When the American Trucking Associations contacted Con-way Freight about offering a delegation from China's Road Transportation Association a tour of one of its facilities, we recognized this as an important opportunity to build a relationship with one of the world's most rapidly expanding economies. China's share of the world's manufacturing exports now stands at more than 8 percent, with its economy growing at roughly 10 percent per year, putting substantial pressure on its transportation infrastructure.
The CRTA delegation came to the United States to learn more about how the U.S. trucking industry operates, what some of the specific practices are that make it efficient, and how the industry works with its trade associations and government agencies to create and implement effective policy.
In the last 10 years China has built roughly 50,000 miles of roads similar to our Interstate Highway System. For China, creating a more efficient and effective national freight transportation network is critical to the country's economy, where the explosion in manufacturing, heavy reliance on intermodal transportation and a fast-growing middle class of consumers are increasing domestic trucking volumes dramatically. Delegation members want to use what they learn from their U.S. fact-finding mission to provide benchmarks for government officials to adopt more effective regulations and laws, enabling the creation of freight transportation networks, equipment and practices to support the country's growing internal economy.
As part of the CRTA's review of the U.S. transportation industry and its networks, the delegation received a tour of Con-way Freight's freight assembly center in Hagerstown, Md. - a bustling, 24-hour operation that handles nearly 2,400 shipments and 3.2 million pounds of freight per day. Delegation members were most interested in our use of "doubles," the LTL industry's most efficient and widespread trailer combination configuration, and our "drop and pull" operations. Both are currently prohibited in China, where provincial tax laws require every trailer to be "married" to a specific tractor.
During our meetings with the delegation, we heard firsthand about China's current transportation infrastructure issues and the government's commitment to continued expansion and upgrade. In the last five or six years alone, they've spent hundreds of billions of dollars to complete an infrastructure build-out that took the United States 60 years to construct. And they're working with a comparatively clean slate - the first expressway on the Chinese mainland wasn't finished until 1988.
By learning from other countries with complex transportation systems relatively early in the process, they can avoid missing design opportunities that eluded and are now recognized by those same countries. Currently, the United States is grappling with an aging and capacity-constrained infrastructure and finding the political will necessary to properly safeguard America's way of life. After all, we cannot separate America's economic well-being and the continued growth of our transportation systems or policies. As they continue to spend what will amount to an estimated $22 billion on roadways in the Beijing area alone in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese do so with more facts and a better communication network than U.S. engineers had when initially developing the American highway system.
That said, China's transportation officials face significant challenges. They're up against inconsistent regulatory and legal strictures from province to province, and government enforcement of weight limits is badly needed to combat a widespread overweight truck problem that's already damaging new roads. They also have the challenge of working within the central government's stated priority of "social harmony," which means, basically, more jobs.
Despite their challenges, China's transportation officials have further billions budgeted for the transportation infrastructure upgrade, so their chances of successfully creating the well-planned, organized and efficient system they need are quite good. Thorough research like this visit - which took the delegates not only to our Hagerstown facility, but also to trucking operations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco - will surely help.
David L. Miller is chief operating officer for Con-way Freight, the less-than-truckload subsidiary of Con-way Inc. A 30-year veteran of trucking, Miller was recently elected to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board of directors.