By Keith Norbury

Most of the goods traded between Canada and the U.S., still one of the world’s leading trading partnerships, crosses the border in trucks. And most of those trucks pass over three bridges straddling two rivers connecting the Great Lakes of Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Until recently, however, little was known about long it takes trucks to cross the border. That all changed recently when researchers at the University of Windsor’s Traffic Lab obtained GPS data from nearly 400,000 border crossings by about 60,000 trucks owned by 750 companies. The researchers crunched the data, millions of GPS “pings” in total, to reveal details about how long they waited at the border at different times of the day and year as well as their directions of travel.

Big-data analytics

“It’s a new way of measuring things,” said Dr. Bill Anderson, Director of the University’s Cross-Border Institute. “It’s just an example of the sort of big-data analytics that everyone talks about.” Dr. Anderson was assisted by Dr. Hanna Maoh, who heads the traffic lab at the Cross-Border Institute.

Six lanes prove superior

Among the findings, Dr. Maoh said, were that “traffic intensity had significant influence on crossing time” on two of the three bridges: The Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit, Mich., and the Peace Bridge, which crosses the Niagara River about 20 kilometres upstream of Niagara Falls. Traffic intensity wasn’t such a factor on the Blue Water Bridge, which spans the St. Claire River between Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ont., about 108 kilometres north of Windsor. A key difference is that the double-span Blue Water Bridge has six lanes of traffic, three in each direction, compared with two lanes each way for the other two bridges. That bolsters the case that the new six-lane Gordie Howe International Bridge between Windsor and Detroit will improve truck traffic flow when it goes into service in the mid 2020s. “That makes a big difference if anything breaks down on the bridge because it’s a lot easier to get around it,” Dr. Anderson said.

The new bridge will also have a highway-to-highway connection, unlike traffic-signal-controlled roads leading to the Ambassador Bridge, said Dr. Anderson, who disclosed that the institute also does traffic and economic research for the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, which is building and will operate the new $5.7 billion structure. The inspection plazas on either side of the new bridge will also be much larger than the ones now serving the privately owned Ambassador Bridge.

Crossing times variable

Another revelation from the study “was that crossing times are more variable during the summer season, and tend to be longer during the late evening and past midnight,” Dr. Maoh said. The analysis also confirmed that crossing times are longer for trucks entering the U.S. than for trucks coming into Canada. “There could be two reasons,” Dr. Maoh said. “One is that there is more traffic going towards the U.S. and the other thing is security measures.” Crossing times were also shown to be shorter on weekends, when there is less traffic. “And Sunday is much less than Saturday,” Dr. Maoh said.

A paper on the study, titled “Examining the Variability of Crossing Times for Canadian Trucks at the Three Major Canada–U.S. Border Crossings,” was published in the 2018 edition of The Professional Geographer. According to an abstract of the article, the study’s analysis was based on 387,775 border crossings.

Pings reveal stops

Dr. Maoh explained that the study examined GPS data in the form of pings that every few minutes or kilometres recorded a truck’s longitude and latitude as well as a time stamp. “We took these GPS pings and we sorted them based on the date and time stamps, and then we calculated the dwell time for the first and the last ping,” Dr. Maoh said. If the truck dwelled at a certain point for a given time, about 15 minutes, the researchers assumed it had stopped. They also developed algorithms to differentiate between primary and secondary stops. “Primary stops are stops that pertain to delivering or picking up goods, whereas secondary stops reflect rest stops, for example, or fueling stops,” Dr. Maoh explained.

How results might aid truckers

Carriers might use the recent study’s findings “to identify the busiest times and see whether it coincides with their schedules and that could help them introduce some time buffers to ensure that they don’t end up with late deliveries,” Dr. Maoh said. Companies “could use the findings to evaluate if they could shift their deliveries from, say, late evening hours to early evening hours or early morning,” he noted. Overall, crossing times between Canada and the U.S. are speedy by world standards. “Looking at the average crossing time on the Ambassador Bridge, we had something like 17 minutes coming into Canada and 21 minutes going into the States,” Dr. Anderson said. But, he added, “Even though it sounds good, if you can make it faster it’s that much better.”

However, Dr. Anderson said, “the variability in the waits can prove problematic for trucks on tight schedules to meet the demands of modern industrial supply chains. New hours of service regulations mandating how long drivers can stay behind wheel can also come into play. So if a truck were to get held up for an hour it might turn out that that driver’s going to run out of hours of service before the truck gets to its destination.”

Bridges connect different markets

Each of the bridges in the study tends to serve slightly different markets. The Peace Bridge connects Greater Toronto with New England, New York, and the mid-Atlantic states all the way down to the Carolinas, for example. Much of the traffic on the Ambassador Bridge originates in the Toronto area as well but also from Quebec and then proceeds south along Interstate 95. The Blue Water Bridge meanwhile is a main corridor between Toronto and Chicago, although Chicago traffic also crosses the Ambassador Bridge.

“It’s interesting when you look at those patterns that you see significant flow of trucks coming up right from the Mexican border and going further west, especially across the Ambassador Bridge,” Dr. Anderson said. “But what’s kind of unique about these truck crossings, especially on the Ambassador Bridge, is the fact that they support these cross-border supply chains. It’s not unusual to have the same truck crossing the bridge three times a day.”

Predictable crossing times

The border times study, though, didn’t touch on what cargos the truck carried or even if they carried anything at all. “The one piece of information I would love to have for all those trucks is, is there anything in the truck? Or is it moving empty coming back from a round trip?” Dr. Anderson said.

The study’s abstract did note that crossing times at border facilities “can have a significant impact on the performance of the economy.” Dr. Anderson expanded on that by noting that plants on either side of the river supply parts, such as engines, for factories on the other side, and vice-versa. “In order for the assembly line to keep moving, those trucks have to arrive on time. But they’re not supposed to arrive early, Dr. Anderson said. “You need to have not just fairly quick but also very predictable crossing times.” And that’s an important consideration in Canada’s trade.