Urban Logistics Rethinking the last mile: Concepts for a sustainable city logistics

As parcel volumes grow rapidly and cities strive to reduce the congestion, pollution and noise caused by traffic, urban planners and logistics companies all over the world are increasingly focusing on sustainable alternatives for last mile services.

A woman picks up her package from Amazon Locker inside the Amazon Store at the University of California. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Driven by e-commerce, the number of packages and parcels delivered to private households has increased enormously over the past years – so much, in fact, that the B2C share of the market now exceeds 50%. According to the latest Pitnex Bowes Parcel shipping Index, global parcel volumes have increased by 48% since 2014 and are expected to continue to rise at a rate of 17-28% until 2021. Getting all these packages to their destinations challenges both logistics companies and urban planners. Companies need to deliver goods as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, while urban planners respond to the increasing number of delivery vehicles clogging residential and downtown areas with traffic and zoning laws.

Using traditional infrastructure for new challenges

Searching for sustainable alternatives, logistics providers and city planners rediscover infrastructure that, in some cases, has been there for centuries. In Utrecht, Netherlands, for example, a zero-emissions electric barge nicknamed the “Beer Boat” has been carrying goods along the city’s old network of canals since 2010. Reducing emissions and traffic congestion by shifting the delivery of beer and foodstuffs to the city’s downtown restaurants to the waterways has proved to be very cost- and time-efficient. A second barge was built in 2012, helping to remove waste from the city.

In Amsterdam, freight operator Mokum Mariteam runs a “freight by canal” service with electric barges that allow for shorter delivery times than road transports. The barges carry goods from loading areas into the city. Furthermore, they take on organic waste from hotels and restaurants on their return trips, which is turned into biofuel in a processing plant.

Other European cities are expanding their public transport systems to carry packages. The French town of Saint-Etienne tested using old trams to deliver goods to downtown customers along the city’s tram routes last summer, copying, in effect, a method that has been used in Dresden, Germany since 2001. Here, the CarGoTram delivers car components from the freight depot to the Volkswagen factory, reducing the need for lorries. The two blue freight streetcars run up to three times a day and can carry the same load as three 18-metre-lorries.

In northern Germany, transport companies in Brandenburg have adopted the Scandinavian idea of using public busses to deliver goods and groceries en route. And in Bremen, many of electric public busses have been equipped with trailers to carry packages to depots in the city centre. Finally, the packages are delivered to their destination with cargo bicycles.

125-year-old bike courier network in India

While bike courier networks are steadily gaining popularity as low-tech, emission-free delivery solutions in cities all over the world, they already have a long tradition in India. Here, the rise in e-commerce has severely shaken up the logistics market. Online shopping is the fastest growing industry in India. The market has been expanding by more than 50% annually. Flipkart, the leading online retailer, has 46 million registered customers. The company is said to make 450,000 deliveries a day. No mean feat using the country’s mostly rudimentary distribution systems.

In Mumbai, a teeming city of nearly 18,5 million, 5,000 lunch deliverymen are now part of Flipkart´s parcel distribution network. The dabbawallas, as they are called, have been bringing meals cooked by wives and mothers to workers all over the city for more than 125 years. Delivering more than 200,000 meals a day, the often only semi-literate dabbawallas rarely make mistakes. “Their unique delivery system has been smooth, reliable and has survived the test of time – even under extreme conditions,” says Neeraj Aggarwal, Flipkart’s senior director.

Creating new infrastructures

Sometimes, entirely new infrastructures are created to solve the problem of delivery traffic blocking the roads. In Motomachi, a neighbourhood full of upscale retail stores in Yokohama, Japan, for example, the city and the shopkeeper’s association joined forces in the late 1990’s to create a consolidated delivery scheme to reduce urban freight traffic. They built the „Urban Consolidation Centre (CCC)”, where all packages intended for the shops in the area are first collected and then distributed by a neutral carrier using low-emission trucks powered by CNG engines.

China, where the number of delivered packages grew from 21 billion in 2015 to 31 billion in 2016 – has also limited the number of trucks entering cities. In Beijing, trucks need a special transportation license and in Shanghai, truck passes are capped and delivery times are limited to a few hours each day.

China’s answer to the last mile problem is to increasingly switch from courier delivery to having consumers pick up the packages themselves: huge parcel locker systems have been introduced to the market, which can be used by all delivery companies. The locker solution is quite popular: Though most Chinese online shoppers still prefer to have their packages delivered to their place of work, 33% are choosing the locker option. In the US, Amazon is creating a similar network of neutral lockers, named “The Hub”, in residential areas.

Moving delivery traffic underground

A very special high-tech infrastructure solution is currently being planned in Switzerland. In late January, representatives of “Cargo sous Terrain” announced the official launch of the ambitious project to create a subterranean automated logistics network. All of the country’s major cities are to be connected by 450 kilometres-long system of tunnels. Driverless wagons will move goods underground from hubs in the city centres, where the cargo will be loaded onto e-vehicles to deliver them to people’s houses. The goal of the consortium of private companies behind Cargo sous Terrain is to power the fully automated system entirely with renewable energy.

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