Research: vans versus bikes versus drones

Urban distribution in medium-sized cities faces a major challenge, mainly when deliveries are difficult in the city center due to: an increase in e-commerce, weak public transportation system, and the promotion of urban sustainability plans. As a result, private cars, public transportation, and freight transportation compete for the same space.

A new paper by Serrano-Hernandez et al. analyses the current state of freight logistics in the city center of Pamplona (Spain) and proposes alternative transportation routes and transportation modes in the last-mile city center distribution according to different criteria evaluated by residents. Several alternatives have been assessed considering routes and transportation modes: the shortest route criterion and avoiding some city center area policies are combined with a traditional van-based, bike, and aerial (drone) distribution protocols for delivering parcels and bar/restaurant supplies.

Using a multicriteria framework

These alternatives have been evaluated within a multicriteria framework in which economic, environmental, and social objectives are considered simultaneously. The point in this multicriteria framework is that the criteria/alternative AHP weights and priorities have been set according to a survey deployed in the city of Pamplona (Navarre, Spain). The survey and AHP results show the preference for drones or bike distribution in the city center to reduce social and environmental issues.

The social dimension is much more valued than economic or environmental aspects. In fact, pedestrian safety and life quality are the factors most appreciated by the respondent. Therefore, it is fascinating that economic criteria are not critical for this analysis.


Drones are seen as the best alternative for deliveries in the city center. On the other hand, aerial distribution can be beneficial in heavy traffic, counting vehicles and pedestrians. Hence, the Pamplona city center is a good example of this balance of people and distribution vehicles, where neighbors, traders, transporters, and tourists live together daily.

Nevertheless, the lower environmental impact of drones and their easiness of control makes it a promising urban delivery mode, mainly with the use of new advanced technologies of managing big data, 5G, IoT, or autonomous vehicles. But, for now, bike delivery is the preferred option in the short run.

Avoiding entering the city center is preferred for drones and vans. However, this is not the case for cargo bikes, which people prefer to cross the city center. These reasons are motivated mainly for environmental and social aspects, as bike delivery is cleaner, less intrusive, and safer than other transportation modes. As such, it integrates better into the urban environment making it friendlier to residents.

Source: Serrano-Hernandez, A., Ballano, A., & Faulin, J. (2021). Selecting Freight Transportation Modes in Last-Mile Urban Distribution in Pamplona (Spain): An Option for Drone Delivery in Smart Cities. Energies14(16), 4748.

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