I saw a cool truck today

I saw a cool truck today

These components are glamorous!
53-foot semi-trailers are prohibited on the vast majority of the streets of New York City. The city’s rules for trucks can get fairly complex, but this one is simple and unambiguous. The state Department of Transportation has a helpful website for those unsure if their 53-foot long semi-trailers are allowed in New York City. It says: “53-foot long trailers are not allowed to make pick ups or deliveries in any of the boroughs of New York City.”

But 53-foot semi-trailers do not let the simple fact that they are prohibited from driving around the various streets of New York City stop them. This simple law is also simply not enforced. Especially (but not exclusively) in the outer boroughs, oversized semis are a regular sight. While it can be difficult for the untrained observer to quickly and accurately gauge the length of a trailer, sometimes an offender leaves some telling clues.

There is even a Twitter account dedicated to documenting examples of illegal semi-trailers on our streets, just as there is one for defaced license plates, one for cops parking on sidewalks, and (granddaddy of them all) one for parking placard corruption.

Obviously the lack of enforcement of this rule is part of a broader municipal trend of Not Caring About Stuff If No Wealthy Homeowners Or Business Interests Are Currently Complaining About It. (Street safety could actually become a priority in our cities if, instead of cities spending money on awareness campaigns for drivers, agencies spent those funds on awareness campaigns for landlords and small business owners, in order to convince the agencies’ political leaders to let them do something about it.)

There are many reasons why a city would bar the largest semis from their streets, from weight to noise, but the main one is simply that they don’t fit. They can’t take the narrow turns vehicles need to take here without endangering other vehicles and everyone else around them. They have terrible sightlines and are dangerous to pedestrians. Crowded city streets are best and most safely navigated in small vehicles. Semis are literally designed for freeways.

The incisive reader has probably gathered by now that I do not like these trucks. (I have an entirely one-sided email chain with the flack for a national food distribution company asking if they are aware of this law. Yes, I am a crank.) 

But, today, I saw a cool truck. It was not out on the streets, blocking a crosswalk for an entire light cycle because it had no room to execute a right turn without hitting five other vehicles and several strollers. It was on the internet. Twitter user “Alan” (he describes himself as “literally just some guy”) brought to my attention that the European truck company Volta Trucks plans to bring its “class 7” electric trucks to the U.S. market next year.

Electric trucks are a good thing all on their own. But what makes this company’s offerings interesting are that they are specifically focused on safety in urban environments. As Ars Technica explains: “The truck features a central driving position, with a minimum of blind spots, that places the driver at an appropriate height to spot vulnerable road users like cyclists.” Safety isn’t an incidental consideration, either. Volta is foregrounding safety—for people outside the vehicles—in its official marketing, as seen on the company’s Twitter feed.

Now, has Volta designed a safer truck for urban transport simply because European companies are more enlightened and civilized on these issues than Americans? I mean, let’s be honest, part of the answer is yes, culture matters and they have basically a multi-decade head start on caring about this stuff over there. But the Volta Zero was not developed and brought to market out of altruism. As Alan notes, this model was designed for a specific reason: To meet London’s “Direct Vision Standards.”

London has adopted fairly rigorous safety standards for trucks (or Heavy Goods Vehicles/“HGVs” in EU-speak) they call the “Direct Vision Standard.” HGVs over a certain weight now require a new permit to enter London, determined by standardized safety ratings based on visibility from a truck’s cab. This mandate applies all day, every day, on every street in London. And they are enforcing it.

American traffic engineers and city planners are not unaware of these sorts of policies. They are just too powerless or chickenshit to push for them. Streetsblog reported last year on a panel at the Vision Zero Cities conference on the topic of truck visibility and safety, attended by well-meaning planners from across the U.S.. The “chief fleet officer for the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services” was one of the panelists. “We know we want these trucks,” he said on the panel. “Now, we want to see the trucking industry move to supply them… They know how to make them. They’re already selling them. They’re just not selling them here.”

Volta, now, would like to sell them here. That’s great. But they’re not producing these trucks and trying to sell them here because New York City planners wanted that to happen. It’s only a possibility because London forced an industry to produce and sell safer trucks, if businesses wanted to continue driving trucks in London—and it turned out that businesses did want to continue driving trucks in London. The city created a market for a new kind of vehicle, and then a company emerged to create the vehicle, not through subsidies or nudges or even direct purchases, but by giving commerce no other option but to create it. It is almost impossible to imagine any large U.S. city exercising its own power the same way. New York (or  Los Angeles, or Houston) could’ve done this at any point, but over here we can’t even enforce an already existing ban on the most dangerous trucks.

I hope to see these cool trucks in my city soon (especially because I expect drivers in them will have an easier time seeing me). I don’t expect to see many until the people with the power to do so understand that they actually can and must get the uncool trucks off the road.

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