In 1950, there were approximately 750 million people living in cities across the world. In just over half a century that number has soared to 4.2 billion. By 2050, the UN expects another 2.5 billion people in urban areas. City infrastructure is struggling to adapt, taking its toll on commuters, the environment and our economies. In London, drivers lost an average of 227 hours in 2018 due to congestion; traffic in the United States cost the country $87 billion in lost time last year.
As the number of people and businesses within our cities grows, so too does their need for goods and services. This results in increasing levels of demand for freight transport services. Vans are the fastest growing element of road traffic in the UK, for example, with a 74% increase since 1996.
These changes, combined with a growing need to improve sustainability, require urban logistics to adapt. That needs greater collaboration between the parties involved, says Michael Browne, University of Gothenburg professor and co-editor of Urban Logistics: Management, Policy and Innovation in a Rapidly Changing Environment, in this interview.
What is the biggest challenge facing urban logistics?
Improving sustainability is paramount. We have technologies that can reduce delivery emissions, produce more eco-friendly packaging and so on, but the pace of change is quite slow. In many cases, the ‘greener’ solutions cost more money and there isn’t a strong enough business case. Delivery companies like Hermes can influence this to a certain extent, but they can’t do everything.
Does that mean there needs to be more cooperation between the parties involved?
Yes. I don’t think urban logistics gets enough attention. There’s often a lack of coherence between the private sector, which handles the majority of freight and logistics, and public regulators. That means it can be hard to implement solutions at scale, or they exist in isolation. You can introduce electric vehicles, for example, but if they can’t get a loading or parking spot, then it’s a cleaner but inefficient solution. There needs to be consistent, meaningful engagement at a political level to obtain a holistic view of the entire system. That’s not easy, though.
Do you think logistics companies like Hermes can do more to encourage this?
I think delivery companies could provide better access to information that helps build a case for change – to create a more efficient and sustainable way of using city streets. If researchers and policymakers knew more about loading strategies, delivery times, space utilization and so on, we could make more compelling cases at the political level. I know there are sensitivities with data sharing, but I’d like to see more creative ways of getting it into the public domain, especially as new technology is making data capture, analysis and sharing simpler. It’s easy to get headlines with a fleet of green delivery vehicles, but we need to draw attention to the details of what’s really ‘going on’ on the streets every day.
What about the role of the end customer – how much power do they have to change things?
It’s an absolutely critical role, but I think a lot of people don’t really see themselves as part of the logistics chain. They have the power to both improve things and make them worse, but they often don’t realise it. Authorities need to understand that as well. They often think the responsibility lies with the carrier, but it also lies with the receiver and, it’s important to stress, with whoever is selling the goods.
Could carriers do more to educate end customers?
To some extent. It’s difficult, though. Carriers might be able to change their delivery times, for example, or increase the amount of deliveries when there’s less traffic on the roads. But is it what customers want? That might work well for some businesses that are open for long hours and can be more flexible about accepting deliveries, but others will find it difficult to change. I think there needs to be more dialogue between carriers and their customers – including private households.
Do you anticipate any significant changes in last-mile delivery in the next couple of years that will improve sustainability?
I’d like to see more options for customers to select ‘greener’ delivery slots. This should enable logistics providers to group together deliveries more efficiently. I know the trend is towards faster, same-day delivery, but I hope that shopping platforms and delivery firms can work together to offer more choice. In other developments, we’ll continue to see a more dramatic shift to electric vehicles. Autonomous vehicles are certainly interesting but are clearly still some time away and will most likely first be used in closed environments such as production sites, campus areas or ports and terminals.