This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.
Meeting of the Minds talked with Richard Barone of Regional Plan Association (RPA) about the hidden but critical issues of freight and goods movement in cities around the world. In his role as Vice President for Transportation at RPA, Mr. Barone is responsible for the organization’s transportation portfolio in the areas of finance, policy and planning. He is RPA’s subject matter expert on freight/logistics, technology and urban transportation systems, and aviation.
Can you briefly explain the VREF supported research you are doing?
The Regional Plan Association (RPA) has worked with VREF for the past six years. This included an extensive four-year project called the Transit Leadership Summit that brought together transit agencies and planners from 17 cities around the world to discuss challenges and best practices in their field. The summit was built around a series of white papers we published of original research and case studies on issues such as fare payment systems, prioritizing capital investment, last mile issues, paying for public transit improvements, and climate change.
Our latest effort is in a similar vein as we’re pulling together best practices and research on urban goods movement. It’s really a synthesis of the work of VREF’s three big urban freight research centers: University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York, and University of Gothenburg in Sweden. There are also sub centers working on a variety of freight issues all over the globe. We organized all of their thinking in a way that is more digestible by public policymakers, planners, and others who may not be knowledgeable about the issues that confront cities when it comes to goods movement.
Why Goods Movement Matters: Strategies for Moving Goods in Metropolitan Areas is basically an educational guide with four areas of focus: buildings; streets & livability; environment; and people & technology. Each subject includes a case study and strategies for improving freight and goods movement. It even covers how public transit can better work with goods movement, such as offsetting bus lanes from the curb to provide better goods delivery space, as has been done in New York City.
As we know, more than 50% of the worlds population is now in cities – with it being closer to 80% in the US, Canada, and Europe – and that’s continuing to grow. It’s not just people being added to cities, but also demand for goods and services, so it’s absolutely critical that we think about this as we plan for growth in cities around the world.
Is the topic of urban freight adequately studied or appreciated by those planning transportation in cities?
There is a big gap in data and information in this field, which is why VREF is funding these research efforts. A lot of goods movement occurs in the private sector where there is not as much governmental oversight and control. Concern about proprietary information stemming from private sector competition means there’s less information available on freight movement than say, public transportation, which is typically managed by the public sector. Urban freight has not only been seen as something that can take care of itself, but actually considered a noxious activity to avoid thinking about. But pushing it into the background doesn’t solve its problems, such as increased street congestion from double-parked trucks trying to service buildings or deliver goods, especially in densely built cities. Pollution and other externalities generated by these activities can completely degrade the urban environment and also add tremendous costs to moving goods. It’s a big issue that planners don’t always seem to grasp.
One example of the problem is Macy’s department store in NYC which attracts 20 million visitors a year and generates $1 billion in annual sales. Macy’s building at 34th Street in Herald Square takes up an entire block and yet only has five loading docks to receive all their goods. In cities where space is valuable, restaurants and retailers don’t want to dedicate a big chunk of their footprint for freight because it doesn’t generate revenue and there is no penalty for them having goods delivered more frequently to replenish their supply. So the current trend is to instead turn that space into a café, more retail, or other uses that will make money. However, pricing could help reverse this trend and encourage a reduction in the frequency of deliveries, encouraging consolidation.
What are some ways to overcome the challenges of goods movement?
There are some really innovative policies being explored right now. London, New York and Sao Paolo have both looked at off-hour freight deliveries where businesses make deliveries when roads aren’t being heavily used, basically when most people are sleeping. Sao Paolo is actually moving toward implementation of the policy and incentivizing companies that shift goods deliveries to times when there’s more capacity for their movement. Another example is using cargo bikes instead of trucks, which works for a relatively low volume business.
We can also look at how buildings are designed to accommodate vehicles so they don’t block the street. Managing curb space is a critical issue. There’s a tension today with the huge push to make cities more appealing for people – which emphasizes the sustainable transportation of pedestrians, cyclists, and transit – and goods movement, which has been pushed aside. So we have to think about strategies to help manage the interaction of people and goods movement, as well as transit and goods movement.
Where do the private and public sectors fit into these issues of urban freight?
The freight industry is not going to be taken over by the public sector, not should it, so private sector partnership in policies and improvements is absolutely critical. Ironically, there are pressures for public transit to shift to a concession (operated by private companies) based approach. Today, there are more and more private companies running transit systems, such as in London and across Scandinavia and China. So in some ways, the freight sector is mirroring where things are going with certain aspects of transit globally.
Government’s role is really to set the rules and regulations. Pricing is one way to shift behavior in the private sector, such as through a levy on vehicle miles travelled (VMT). Another example is the Low Emission Zones (LEZs) in Europe which require companies to operate cleaner types of vehicles in certain parts of the city. Stockholm saw a 15% reduction in all commercial traffic in their low emission zone and there have been similar results in Milan, London, and Berlin. Two recommendations we’ve made for the US is to adopt a stricter national fuel efficiency standards and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tolling policies.
Additional costs associated with compliance (eg. retrofitting fleets to low emission vehicle) get passed on to the customers who receive the goods. It’s a balance between regulating an industry to the point where it can no longer sustain itself, and putting in regulation that protects society from the negative impacts of that industry and encouraging behavior that will improve the public realm.
Where is the biggest need or opportunity for innovation on urban freight and goods movement?
There’s a fascinating potential future where we can produce more of what we need locally, using 3D printing technologies to replicate objects right in our homes. It will still require raw material but you can envision a substantial reduction in volume that could lead to the more efficient use of space and demand for goods movement. Can we reduce the demand for raw materials through more advanced recycling techniques? Yet, I do think questions still remain about the energy efficiency of distributed manufacturing (a 3D printer in every home) vs. centralized production. Actually, there are many questions that remain unanswered and this really is still a little like science fiction. But one thing is certain, our cities are overrun with congestion and there isn’t a real cohesive or comprehensive policy for goods movement in most places. Policy innovation is likely the key for the near-future.
Fortunately, there are a lot of smart people thinking about this. Our report has information on great strategies for each type of challenge. It can help get people talking about goods movement and looking at how the solutions can fit into their cities. The report has been translated into French, Spanish, and Mandarin to expand its reach around the world. We paid a lot of attention to how the design of our report helps convey its message and how its graphically driven design can help to highlight and enliven an oft overlooked topic of cities and elevate freight more into the urban discourse. Whether it’s a in a report or our city streets, design is a critical part of the solution.
Cities everywhere are already struggling to cope with congestion and the demand for goods movement. So how will they deal with the growth in the future? How is New York City going to handle adding another million people to its population when it already has problems dealing with its demand for goods today?
We talk a lot about technology innovation but the critical thing is really brick and mortar: it’s how we design our cities and what priority we give to goods movement. So far it’s been given a low priority but that has to change. No matter what the future holds, we have to anticipate growth and reorient the way we think about goods movement and how it relates to cities.