Logistics in the city might not be as entertaining as the television show “Sex in the City,” however, topically it’s more important.

Logistics in the City

Stephen DeAngelis

March 04, 2021

Logistics in the city might not be as entertaining as the television show “Sex in the City,” however, topically it’s more important. Challenges, like urban air quality and traffic congestion, have increased calls for city planners to redesign cities and close some streets to vehicular traffic. For example, Kate Migon, Head of New Mobility Solutions, Americas, at Gemalto, asserts “it’s time for cities to reclaim their streets” and “close parts of our cities to cars and reverse decades of prioritizing drivability over mobility.”[1] She notes some planners are “designing new city spaces that cater to pedestrians first, then cars. In some cases, they’re even shutting out the cars altogether, forcing them to stay within designated areas around the perimeter of reclaimed pedestrian spaces.”


Of course, commuter traffic isn’t the only source of urban traffic congestion. Studies have shown that ridesharing services add to traffic congestion in cities and, increasingly, thanks to consumers using the digital path to purchase, delivery vehicles are creating all sorts of problems. Migon suggests, if traffic woes are to be overcome, “cities, automakers, app makers, mobility companies and the general public will all need to get comfortable with new mobility habits.” One big stakeholder group she left out is logistics providers. Debbie Abrams Kaplan (@KaplanInk) notes, “Urban freight is expected to increase 40% by 2050, going hand-in-hand with the slew of retail stores closing due to e-commerce growth. That means more trucks on the road, clogging precious residential and downtown street space while making deliveries.”[2]

The challenge of urban logistics

When it comes to urban logistics, the battle isn’t only about traffic flow it’s about curb space. Journalist Scott Calvert (@scottmcalvert) reports, “Snarled with historic traffic jams, cities across the country are targeting one battleground: the curb. They are turning to what government officials and urban planners call ‘curb management strategies’ to fight congestion, a year-round problem that peaks during the holiday shopping season. Fleets of delivery trucks join growing ride-hailing and food-delivery services in the fight for lanes and curb space.”[3] Back in 2019, Jasper Dekker (@dekkerjasper), an Associate Design Director at Smart Design, reported, “In New York City, 1.5 million packages are delivered daily to people’s doorsteps — three times as many as in the beginning of the decade, according to the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems. This has worsened traffic in a city already beset by gridlock. As the New York Times points out, the George Washington Bridge, the main thoroughfare for delivery trucks, has become the most congested route in the country. … Delivery trucks are disrupting cities all over the United States, as for-profit companies use public roads to bring packages to customers’ doorsteps, clogging up the streets and polluting the air.”[4] The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the ecommerce push and, in turn, increased the congestion problem in urban areas.


Dekker deliberately makes it sound like for-profit delivery trucks using public streets are doing something illegal, unethical, or immoral. They’re not. The packages they are delivering are going to consumers who pay the taxes that maintain those public streets. People want the goods they purchase online to be delivered conveniently and they want the stores they shop to have goods on their shelves. As a result, some accommodation must be made for logistics in the city. Peter Harris 


(@PeterHarrisUPS), the International Sustainability Director for UPS, notes, “Today, more than half of all people globally live in cities. Rapid urbanization, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to surging e-commerce as consumers rely heavily on online shopping. As such, urban logistics is more important than ever to keep pace with rising consumer demands.”[5] UPS, of course, is a major stakeholder in the urban logistics arena and the company is well aware its vehicles contribute to emission and congestion problems. Harris indicates the company is trying to address those issues. He states, “The starting point for us is efficiency — which processes can we improve or change to move more goods with less fuel? And going beyond that, we look at emerging technologies and ways we can introduce new approaches and partners to become more sustainable.”

Some potential solutions

UPS isn’t the only organization searching for solutions to the urban logistics conundrum. Urban air quality is a big issue and many logistics providers are looking to electric vehicles to help reduce emissions. Kaplan notes, however, “If electric vehicles are to become more important in last-mile deliveries, cities will need to make investments in charging facilities.” Street congestion and limited curb space are not as easily addressed. Calvert reports some cities, like New York, are trying to encourage the use of cargo bikes. New York is offering free parking for cargo bikes and Calvert notes that bike lanes can protect both cyclists and drivers. Harris reports UPS has developed an e-quad: “A cycle with four wheels [that is engineered] to be more rugged and productive than previous bikes but also more city friendly through being narrower and more stable.” Big packages, however, are a problem for cargo bikes. Other cities are trying to reduce curbside congestion by designating all-day loading zones. Dekker reports, “[In] Amsterdam, large logistics companies aren’t allowed to ship directly to people’s front doors. Tightened emission regulation prevents large trucks from entering the city center. Instead, packages are redistributed outside the urban center to specialized teams that are allowed to enter the city center.”


Many logistics providers are using technology to help them be more efficient. Calvert reports, “Seattle is developing an app-based system to help trucks find open loading spaces.” Vijaya Rao, CEO of Delivery Circle, insists, “It is essential for businesses which offer last-mile deliveries to utilize technology to reduce inefficiencies and lower costs. These technologies include traceability and tracking information, route planning solutions, GPS and/or telematics devices, order management systems and payment processing.”[6] Journalist Jennifer A. Kingson (@jenniferkingson) reports that drone technology is also receiving some attention. “The Federal Aviation Administration,” she writes, “has released new and looser rules for flying drones over highly populated areas and at night, effectively laying a welcome mat for future aerial deliveries of takeout food, Amazon packages, prescription drugs — you name it.”[7] She adds, “While the prospect of Jetsons-style convenience with less street gridlock is tantalizing, there are still plenty of logistical hurdles, and it will take some time for cities to figure out how to manage low-altitude air traffic as routinely as they do today’s road traffic.”


Concluding thoughts

Thibaud Febvre (@Mr_thiburce), founder of Vianova, notes, “Policies to address the challenges of combating air pollution, reducing CO2 and noise emissions, transport congestion, and improving safety are becoming increasingly important, with important implications for freight and logistics transport.”[8] He labels current efforts a search for “virtuous urban logistics.” Like Migon, he encourages close collaboration between stakeholders. “A strong strategic dialogue between the logistics sector and cities,” he writes, “should enable the sharing of best practices, facilitate models of collaboration and mutualization, and accelerate the deployment of solutions promoting cleaner and sustainable freight transport in urban areas.” Urban logistics is an area ripe for innovation. Cities aren’t going away and neither are the needs of urban residents. Meeting those needs in the most efficient and sustainable way is an imperative that can’t be ignored.


[1] Kate Migon, “It’s time for cities to reclaim their streets,” Smart Cities Dive, 28 January 2019.
[2] Debbie Abrams Kaplan, “How cities can help supply chains perfect the last mile,” Supply Chain Dive, 22 May 2017.
[3] Scott Calvert, “New Gridlock in America: The Fight for Curb Space,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 December 2019.
[4] Jasper Dekker, “One-day deliveries are breaking our cities,” Fast Company, 23 December 2019.
[5] Peter Harris, “Sustainable Solutions Through Urban Logistics,” Longitudes, 8 December 2020.
[6] Vijaya Rao, “How Crowdsourced Delivery Can Clean Up the Urban Last Mile,” SupplyChainBrain, 10 May 2019.
[7] Jennifer A. Kingson, “Cities prepare for home delivery by drone,” Axios, 14 January 2021.
[8] Thibaud Febvre, “The rise of virtuous urban logistics: a major challenge for cities,” Vianova, 26 May 2020.