The economy of freight transport on road: Interaction between bans and technical improvements of vehicles and road construction.

Sångsalen Session 3: Structured by the State – infrastructure and communication in the era of industrialization organized by Björn Hasselgren and Jan Ottosson


Jørgen Burchardt


The economic principle for hauliers is simple: put as much load on a vehicle as possible. This formula was easy to understand when road transportation was based on horse-driven transport. Using one or two horses inherently limited the load’s weight. This situation changed with the motorised vehicle. Engineers could build engines with considerable power, and factories could deliver heavy lorries. Since the early 1900s, vehicle regulations have sought to strike a balance. On the one hand, hauliers desire to drive larger and, therefore, more profitable vehicles. On the other, authorities must protect roads from the heaviest and, therefore, most damaging traffic. Caught between these two forces, politicians must promote development prudently, such that they follow the industry’s wishes somewhat but also withstand the pressure to dedicate vast sums to increasing the carrying capacity of roads. The desire for larger vehicles, likely never to be satisfied, will continue to be met by technical improvements in both the carrying capacity of roads and the suspension system of vehicles, together with complex regulations adopted to manage this new technology. Historically, authorities’ politics were based on both knowledge and experiments. For the first many years of road regulation, practical engineers gained experience from their daily life. A scientific understanding of the effect and degradation of different road constructions grew slowly, and only after some costly experiments. This paper shows the interaction between road and vehicle technology, the scientific perception of road damage and the political attitudes toward laws and regulations. Taking examples from Danish legislation, the paper overviews the international research on road damage and the political discussion in international forums, including the EU administration. After World War II, it quickly became apparent that international road traffic would increase sharply. In response, the United Nations established an international standard for road traffic, including standards for width and axle load rules. Other common European standards were developed as well. In 1984, EEC adopted a directive on the load and dimensions of heavy goods vehicles. The most significant change was a decision that the countries would allow an axle weight of 11.5 tonnes beginning in 1992. However, there were also calls for further increases in weight limits, and work began on allowing vehicles of unique roadworthy construction to have their limits raised. Air-suspended vehicles were known to be relatively gentle on the roads, and the availability of other gentle suspension systems was investigated as well. To put these conditions into relief, this paper shows concrete transport prices from the first slow two-tonne trucks to today’s fast-moving 56-tonne vehicles. Implications for the transportation network organisation are discussed, including the former need for large warehouses and the present need for just-in-time distribution centres.


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