What Is Lane Density?


May 7, 2009

What is lane density? This is a term you may or may not have heard in the course of doing business as a trucker. But as you’re about to see, it’s very important in determining whether you are profitable or not. This applies to a single truck operation or multiple unit dispatch.

Lane density is the art of load planning, which keeps the truck full with profitable tonnage whenever it is rolling. It’s documented that over 40% of all OTR trucks traversing the American highway are partially or completely empty. This means that efficiency, or lane density, isn’t being calculated. But lane density should be one of the dispatch plans every trucking operation implements, regardless of size. The PLAN is simple: keep your trailer loaded every mile it has tires rolling on highway pavement. This means you’re looking for return tonnage while considering what you’re going to load outbound. Better yet; you’re looking two or three or more trips into the future, planning loads for each truck, so that every trailer has a load assigned to it long before it has reached its destination. Eliminate dead-heading and unnecessary sitting by maximizing lane density. Don’t allow the truck or your loads to dictate downtime, or contribute to unpaid or under-paid miles.

Every mile a truck is driven costs money, whether loaded or not. Once a load is delivered, both the number of days from that delivery date and the number of miles required to complete the next trip all belong to the new load. Regardless of whether you’re hauling paying tonnage or sailboat fuel; deadheading or traveling to your next pick-up, every time the truck is rolling there’s money going out the exhaust. To maintain lane density you must keep that loaded truck on the most direct path between pick-up and delivery; minimizing distance traveled, thus saving on operational costs and driver’s Hours of Service. The idea that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points works here. You must match your loads so as the truck starts pick-ups and deliveries, it deviates very little from the straight line. When it has to stray from the line to pick up or deliver, the rates charged reflect the time and distance required out of route. Small package trucking companies do this, why shouldn’t you? Don’t be fooled by the rate per mile of a specific shipment or load: what counts is the actual distance the rubber rolls and the amount of time required to accomplish the entire trip. A rate per mile is nothing more or less than a means by which you figure the amount to be charged the customer. That rate per mile is usually figured on some arbitrary mileage table that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual miles to be covered. You must compare your revenue to the actual miles to be driven and time required to complete the trip. Moreover, those miles and time must start from the place and time you delivered your previous trip’s load; not from origin to destination, but from destination to destination.

Here’s that four letter word again….PLAN! But don’t get caught with the wrong plan! Most truckers and small fleets run on the day-to-day plan. In the morning, they determine which trucks are going to be empty that day and start searching for loads for them: a plan, but not a good plan. You’ve got to have a Lane Density Strategy: one that not only looks at today, but one that looks as far into the future as possible. If you haven’t located the return load before you accept the outbound load… you have a failing plan. To set into motion the best plan, your Lane Density Strategy should include the following:

  1. Set up dedicated routes that maintain lane density.
  2. Look for tonnage along these routes before you need it.
  3. Find loads long before you need them.
  4. Try to have more tonnage available than trucks.
  5. Set up a bread and butter run for each truck and driver(s).
  6. Don’t look for loads at the last minute.
  7. Always plan two to three loads ahead for each truck.
  8. Think multi-directional, outbound, return, and in-between.
  9. Don’t send any truck out without a return plan.
  10. Provide quality service so shippers are calling you back.

In today’s tough market, there is less tonnage than there are trucks available. Any trucking company or individual Owner/Operator must be looking ahead as far as possible—planning loads weeks in advance. Remember the further ahead you plan your loads, the more control you have if one goes sour.

Good loads and good roads, everyone.

Timothy Brady
©  2009

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