Obstacles prevent waterborne city logistics, but opportunities exist

Construction traffic, garbage, and other deliveries could be run on water in Swedish large cities. But market mechanisms, regulations, technology, problems with quays and old habits stand in the way. This is shown by a pre-study carried out within the Swedish Transport Administration’s industry program Sustainable Shipping, which Lighthouse runs.

“The threshold is high for deviations from business as usual. It takes drastic conditions, such as a ban on too much road transport in an area, to choose the waterway instead”, says Sönke Von Wieding, who led the work on the pre-study Myndigheters roll för urban vattenburen logistik.

It should be different. The increased traffic congestion in our cities threatens both the environment and the economy, and in the Swedish freight transport strategy, there is a clear goal of moving goods from road to water. Construction transport would be most profitable, above all environmentally, but perhaps also economically.

According to the pre-study, there is an excellent potential to transport waste and recycled materials on water. In contrast, the market potential is not evident for parcel deliveries as the flows are small and more fragmented (many senders and recipients).

A significant obstacle to waterborne urban logistics (WUL) is often no quays in good locations. A complex ownership structure complicates this – even though the municipality owns most quays in central urban areas, different administrations own and are responsible for them. “Quays are often owned by an authority that has nothing to do with traffic planning. Therefore, there is a need for coordination internally and more competence and resources. Authorities would need to take a more active role in urban freight transport. Just as you plan for public transport, you have to plan for urban freight transport”, says Sönke Von Wieding.

The authorities could also work more to develop the market for WUL. As public actors and large buyers of transport services, the authorities as a contracting party can, for example, require that transport takes place by waterways. But that’s easier said than done. The study indicates that the most crucial measure to drive development forward is to create a supportive culture for WUL in the authorities. At present, decision–makers’ routines, habits, and approaches are a major obstacle as they maintain lock-in mechanisms that make it challenging to implement the necessary measures.

The study shows that WUL can contribute to sustainable freight transport in cities and the researchers, therefore, propose continued research and development work on several points. Better conditions for WUL could be made possible through studies such as:

  • Under which conditions can WUL contribute to sustainable cities and efficient transport?
  • How can WUL be integrated in public procurement?
  • How can local authorities consolidate the fragmented responsibility for WUL?
  • Is there a need for a regulatory framework dedicated to urban waterways?

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