Freight Partnerships are Key to Incorporating Freight into Urban Systems

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

Michael Browne is a professor of Logistics and Urban Freight Transport at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and he also provides academic leadership to the Urban Freight Platform, an initiative of the University in partnership with Chalmers University of Technology and supported by the Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF). Additionally, he is a member of the VREF’s Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems (CoE-SUFS).

He recently co-hosted the webinar “Does Online Shopping Create Urban Congestion?” for Meeting of the Minds with Dr. Alison Conway. His research focuses on urban freight logistics, but unlike Dr. Conway, whose research examines the impact of a rapidly changing e-commerce culture on residential buildings and streets, Browne’s research looks at its impact on office buildings, and this article explores his methods and findings.


Increased E-commerce Freight Impacts Office Buildings

The monumental growth in e-commerce, and the increased demands on transport and delivery associated with it, has had a profound effect on residential areas. More deliveries overall means (a) more delivery vehicles on the road; (b) more frequent trips as consumers choose specific days and times for delivery; (c) more drivers parking for short periods to unload and deliver packages; and (d) more packages in need of in-person recipients and/or areas dedicated to short-term storage.

People don’t necessarily want their online orders left unattended on their doorsteps all day while they’re at work, and therefore choose to have packages delivered to their offices. Office deliver provides a measure of convenience, and also necessity, when the delivery requires a signature or contains perishable goods or food.


Studying Freight Movement to Office Buildings in London

In the early 2000s, long before Amazon became the home delivery behemoth that we know today, Browne started looking at freight movements in London’s 33 boroughs. About five years ago, his team became part of an international network of researchers launched by the VREF, and they found that one of the areas not well researched was freight movement to office buildings.

“You see office buildings everywhere in cities, but a lot of times you don’t actually see them because they’re above the shops,” Browne says. “On Regent Street, [a world-famous shopping destination on London’s West End], there are more deliveries to the office buildings than to the shops.”

When his team was conducting this research in 2013 and 2014, they found that office buildings typically had more than 200 deliveries per day. That number of daily deliveries is now up to 400.

“Office buildings in London were more interesting than we thought they were going to be!” he laughs. “Now people are ordering things to be delivered to their office buildings, and that didn’t really happen 10 to 15 years ago. Half of the packages in the mail rooms of these office buildings are personal now, and these buildings were not really designed for this.”

Many of these buildings don’t even have the storage space to deal with this intake of packages, he says.

Another change that has happened concurrently with the increase in personal deliveries has been a change in the nature of offices – what used to be big buildings with single tenants are now big buildings with multiple tenants. This means more stops for delivery drivers – multiple mail rooms on multiple floors instead of just one – which, in turn, means more time delivery vehicles spend parked outside the buildings on preciously limited curb space.

Longer time spent on deliveries also means other delivery vehicles are forced to queue to wait their turn to unload, creating congestion and disrupting traffic flow on already congested streets.

To further complicate matters, the mere fact of increased deliveries is not the extent of the issue. The kind of delivery also makes a difference; specifically, food vs. non-food items.

“When we buy groceries online, that’s very different than clothing transport and logistics,” Browne says. “Freight is quite diverse and therefore so is delivery.”

Results and actionable takeaways from this research can be found in the VREF report, “Why Goods Movement Matters.”


The City is a System, and Freight is a Key Component

As cities become denser there is an increased demand for transport energies, Browne explains. “A lot of cities have a goal to increase the density of the city and improve public transit, but what that means for freight is complicated.”

He continues, “An interesting thing to me is how everything is divided up: planners plan, architects design buildings, drivers transport vehicles. When looking at the flows of products in a city, we have to start thinking in a more joined way.”

Browne advocates strongly for people to step outside of their siloes and begin thinking about a city as a system in which all of these different components that function independently need to come together to function collaboratively.

“People need to understand the flow of the products, the money, the people,” he states. “A planning change to have a denser city is great from the transit view, but what happens to the freight services? If we stop using cars so much, how will stuff get to me? I won’t stop ordering things. I still want my clothes.”

Freight logistics is something that operates invisibly, yet freight mechanisms are very visible. People see delivery trucks and find them to be annoying and in the way, but the logistics activity is separated from that – urban planners simply don’t think about it. Yet freight connects to all parts of the city as a system, and is something urban planners, architects, policymakers, and other stakeholders will have to take into account.


Freight Issues are Policy Issues

Most cities have a lot of pressure on the curb network, which means there are a lot of questions on the use of curb space, especially where there are large apartment and office buildings.

“We need to rethink the way we set aside space for these activities,” Browne says. “Delivery vehicles don’t spend a lot of time driving. A lot of the time they are stopped while the driver is walking. City policies haven’t been really geared up for that; they’re focused on moving traffic. But in a typical eight-hour working day, a delivery vehicle will move for two hours and park for six. How do we make the system work better, and what is the role of different people and planners in the city? What is the role of transport operators themselves?”

There are small interferences that can be done to mitigate some of the freight issues (some easier to implement than others). There can be assigned time slots for delivery trucks at the destination points themselves. Freight can be routed through package consolidation centers for sorting and last-mile delivery. Cities can require concierge services in each building. Delivery times can be shifted to evenings and late night. Customers can also be less demanding of specific delivery times.

But, Browne says, the best way to address the issue of freight logistics is to get everyone involved – and that is a lot of people – together in the same room to discuss it.


Freight Partnerships are Necessary

Since 2006, Browne has been the Chair of the Central London Freight Quality Partnership, which brings together six London boroughs with private businesses that move freight in London. Each quarterly meeting brings 25 to 30 stakeholders and decision makers from both the public and the private sectors together in the same room for four hours to discuss freight logistics.

“If you want to improve something, you have to first understand it,” he says. “Then if you think of what can be done with it, you have to get decision makers together to get them to do it.”

A freight partnership is a way to get these people together in the same room talking. There are a lot of tensions between the public and private sectors, Browne says, largely because they don’t understand each other’s point of view and they don’t see the same issues. But ultimately they all share the same goals: to have more vibrant, livable cities and more efficient freight deliveries.

Browne even co-authored a brief, “Organising and Managing Urban Freight Partnership,” to serve as a guide for other cities to form their own freight partnerships.

Engagement is key, he says, and goes beyond just policymakers and urban planners – people like property owners and real estate developers all need to be engaged as well, because they too are part of the chain of people who will influence freight.

“Freight is a flow; not just a flow of trucks but also the things inside the trucks,” says Browne. “Policies that simply restrict that flow are ineffective. There needs to be better engagement between the people who make the policy and those who provide the service.”

The use of cars and transit, and the entire infrastructure related to both, are overseen by a public authority, but there is much less oversight where freight is concerned. The private sector abhors any kind of regulation, particularly in public spaces, which is all the more reason it needs to be engaged in policy planning.

“Private companies have to get better at understanding why [regulations might be necessary]. It’s not all ‘just freight.’ Ordering a T-shirt is different than ordering 80 grocery items. People would like a simple solution to a complex problem, but people who are responsible for policy need to take a step back and realize it isn’t likely to have one solution but many.”


The annual VREF Conference on Urban Freight will be held in Gothenburg October 17-19, 2018. For more information, click here.


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