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 of these deliveries 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, all 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 9 and 15 minutes to find parking — wasted time that, along with traffic, has to be factored into scheduling and pricing.
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 10 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, found 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.
Micromobility offers city leaders a golden opportunity to make progress towards many of their goals, from carbon emissions to liveability and health outcomes. So what can they do to accelerate the transition for logistics? 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 lowering 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.
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 where it makes sense, 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.
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 travel speed limit to 30km/h across the city except on main roads, making it easier and safer for people 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, urban form, the operating environment, 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, healthier, more pleasant places to be. Micromobility brings all of this within our grasp. What are we waiting for?
Graham Pointer is technical executive – geography at WSP currently based in the UK, Shifani Sood is a senior consultant at WSP in Australia. Read the full report, commissioned by Uber
AROUND THE WORLD ON AN E-CARGO BIKE…
Backed by funding from the World Bank, the 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 the effectiveness of micrologistics hubs in enabling 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. Participating delivery vehicle drivers on average worked two fewer hours a day and completed 15% more deliveries. Photo: Secretariá Distrital de Movilidad. Bogotá, Colombia
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 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
A micrologistics hub trial operating in a downtown car park since 2016 found that delivery by bike took half the time of a van, travelled shorter distances, used less space and was less affected by loading zone availability and traffic conditions. The trial resulted in a 54% reduction in daily vehicle trip emissions, loading zone use dropped by 9.3 hours and the time spent driving in the CBD dropped 9.7 hours. The 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