Impact of higher road vehicle dimensions on modal split: An ex-post analysis for Sweden

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Hanna Lindgren

Road freight transport is responsible for a considerable amount of congestion, noise and various forms of air pollution and policy instruments that reduce these negative external effects are therefore on top of many policy-makers’ lists. One of the discussed initiatives to reduce these externalities is to increase the maximum permissible weight and length of vehicle combinations. There are however concerns that higher vehicle dimensions will reduce road transport cost per tonne-kilometre and therefore lead both to a modal shift and to induced demand for road transportation.

The extent to which the introduction of longer and heavier road vehicles attracts freight from competing modes is therefore a crucial question. The purpose of this study is to provide empirical evidence on this matter, by analyzing how the modal split in Sweden has developed following the adoption of increases in the maximum permissible vehicle dimensions.

In this study, we utilize official statistics on freight transport by road, rail and water covering the period 1985 to 2013. We first investigate the extent to which LHVs were adopted following the increases in vehicle dimensions in 1990 and 1993. We then construct time-series for the modal split both on the aggregate level and the commodity group-level and analyze the short- and long-run development. 

We show that the share of tonne-kilometres and vehicle-kilometres performed by trucks with a load capacity above 40 tonnes increased substantially in the 1990s, which mainly came at the expense of the vehicles with the lowest capacity. This shows the high degree of incorporation of LHVs in the Swedish vehicle fleet. 

Our analysis of the aggregate modal split shows that both the rail and water shares were decreasing from 1985 up until 1995, when the trend reversed for rail transportation. In 2000, rail had regained the market share it had in 1990 and continued to increase in the 2000. Water transportation kept on losing market shares throughout the period of study. The modal share for road transportation developed much in the opposite way. The road share increased steadily between 1985–1990 and continued this way during most of the 1990s, until it stabilized around 60–65 percent. We also show that road and rail have experienced increases in the level of tonne-kilometres since 1990, which implies that the falling rail share between 1990 and 1995 was driven by higher tonne-kilometer growth rates for road transportation than for rail transportation.

Our aggregated freight statistics do not allow us to attribute the development of the modal split during this period of study to a particular event such as the increase in maximum weights in 1990 and 1993. In particular, it is not possible to trace out substitution patterns between the transport modes. The weight reforms are likely to have mattered for the modal development, but so are the economic recession in the early 1990s, the railway sector reforms of 1996 and other structural changes in the transport market. What we do document is the lack of breaks in modal split trends at the weight reforms in 1990 and 1993. On the contrary, the share of each mode is continuing its long-term development.   

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