Health and Healthcare Systems

How should we design the urban freight systems of the future?

A cyclist cycles by painted stencils on a street to create pop up bike lanes in preparation for distanced bike rides, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), London, Britain, May 16, 2020

New cycle lanes have sprung up in cities recently - are they part of a long-term shift? Image: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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  • The pandemic has brought into focus the need to rethink how cargo and freight move around and through our cities.
  • Improved infrastructure, better public/private collaboration and technology all have roles to play in long-term mobility solutions.

While cargo and freight deliveries already form a substantial part of the mobility landscape, the industry is still growing – and it might grow more than expected, as we don’t have forecasts that include the effects of the global pandemic. How will our habits change in the near future? Will we go out less, and rely increasingly on deliveries instead?

Creating long-term systemic solutions for urban freight was already an issue before the pandemic, and it hasn’t gone away. It has only raised more questions - but these are questions that and short and medium-term design improvements can help answer.

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Growth in online retail and delivery often happens at a pace with which local government can’t keep up - and quite often the public sector is not an imagined part of any solution. This makes it harder to plan for better infrastructure development as it increasingly becomes a question of adjusting to, rather than planning for. However, with congestion in streets at a low right now, local governments should be quick to invest in infrastructural improvements which add long-environmental benefits - such as bike lanes. Aside from walking, bikes and electric bikes are by far the most environmental and cost-effective means of urban mobility, and electric cargo bikes allow the carrier to move around easily in town, without adding to the levels of congestion or emissions. Private companies are already testing this solution with good results. Supporting this development with infrastructure such as bike lanes is the fastest and most sustainable way to adapt, and luckily we’re seeing cities across the world pursue this route.

The second strategy is to design better systems for public-private sector collaboration. As the demand for delivery services grows, they will respond by expanding - and they will achieve this by increasing their capacity rather than working with the local municipality to ensure better conditions. To put it bluntly, in terms of parcel and package delivery, public solutions are disappearing. And this is quite the paradox, as the national postal services of a few decades ago could have been an integral part in solving current mobility challenges.

Ideas for better collaboration systems are there already, such as optimising private and public partnerships by using data and infrastructure. One openly discussed solution is the city of Los Angeles’ Mobility Data Specification platform which compels ride-hailing and micromobility providers to share data with the city. Done the right way, with proper privacy practices, this approach should include freight and cargo transportation. Nowadays, most major delivery services have their own cargo hubs and delivery vehicles. Each company has strategies to optimise delivery times and to minimise travelled route distance to reach their destination. For these companies, efficiency is important. If travel time can be reduced and vehicle storage better utilised, then they save money. They are already optimizing their operations through the smart use of data. But as delivery demand grows, they are also playing catch-up to constantly optimise according to demand. More deliveries require more vehicles, which add to congestion. That still needs to be fixed.

Consumers in Asia Pacific are ordering more food deliveries since the pandemic began
Consumers in Asia Pacific are ordering more food deliveries since the pandemic began Image: Statista
Putting a stamp on it

This is where the old postal office - or at least a similar mechanism - could have its renaissance. In dense urban districts, central cargo hubs such as the public post office should replace privately-owned counterparts. They could hold higher amounts of packages and parcels, and act as data-sharing hubs to enhance and facilitate coordination with private carriers. They could also be connected by dedicated cargo solutions. Take the examples of the Chicago Tunnel Company or the London Post Office Railway. These two infrastructure solutions were designed to move packages without adding to personal mobility congestion. When construction began in 1906, the Chicago Tunnel Company was meant to create an underground freight-only subway system, which allowed coal and mail to be transported without interfering with traffic on the surface. It inspired the London Post Office Railway, which closed operations in 2003. At its height, the latter connected eight postal sorting stations through its underground network.

In Manhattan, a similar freight-only solution could be devised with the island’s geography in mind. This could be done by placing cargo hubs on the riverside, or with the development of an electric high line railway to move cargo onto the island, which was the initial purpose of the current High Line. Public hubs would work as private/public collaboration sites with a view to reducing congestion and emissions while helping private delivery services optimize their efforts.

The hubs are part of better approach to systems design, but design can also help in shorter term with vehicles, such as electric autonomous cargo and waste vehicles. Using autonomous transportation for personal transport makes little to no sense in terms of reducing congestion. By comparison, an autonomous electric vehicle specifically designed for an island such as Manhattan needs only to be trained for a specific setting, and that would allow it to excel in that particular setting. Secondly, driverless cargo delivery also allows us to challenge vehicle typologies. Just because we’re used to deliveries typically being done by trucks or pickups doesn’t mean that this must be the chosen vehicle for delivery. For different types of deliveries, different vehicle designs could be applied. One could be slim and long for furniture delivery while another could be a large convoy, a moving hub if you like, designed to hold smaller parcel delivering vehicles or waste collection units. Imagine something similar in function to an aircraft carrier, only on the road, and for autonomous smaller vehicles, that could carry out tasks related to cargo, waste or even food delivery. Imagine a type of parasite robot vehicle that could piggy-back on existing garbage truck pick-ups as an example.

These vehicles would be linked to the centrally controlled hubs, using technology for optimisation and change of function.

To sum up, the coronavirus could give us an opportunity to improve freight as soon as possible. Some solutions can be designed and be ready within a few years. But long-term, the key is to ensure that public and private sectors work together by pooling their resources to reduce the congestion and emissions caused by freight. To improve urban mobility as a whole, we need to look at the entire picture – also post COVID-19 - and here freight and cargo shouldn’t be neglected. Instead, we should let systemic design thinking take the driver’s seat.

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Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsSupply Chains and Transportation
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