founder and CEO, says his company’s Las Vegas lot is sold out nearly every night — at a relatively pricey $35 per night — because it offers amenities that are unfortunately hard to come by in trucking, like stadium lighting, showers and security. Horchak said his team is considering getting a team of masseuses for future and current lots.
And still others are building apps that connect lots that are willing to host truck drivers with the drivers themselves. Evan Shelley, co-founder and CEO of Truck Parking Club, said his app features 155 locations nationwide and has placed thousands of bookings since opening last year. Drivers typically pay $15 to $20 a night to park and can easily scan which lots feature which amenities, like truck washes, repair shops and security guards. FinPark launched just three weeks ago as part of the Canadian freight services firm Finloc 2000, but COO Anthony Petitte said the platform already features more than 250 locations and dozens of active users.
… And the folks who aren’t so clear about the business model
Among the entrepreneurs I spoke with, their platforms were quite new but had grown relatively quickly. They were all confident that their businesses were a long-term commitment.
Still, the economics behind these businesses intrigued me. I reached out to a few investors in the space to see if they dabbled in truck parking. Their answer: not really.
Santosh Sankar, co-founder of supply chain venture capital firm Dynamo Ventures, said his firm has seen around 10 truck parking companies in the past few years — and several in the past quarter alone. Despite the speedy growth that these businesses find, he said private equity and real estate are likely better backers. They’re just too capital-intensive.
“We aren’t convinced these are technology businesses that can generate venture-scale returns,” Sankar said. “It instead feels like a real estate investment that has some technology strapped on top of it for discovery and payment.”
Wesley Friedman, principal at venture capital firm 8VC, echoed that statement. He said he’s “absolutely” interested in companies that could tackle truck parking, but 8VC isn’t likely to invest in a firm that’s essentially a real estate company.
Friedman said the economics of a marketplace-based app aren’t quite as compelling as they used to be. Your app can’t just have a bunch of users; it needs to find some way to monetize them beyond that. (In my opinion, that’s partially why we’re seeing digital freight brokerages galore start to offer financial services.)
“We’re focused oftentimes on enabling software that maybe has a marketplace component to it, rather than pure marketplaces,” Friedman said. “But we’ve also invested in pure marketplaces in the past, to — if you can make the case why this marketplace should exist and why it doesn’t [now]. I think the big question we always try to ask ourselves is, ‘What’s possible now that wasn’t possible five years ago?’”
Indeed, the entrepreneurs I spoke with indicated that they’re self-funded or sought private investors.
Perhaps this space is simply untested — and we need a few years before we realize just how wildly profitable truck parking can be. That’s the viewpoint of Utah-based Andrew Jones, a regional manager at a self-storage giant who recently began to dabble in truck parking.
“It’s not like multifamily or all these kind of cool asset classes in real estate,” said Jones, managing partner at Dallas-based OTR Truck Parking. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is like self-storage in the 1970s, this truck parking.’ It’s a need-based business. People need to park their trucks.
“There’s a need. People are willing to pay for the need. And although as bad as that sounds, the public sector is never going to figure this out. It will really be the private sector that figures this out.”
Some might say we have this all backward
Ultimately, someone has to pay for truck parking. Hiring security, paving lots, and providing decent restrooms and showers is not free. That cost is primarily borne by truck drivers right now — a group of workers that earns a median annual salary of just under $50,000.
Whether we’re waiting for venture capitalists, private equity giants or the federal government to save us from our truck parking woes, some might say we have got this all backward. If you ask Grabar, the group that should be paying for parking is, well, the trucking companies themselves.
“There seems to be this assumption that the parking ought to be free when in reality, parking costs a lot of money to build,” Grabar said. “The argument that’s being advanced right now is that it’s the federal government’s responsibility, because this is a question of interstate commerce [and] highway safety because trucks carry the lion’s share of the goods that move in the United States. But, you could also ask the question, ‘Are you ever going to get enough parking if no one ever is willing to pay for it?’ It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of incentive for anyone to go out there and build new parking.”
Another option is to have the retailers and manufacturers pay for truck parking. But it’s not likely that would happen. A trucking company that decides to raise its rates to cover the cost of parking for its employees or contractors would probably be quickly abandoned by its customers. America’s $875 billion trucking industry is plagued by what University of Pennsylvania sociologist Steve Viscelli called “destructive competition.” There are so many trucking companies that many fleets are forced to engage in a race to the bottom.
Trucking companies have notoriously low margins. The industry is indeed in the midst of a bloodbath as thousands of fleets shutter amid sinking pay and rising costs.
Issues in truck driving of course affect our nation’s 1.8 million drivers, but they also degrade safety on the road. It’s unclear just how many truck crashes could be attributed to bad parking options, but it’s a fairly intuitive assumption. Drivers who are stressed about parking, wondering where they can shower and sleep that night, and concerned about what kind of food they can eat after their shift aren’t going to be in peak driving condition. The Department of Transportation said in a recent report on truck parking that adequate truck driver rest is necessary for a safe and flourishing supply chain.
What do you think about truck parking? Who should be responsible for expanding it? Email [email protected] with your thoughts, and don’t forget to subscribe to MODES for your weekly transportation insights.
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