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Urban logistics: Challenges and solutions

We explore the impact of freight transport on urban sustainability and look at solutions to the complexity of urban freight challenges.
© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility

Freight transport has long been a ‘poor cousin’ to passenger transport among researchers and policymakers, yet its impact on urban sustainability (including air quality) is substantial.

While long-distance freight has traditionally been dominated by large players realising economies of scale whose sustainability impacts can more easily be addressed by proactive planning processes, the situation becomes more complex in urban settings: here, the field of players is more atomised and planning interventions have traditionally been more reactive. Yet urban freight has a disproportionate impact on urban air pollution (see Browne and McLeod, 2020).

‘Last-mile’ logistics

Practitioners focus particularly on ‘last-mile logistics’, ie. the step in the transport chain that brings goods to the end retailer or the end consumer. Last-mile logistics constitute a fast-moving field as technologies, consumer expectations and the entrepreneurial landscape constantly evolve. It directly supports consumer amenity and economic opportunity in cities, but has significant externalities in pollution, noise and safety impacts, and competes for scarce road and parking space, particularly in central areas.

Last-mile freight makes use of a broad range of vehicles (including walking and cycling couriers as well as motorised vehicles of different sizes and fuel sources), transports a broad variety of items and is characterised by the involvement of a broad diversity of firms and actors:

‘At a basic level, ‘freight’ can encapsulate the movements of raw materials, goods at the intermediate stages of supply chains, deliveries to points of sale or consumers, traffic supporting construction activity, vehicles used to deliver services, and in the removal of waste.’
(McLeod and Curtis, 2020, p204)

Freight policymaking

Most jurisdictions lack a dedicated urban freight policy. Regulations affecting the sector typically originate in disparate domains (land use policy, vehicle regulations, network planning, building codes) which may add up to ‘blunt policy tools’ and produce unintended outcomes when they coincide in shaping last-mile freight.
Also, the relative scarcity of research compared to the passenger transport sector translates into a limited collection of systemic and publicly available data from the predominantly private operators. Hence, freight policymaking often occurs in a space of poorly defined responsibilities and planning directives:
‘Private sector infrastructure providers and operators have financial imperatives to pursue efficient freight movement, but they are able to control a more limited set of factors than governments.’
(Cui et al, 2015, p589)

From a policy perspective, the plethora and fragmentation of private-sector actors and interests in the last-mile freight industry, combined with the frequent emergence of unexpected innovations and business initiatives, are hard to coordinate for public agencies. Expertise in freight logistics among planning practitioners is limited. Policy interventions often focus on specific problems or address specific stakeholders, but this may not do justice to the complexity of urban freight challenges.

Solutions to ‘last-mile’ freight challenges

Solutions to the urban last-mile freight challenge respond to the four-fold classification of strategies discussed earlier in this course:

  • Consolidation (avoiding trips): more goods in fewer vehicles or journeys.
  • Mode shift: fewer trucks and vans, more cargo bikes and where feasible, rail vehicles or watercraft.
  • Vehicle restrictions and electrification: Banning the most polluting vehicles from accessing certain areas and/or from circulating at certain times.
  • Integrating logistics with land use planning: Embedding freight infrastructures with urban processes – minimising trip lengths.
  • Automation: Replacing human drivers.


Web resources

In the next step, you will be introduced to different urban logistics solutions and the Urban Logistics as an On-Demand Service (ULAADS) project.

© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility
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