Mapping Regional Freight Activity

How is freight activity concentrated within a large metropolitan area, and how are these patterns evolving over time?

CPCS’s Veiko Parming explores a creative approach to depicting freight activity in the Toronto region, leveraging CPCS’s repository of large freight facilities, with mapping support from CPCS’s Natalie Wiseman.

The largest distribution hubs in Canada and the US tend to have two things in common – one, they are situated in strategic, central locations; and two, they are located in close proximity to major population centres. The largest distribution hubs in North America include Los Angeles-San Bernardino, New York-NJ-Eastern PA, as well as the Chicago, Dallas, Toronto and Atlanta metro areas.

In Toronto’s case, national and international retailers serve their stores in Ontario, Eastern Canada, or in many cases all of Canada from distribution centres (DCs) located on the outskirts of the Toronto area. This “Greater Golden Horseshoe” region is also a manufacturing hub for the auto and food & beverage industries, as well as a major population centre home to 9 million people – one quarter of Canadian residents.

The map highlights some interesting features about how freight activity is concentrated within the region.

One dominant cluster

First, freight activity is not only concentrated at a national level – it is also concentrated within the region. In Toronto the model is that of a single dominant freight cluster west and north of Toronto, centred around Pearson International Airport (covering western Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and Vaughan) – with smaller outlying clusters around Oshawa, Hamilton, Guelph, Kitchener/Waterloo, Brantford, and Niagara Falls. Although the concept of agglomeration economies is frequently cited in the context of financial, high tech, and other knowledge sectors, this map reminds us that the transportation and logistics sector too benefits from agglomeration – businesses often co-locate due to the advantages of labour market pooling, nearness between different stages of the supply chain, close proximity to intermodal terminals and airports, and freight-friendly land use and policies.

Moving to the periphery

Second (as shown by the blue colours), freight activity is increasingly moving outward from the core – and much of this development is pushing out from the existing central cluster. With highway congestion worsening, property values rising, and new light-rail and high-rise developments encroaching on traditional freight lands, businesses reliant on the movement of goods are moving towards the urban fringe. In Toronto’s case that often means greenfield development in outlying municipalities such as Milton, Halton Hills, and Caledon. As one example, Canadian Tire, which has operated three DCs in Brampton, recently completed a massive 1.5-million square foot DC in Bolton (Caledon). Other recent examples of large developments include Home Depot, Lowe’s, PepsiCo, Sobeys, Costco and FedEx, among many others.

What does this all mean?

These two factors – concentration and movement to the periphery – are natural responses to economic conditions and benefit both goods and people movement by mitigating congestion impacts and helping reduce direct conflicts. As metropolitan areas grow, they will continue to evolve as land is continuously repurposed for its highest and best use. Yet things don’t always go smoothly – regional and local policymakers need to be vigilant about issues that can arise:

  • Many transportation and logistics facilities represent significant capital investments that are not very mobile – at least not in the short- or medium-term. This requires good neighbour policies to ensure freight and residential uses can effectively coexist where need be.
  • The “last mile” of supply chains requires delivery to neighbourhoods and dense urban cores. Notwithstanding a growing interest in novel modes such as cargo bikes, drones, and robots, supply chain realities dictate that trucks will continue to be the dominant mode of necessity for last-mile deliveries – meaning policymakers need to consider the characteristics and needs of commercial vehicles when implementing complete streets – especially given rapid advances in e-commerce.
  • Freight facilities often require a large footprint and have specialized needs such as just-in-time deliveries and 24/7 operations – meaning encroachment by less compatible uses needs to be considered carefully. Allowing piecemeal residential development along freight rail corridors, near ports, and beside manufacturing plants and distribution centres can create unnecessary rifts and lead to operational restrictions which can hamstring businesses, harming a region’s economic competitiveness.

Veiko Parming is a Senior Consultant with CPCS, based in Toronto.

The map draws on CPCS’s repository of large freight facilities – a database that includes distribution centres/warehouses, manufacturing facilities, and freight transportation facilities (such as airports) by covered square footage (minimum 300,000 square feet). CPCS has used this repository to support multiple consulting engagements, including for Metrolinx and for the Toronto Region Board of Trade.