The Future of Urban Transportation: Moving Goods

Stephen DeAngelis

July 25, 2013

In an earlier post (The Future of Urban Transportation: Moving People), I discussed some of the solutions that researchers are considering to help overcome traffic congestion challenges in urban areas. Moving people around in urban environments, however, is only half of the challenge. “In the grand scheme of urban mobility,” writes Eric Jaffe, “it’s easy to lose track of commercial freight movement.” [“The Forgotten Urban Transportation Problem We Should Be Trying to Fix,” The Atlantic Cities, 22 May 2013] No matter where people live they require food, clothing, and other consumer goods; however, not many people think about how those goods are delivered into the city. The more congested the city, the more difficult the challenge. Jaffe continues:

“Commuters are the primary source of traffic coming into and out of the city, and parking causes much of the street-to-street congestion within it. Fact is, says transport scholar Genevieve Giuliano of the University of Southern California, it’s so easy to forget about freight that metropolitan areas have done so for years — at their own peril. ‘Any of us who live in cities and metropolitan areas are very dependent on urban freight, because that’s how all of the goods and services we purchase get here,’ says Giuliano. ‘It’s fascinating to me that it’s never been a part of city planning.’ The consequence of this historical oversight is that handling cargo has become the ‘newest urban transportation problem,’ according to Giuliano. While cities have been places of trade and exchange for as long as they’ve existed, planners have only recently begun to give freight its due consideration. Even the new wave of smart growth strategies — with its emphasis on reduced road capacity as well as mixed-use development — has created some unintended complications for commercial movement. ‘The more that you follow these types of strategies without thinking about how freight actually gets delivered, the more problems you’re going to generate,’ Giuliano says.”

In the previous post on urban transportation mentioned above, I noted that one of the problems with getting people to use public transportation is that the so-called “first and last mile” challenge. It has yet to be solved. The “first and last mile” challenge for freight can be even more problematic. In fact, Jaffe says that challenge is the first of three significant categories of problems that plague cities. Giuliano calls it the “metro core” problem. Jaffe explains, “Essentially, [the problem involves] the congestion and double-parking that occurs in city centers when trucks aren’t well-managed during the first and last mile of delivery.” The second category of challenges identified by Giuliano involves “the environmental impact of moving freight through the metro area.” She labels the final challenge, “the hub dilemma — the additional layer of commercial traffic that accrues at international nodes like Los Angeles (for port shipping) or Chicago (for rail freight).”

 

Jaffe reports that a survey conducted by Giuliano and some colleagues concludes that cities outside of the United States handle urban freight management better than American cities. The abstract for the survey states:

“The authors use three categories to describe urban freight strategies: last mile/first mile deliveries and pickups, environmental mitigation, and trade node strategies. The authors find that there are many possibilities for better managing urban freight and its impacts including labeling and certification programs, incentive-based voluntary emissions reductions programs, local land use and parking policies, and more stringent national fuel efficiency and emissions standards for heavy duty trucks. More research is needed on intra-metropolitan freight movements and on the effectiveness of existing policies and strategies.”

As you can sense from that abstract, a great deal of emphasis appears to be on the environmental impacts of freight management in urban areas. Jaffe reports:

“London … recently established a low-emissions zone in the metro area. The zone targeted the worst environmental offenders, including heavy diesel trucks, and the early results are at least a little encouraging. One new study found a measurable change in fleet quality as well as a small improvement in air quality.”

The video found below (which was created by Oliver O’Brien, a researcher at University College London) demonstrates why controlling emissions in London is critical. London is a magnet for workers who commute in and out of the city each day. The video “is an animation of Oyster Card (commuter smartcard) taps in and out of London’s tube and rail stations. Taps are recorded in 10-minute intervals, and red represents flow into the system, while green indicates exiting a station.” [“Get Lost in These 19 Fascinating Maps,” by Lauren Drell, Mashable, 24 April 2013] Road traffic data (both private and commercial) only add to the commute.

 

 

Jaffe reports that Paris “is way ahead of the curve when it comes to experimenting with potential solutions to freight congestion.” Although he admits that Paris’ scheme requires additional handling of goods and increases costs. He explains:

“The city’s most ambitious program may be its model of consolidating shipments outside the metro area then shipping them into the city center for redistribution. The plan isn’t perfect — for one thing, handling goods an extra time increases costs — but it does address the classic urban freight problem of partly full trucks taking up space on city roads.”

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that solutions to the “first and last mile” challenge haven’t progressed any further than they have. A couple of years ago I published two posts on the subject of the “Surmounting the Last Mile Delivery Challenge is Urban Areas.” In the first of those posts (Part 1: Pipe Dreams), I discussed some ideas that used pipes (either new ones or existing underground systems) to move packages from centralized warehouses situated outside of cities at rapid speeds into delivery centers within the city. The beauty of these kinds of systems is that they don’t congest city streets. The drawbacks to such systems include increased costs as well as the limited size and quantity of things that can be transported in this manner. In the second post (Part 2: Small and Clean Vehicles), I discussed some of the new zero-emission vehicle designs that are generally smaller than the trucks and lorries used to make deliveries today. Many of those vehicles are already in use around the globe.

 

Because cities are at the bottom of the legal pecking order (i.e., federal and state laws take precedent), Jaffe reports that “Giuliano believes the most promising approach to freight problems in U.S. cities will be pacts negotiated directly with companies and operators.” I expect to see a lot more public/private cooperation in the years ahead. Companies that opt out of collaborating with cities may, in a very real sense, find themselves on the outside. This will be especially true if those public/private partnerships involve the construction and operation of transways (e.g., roads, rails, canals, tunnels, pipes, etc.). Giuliano told Jaffe, “As states we can’t impose regulations because of protection, so the next best thing is to have these negotiations to see what we can accomplish by providing incentives. The models we see in Europe, they’re always initiated by government, but essentially they’re partnerships: “We have a problem, let’s figure out how we’re going to solve it”.'”

 

I would expect automobile/truck manufacturers, trucking/delivery firms, and railroads to play a major role in helping figure out solutions to the three major categories of challenges Giuliano noted above; but trucking/delivery firms will probably play the largest role. Typically about 80 percent of freight with a local destination is carried by truck.

 

To be of most use, these solutions will have to be integrated and that means that Big Data will play an essential role in helping make the delivery of goods in urban areas as efficient and effective as possible. There are currently experiments ongoing in Europe to demonstrate how “automatic data capturing and information sharing will make it possible to harmonize the urban transport to achieve environmental and economic benefits.” [“Project Demonstrations,” STRAIGHTSOL, 3 January 2013] In the post about moving people in and about in urban areas, researchers concluded that there is no silver bullet solution to the challenge. The same is certainly true when it comes to the movement of goods. A combination of strategies will have to be employed if progress is to be made. City planners will continue to ignore the movement of urban freight at their own peril. Elichi Taniguchi writes, “The need is urgent for more efficient and effective freight transport systems that not only address costs but also fully tackle environmental issues such as noise, air pollution, vibration and visual intrusion. … It’s time to create real visions for City Logistics.” [“The Future of City Logistics,” 29 October 2012] He agrees with Jaffe that “logistics providers have an important role to play in in all of this.” He concludes, “In the end we need to see a change in attitude among all stakeholders if we are to facilitate City Logistics. They need to recognize the importance of working together in the initial planning stages. If they do, everyone benefits.”