Faster, cleaner, greener, cheaper:
what micromobility can do for last-mile logistics in cities

The rise of online deliveries by car, van or truck is choking our cities. Micromobility could make “last mile” logistics cleaner and healthier — as well as faster and more cost-effective

June 2022

Words by Graham Pointer and Shifani Sood

“The new generation of electric-assisted cargo bikes can carry up to 150kg … In busy, dense centres, these small, environmentally friendly and space-efficient vehicles have a clear competitive advantage over cars, vans and trucks”
Graham Pointer & Shifani Sood

Demand for deliveries is surging. Over two billion people worldwide purchased goods or services online in 2020, according to data analyst Statista — a quarter of the global population. In just a few years, fast, efficient deliveries have become an essential part of our lives, and an important contributor to local and national economies. But there’s a downside: the majority reach their final destination by cars, vans and trucks, even over short distances. This explosion in local delivery vehicles is making urban congestion and air pollution worse, and hindering progress towards zero on carbon emissions and road accidents. Without any intervention, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2030, the number of delivery vehicles in the top 100 global cities will increase by 36%. Associated carbon emissions will rise 32%, and congestion by 21%, adding an average of 11 minutes to daily commutes.

We all value the convenience of home delivery, but we don’t want the negative impacts on our neighbourhoods: noise, congested kerbsides, slower journeys, traffic-related injuries. So we need a new approach to the “last mile”, or the last few kilometres to a customer’s door or collection point. Transitioning to forms of micromobility such as cargo bikes, e-scooters or even drones offers a smarter solution. By taking advantage of active modes of travel and encouraging innovation in delivery models, city leaders can refocus the urban experience around liveability, health and wellbeing, without hindering the movement of goods.

Micromobility is not just a solution for smaller deliveries: the new generation of electric-assisted cargo bikes can carry up to 150kg, and an additional 150kg with a trailer. In busy, dense centres where space to move and park is at a premium, these small, environmentally friendly and space-efficient vehicles have a clear competitive advantage over cars, vans and trucks. For logistics companies, the last mile is the most complex part of the journey, representing over half the overall cost. Studies show that in busy city streets, it can take between nine and 15 minutes to find parking — wasted time that, along with traffic, must be factored into scheduling and pricing.

New York, USA In 2019, the city launched a cargo bike trial to improve safety and reduce congestion caused by double-parked vans and trucks. More than 350 bikes owned by six operators were allowed to park in loading areas previously reserved for vans and trucks. Between May 2020 and January 2021, the trial resulted in a 109% increase in deliveries by cargo bikes, with a per bike carbon saving of approximately 7 tonnes per year. Key learnings included the need for dedicated kerbside space and prioritization of bikes through innovative street design. The city’s transportation department is now developing a permanent cargo bike programme. Photo: NYC DOT

In comparison, GPS data collected in central London by cargo bike operator Pedal Me found that bikes travelled significantly faster than vans or cars, because they could move past stationary traffic and use bus lanes and separate cycle infrastructure. Neither did operatives have to waste time searching for a parking space or walking long distances to drop-offs: they could simply pull up on the pavement outside. On average, bike trips were 6% shorter than car trips. This effect has been reported in other cities too — in Sydney, a side-by-side test of vans and bikes over ten deliveries found that the bikes travelled a third fewer kilometres and took less than half the time to complete their rounds. A 2019 paper in the European Transport Research Review, meanwhile, reported that electric cargo bikes are more cost-effective than trucks for routes less than two miles from the distribution centre and with 50 parcels per stop.

Utrecht, the Netherlands
Utrecht’s Mobility Plan 2040 has made 30km/h the new normal on all streets in built-up areas, and it will remove 1% of car parking space each year and reallocate it to cycling. The city council has imposed a low-emissions zone for logistics to deter the use of cars, vans and trucks, and fossil-fuel powered delivery vehicles will be banned from the centre by 2025. It also offers grants to help businesses buy or lease cargo bikes in order to support their shift to micromobility. Photo: geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

Micromobility offers city leaders a golden opportunity to make progress towards many of their goals, from carbon emissions to liveability and health outcomes. So how can they support a logistics transformation? We’ve identified three “big moves” that will be fundamental to creating the right operating environment, as well as two more that will accelerate the transition.

The first essential enabler is safety: unless people feel comfortable using these new forms of transport to get from A to B, little progress will be made. Safe moving infrastructure for micromobility must become a priority, with extensive cycling networks that meet NACTO guidelines, self-explaining streets and proactive management. Many governments have adopted a Vision Zero systems approach based on the premise that all injuries and deaths are preventable. This involves reshaping regulations to support active travel over motor vehicles, and measures such as lower speed limits, low-traffic neighbourhoods and low-emission zones. To complement this, they need to provide education and training, as well as softer nudges via communications campaigns or initiatives such as the “Dutch reach”, where drivers are taught to open car doors with their opposite hand, forcing them to turn their body and head so they are more likely to see cyclists coming up behind them.

The second big move is to reshape the built environment so that pick-ups and drop-offs are convenient and easy. This might involve reallocating kerbside space from car, van and truck parking to micromobility, and providing charging stations and lockable parking. Facilities for loading and unloading also need to be available within office and residential buildings, shops and restaurants. Building codes may need to be updated to ensure this is provided in new developments, and building owners encouraged to retrofit existing buildings to meet emerging demand.

Helsinki, Finland The City of Helsinki’s Bicycle Action Plan includes specific actions for enabling deliveries by micromobility, including marking dedicated loading zones, improving bicycle parking conditions in buildings and keeping cycling route maps updated. The city is also a test bed for innovative data-based solutions, including a pilot that uses bicycle-mounted sensors to measure the condition of bike paths. At REDI, a shopping centre in the Kalasatama district, a robot courier delivered groceries to customers living in the high-rise building next door, while 6Aika project seeks to make deliveries quicker and easier for human operators by collecting detailed data on routes to buildings and entrances, which can be accessed via OpenStreetMap. Photo: Lev Karavanov / Alamy Stock Photo

From The Possible 09

Download the issue

Third, city authorities have a crucial policy leadership role to play. By setting long-term targets and market strategies, and promoting zero-emissions vehicles over those with internal combustion engines, they can create an operating environment in which innovation can flourish. Integrated land use and transport strategies will be fundamental to setting a shared vision, and making last-mile deliveries by micromobility the easier choice for businesses and operators.

This is where the big acceleration moves come in. Fourth, city leaders can actively encourage remoding through initiatives such as establishing micro-logistics hubs, and providing opportunities to consolidate deliveries so that micromobility becomes the new status quo. They also have a critical role to play in fostering innovation and supporting trials and tactical interventions such as pop-up cycle lanes or dedicated parking for cargo bikes. This kind of experimentation will be essential for developing use cases. That’s big move 5, and it’s one where both the public and private sectors need to act. By working together in partnership, and sharing experience, knowledge and outcomes-based data, they will be able to identify the approaches that work best and scale them up.

Taoyuan City, Taiwan
Taiwan is the most scooter-dense country in the world, which has prompted the Taoyuan City Government to offer subsidies for the replacement of old, polluting scooters with electric models. Meanwhile, the the Daxi Old Street Ecologistics Demonstration Project in the historic commercial district of Daxi includes a hub for consolidating and remoding parcel delivery. Goods arriving by truck will be transferred to electric tricycles, electric motorcycles and autonomous robots for the last mile. The project aims to reduce carbon emissions, road congestion, contribute to street safety and quality in Daxi’s narrow streets. Photo: Marcus Donner / / Alamy Stock Photo

Cities around the world are already seizing the initiative (see below). In Paris, for example, the city council has begun to implement strategies in all three areas: it has reduced the vehicle speed limit to 30km/h across the city except on main roads, making it easier and safer to pick-up and drop-off orders; the mayor’s 2021-26 Cycling Plan will provide 30,000 parking stands and an additional 1,000 spaces reserved for cargo bikes; while a ‘two wheel parking’ interactive map uses the council’s open data to make it easy to find parking for bikes and cargo bikes in the city centre.

Delivering by micromobility will not be the right option in all places. Success will depend on the city’s density and urban form, the operating environment, the size and type of delivery, operator willingness and proximity to customers. But where these ingredients come together, the last-mile freight task is ripe for disruption. We all want deliveries that are fast and efficient, and we all want to live in cities that are cleaner, greener and healthier. Micromobility brings all of this within our grasp. What are we waiting for?

Graham Pointer is strategic advisory growth director at WSP in the UK, Shifani Sood is a senior consultant at WSP in Australia. Read the full report, commissioned by Uber


Bogotá, Colombia
Backed by funding from the World Bank, Bogotá City Government launched a six-month pilot project, Bici Carga, to create the right conditions for alternative modes of transport in last-mile food, parcel and medical services. The initiative tested how effectively micrologistics hubs could enable an industry shift for deliveries within 5km. Preliminary results show that up to 4.2 tonnes of carbon emissions could be avoided per year by using cargo e-bikes from consolidated hubs. On average, participating delivery vehicle drivers worked two fewer hours a day and completed 15% more deliveries. Photo: Secretariá Distrital de Movilidad. Bogotá, Colombia

Montreal, Canada
The mayor of Montreal launched an urban bike delivery system to support local businesses during the Covid-19 lockdowns and to tackle the negative impacts associated with traditional methods of delivery. The Livraison Vélo Montréal project was deemed a success and is now a permanent offering. In 2019, the city also launched Project Colibri to encourage the use of last-mile micromobility. Participating operators are using an old bus depot as a micrologistics hub where parcels can be loaded from trucks onto e-cargo bikes. Analysis of the trial shows that an e-bike is 30-40% more efficient than a truck in terms of deliveries per hour. Photo: Marc Bruxelle / Alamy Stock Photo

London, UK
London shows how cities can use policy levers to secure highly contested space for micrologistics hubs. To nudge the industry, the Greater London Authority has set a target for net-zero emissions, implemented low-traffic neighbourhoods and established low-emission and congestion charging zones. Underpinning this, the new London Plan states that sufficient capacity for industry and logistics including last-mile distribution should be protected in the central activities zone, and an online tool part-funded by Transport for London advertises available space across central London. The City of London Corporation has leased 39 car parking spaces to Amazon for use as a last-mile logistics hub, one of 29 potential sites identified in a report by the Cross River Partnership, 23 of them car parks. Photo: Tomter Photography

Sydney, Australia
A micrologistics hub trial operating in a downtown car park since 2016 found that bike deliveries took half the time, travelled shorter distances, used less space and were less affected by loading zone availability and traffic conditions than deliveries by van. The trial resulted in a 54% reduction in daily vehicle trip emissions, loading zone use dropped by 9.3 hours per day and the time spent driving in the CBD dropped 9.7 hours. City of Paramatta Council has also partnered with infra-tech company Spot to trial digital kerbside mapping and an app that provides delivery people with real-time parking options. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the trial was extended to show temporary pick-up zones, demonstrating the power of dynamic kerb management. Photo: Jason Freeman / Alamy Stock Photo


Leave a comment