The future of sustainable city logistics

Clean and sustainable cities are appealing places to live, to work, to enjoy life, and – not least – to invest in. Sustainable city logistics needs to contribute to more livable and appealing cities with zero-emission vehicles that better match the size of the city, but also to the consolidation of freight flows and the use of waterways for the transport of goods to and from the city.

A successful approach will assume substantial flows of goods within cities: construction, hospitality, waste, and parcel deliveries (to consumers, companies, and institutions). In the future there will also be a sharp rise in the number of deliveries made to seniors at home.

In designing city logistics solutions, one needs to have an overall and integrated view of the (different actors’) objectives with regard to city logistics, the distribution network, and the planning and control of that network, but also of the processes and the information and communications technology for the planning and of who does what in the organization. Local and supralocal government policy is another key factor in city logistics.

Many initiatives for city logistics start out with government subsidies. However, such initiatives often end as soon as the government money has been exhausted. An integrated approach to city logistics means that the business model also needs to be carefully thought out. There is no future for solutions based entirely on subsidies.

Cleaner city logistics is about transport that is not only zero emission, but also quieter and safer. It could involve electric cars and cargo tricycles, for example; 50% of the local-for-local shipments can be done with cargo tricycles (Cyclelogistics, 2014). Logistics service providers are placing their bets on bicycle couriers. Those won’t be cyclists carrying bags on their back, however, but rather electric cargo tricycles with considerable load capacity. Some 1,000 to 2,000 of those couriers will soon be riding around in Amsterdam and you can count on this development generating as much of a discussion as the current one about whether or not motor scooters should still be allowed to use bicycle lanes.

Distribution by water is also a cleaner form of city logistics. PostNL is busy developing floating depots that can enter Amsterdam by water, enabling deliveries by cargo tricycle or small electric vehicles to customers in the city. Van Keulen, an innovative construction materials wholesaler in Amsterdam, wants to team up with Mokum Mariteam and Blom Dekschuitenverhuur (a barge rental company) to supply construction sites from the water.

More than anything, sustainable city logistics is connected: the vehicles are connected via the Internet of Things. There is currently a lot of experimentation going on with dynamic traffic management systems. The metropolitan areas of Amsterdam, Assen, and Helmond-Eindhoven are leading the way in that regard. With “connected navigation”, trucks and delivery vans are provided with real-time information about traffic congestion and green waves to entice them to opt for particular routes that will result in fewer emissions and less nuisance for residents. Traditional loading and unloading bays in a street, often occupied by vehicles that don’t belong there, can be replaced by virtual loading and unloading bays along the side of the street. Those would only become actual bays if vehicles that are logged in to the traffic management systems request them. That would prevent loading and unloading from taking place in the street and stopping the flow of traffic.

And while there is certainly room for debate about the rise of companies like Uber, one thing that sort of company is very good at is using data and intelligent algorithms to determine where the hotspots in a city are and where to position cars or have them drive to limit the amount of empty mileage as much as possible. This ensures more efficient deliveries and less mileage. A lot can be learned from such companies when it comes to sustainable city logistics.

New city logistics concepts need to be developed that will make customers feel they are getting better service. Companies are actively working on that. In addition, the technology involved in both vehicles and traffic management systems needs to be developed further. There, too, hopeful developments can be seen. And, finally, these concepts and techniques also need to be able to be applied. There needs to be room for that, and – most of all – there needs to be consistent government policy.

Market parties make investments in this kind of innovation for a period of at least ten years. Policy changes along with the changing of the guard, and even then, a city alderman might dilute ambitions under pressure from city council members or complaining neighbors. Or ambitious policy may get throttled as plans become more concrete. In Amsterdam, for example, a policy plan aimed at getting 25% of the freight transports to take place by boats on canals became impossible to implement as a result of the Bestemmingsplan Water (the city’s zoning plan for water), which precluded any expansion of transport by water. And in a number of cities, proposed low-emission zones were ultimately either postponed or never even designated as such.

In the end, the key to future-oriented city logistics lies in enticing, encouraging, and sometimes even pushing the market and in responding with an open mind to whatever innovations may emerge from the market. And that particular key is in the hands of the government.

Since in practice many different actors are involved, it is necessary to find a good balance between seemingly conflicting interests when weighing possible solutions. Businesses are more than eager to work on improving urban distribution. A timely and unimpeded transport of goods to and from cities for stores, hotels, restaurants, and cafés, construction sites, and residents will only be possible as the result of a joint effort by the business community and government bodies. Companies with a lot of activities in city centers should meet more often with the municipalities so that knowledge about just-in-time urban distribution can be included in policymaking and spatial planning, in the creation of low-emission zones, in the formulation of new traffic regulations, or when measures are taken to reduce emissions of particulate matter.

Walther Ploos van Amstel.


Photo: BubblePost


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