When your annual gasoline bills reach into the millions, every little bit helps.
That’s why operators of large vehicle fleets, from the post office to school districts, are examining routes to eliminate the scourge of left-hand turns.
Avoiding all that idling and waiting – even if it means a loop around the block – saves gas and money, they say.
“We need all the savings we can get at this point,” said Karen Fairlee, Spokane’s new postmaster. “I would say anyone who’s got a large fleet is taking it into consideration.”
For those companies or agencies, no mile goes unchallenged. UPS, whose computerized route planning and campaign against left turns has drawn attention and imitators, sells a software package that helps companies analyze routes and find inefficiencies to shave miles and dollars.
It’s similar to the approach being used by the U.S. Postal Service and others, like the Coeur d’Alene School District, which eliminated three-quarters of its left turns across traffic as part of a plan to shave thousands of miles from its bus routes.
“We look at that every year: How can we reduce our miles?” said Doug Slachter, package distribution supervisor at the UPS center in Spokane Valley. “We’re constantly trying to reduce our miles.”
The company estimates that its new route-planning technology, and its focus on eliminating left turns, cut almost 30 million miles from UPS delivery routes and saved 3.3 million gallons of fuel in 2007.
While the increase in gas prices has been hard on individual drivers, it’s been a budget buster for companies and agencies that run large fleets. The Spokane Transit Authority, which has not targeted left turns among its gas-saving initiatives, is conservatively planning for its gas bills to more than double over this year and next, reaching $9 million.
The Spokane post office has seen its fuel costs rise 31 percent so far this year, Fairlee said.
As part of a national Postal Service initiative, offices use tracking software to examine routes and make them more efficient. The goal is to reduce route lengths by 12 percent among the nation’s 220,000 postal vehicles. Last year, the service spent $1.7 billion on fuel; it’s already surpassed that by $600 million this year, Fairlee said.
The Spokane office has more than 300 vehicles and spends about $55,000 a month on fuel.
With those kinds of numbers, “even a small savings can become a great savings,” she said.
In the ‘traces’
When UPS trucks leave the Spokane Valley center with their thousands of packages every day, drivers’ routes are mapped down to the last detail.
Slachter is among workers who use the company’s route-planning system to set up the “traces.”
At his desk, he can call up specific information about any of the 100 or so routes, see whether a certain package has been delivered, or locate drivers on their routes.
“We can actually see, in real time, where the driver is at all times,” he said.
The company’s avoidance of left turns isn’t brand-new, though it’s been emphasized in recent years as fuel prices have raised the incentive. UPS plans its routes based on a “loop principle” – a series of right-hand turns that eliminates waiting to turn left. Depending on the length of such waits, even driving around the block – three right turns – can be more efficient that idling at an intersection.
The loop principle is just one part of the company’s overall effort to plan routes as efficiently as possible.
“Avoiding left turns is a piece of it, but the bigger piece is planning your routes,” said Ronna Branch, a UPS spokeswoman in Atlanta.
Fairlee said the post office has a history of encouraging drivers to avoid left turns.
“Right-hand turns are considerably safer,” she said. “We have always done it from the standpoint of safety.”
Now, with a rising priority on saving fuel, “We’re basically going back to our roots of right turns only,” she said.
Susan Meyer, CEO of The Spokane Transit Authority, said the STA hasn’t looked into eliminating left turns for gas savings. But the agency does follow a series of steps meant to save fuel, including adding hybrid buses to the fleet, Meyer said. The STA has three hybrids now and will add six at the end of the year, she said.
Still, the transit agency is expecting a wallop at the pump. The STA spent about $4.5 million on gas last year. So far this year, “it’s up a million bucks,” Meyer said.
The STA has budgeted, conservatively, $9 million for gas next year.
Meyer said many transit agencies around the country have cut service and raised fares. The STA hasn’t considered service cuts, but a citizens panel is reviewing fares and is expected to make a proposal that includes higher fares later this year.
Meanwhile, though gas prices have eased a bit lately, UPS will keep looking to shave its routes to save money and time, to reduce emissions – and to keep turning right as much as possible.
On Friday, driver Nick Angeleri was thrown off his route when he had to meet two journalists, and he had to make several left turns – somewhat sheepishly – to get back on track.
“I really don’t usually make this many left turns,” he said.