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Episode 4: What is the future for last mile urban freight?

Updated: May 11, 2022

You can listen to the Urbanism.Live podcast via our website here, on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

In this episode of the Urbanism.Live podcast we discuss the potential of micro-mobility as a last mile urban freight solution.

There's a whole bunch of analogue and digital issues that are smashing together in this topic area, and to help unpack some of those and in particular, talk about a new research report that's just come out, I had Shifani Sood a Senior Consultant from WSP join me on the podcast.

And the report being discussed is titled "Future of Delivery, unleashing the potential of micro-mobility for the last mile".

A summarised transcript of the episode is provided below, along with a video recording as well.

AB: When you read the first few chapters of this document, we have projections around e-commerce that are quite eyewatering in terms of projected increases. We've got data points around what that means for delivery vehicles and vans. What that then means for congestion. What that then means for emissions. And I could keep going on. So, very quickly we get to see how critical this last mile delivery issue actually is.

What can you share with us in terms of context for the report?

SS: Absolutely. So I think one of the first contextual points to raise is that deliveries are on the rise, and it doesn't matter what it is that we're looking at - everything from bakery goods or the tap for your renovations or even stationary for schooling purposes. Anything that you can think of now gets delivered, whether it's to your house or your office.

The key point is, deliveries have become such an integral part of our economic and social lives that we need to now think about how that's going to be accommodated in cities that weren't necessarily designed for it.

One of the eyewatering numbers for us was that in 2020 two billion people have shopped online. That's a significant proportion of our population. On top of that, there are three key categories that we looked at when it comes to deliveries and what's being delivered. One is parcels, the second being groceries and the third being food.

Grocery delivery, a new entrant that we're starting to see rise and in terms of numbers (market value $USD) - is at about $199B (2020) rising to $550B by 2027. Urban food deliveries are projected to go from $115B to $192 in 2025. And with parcels, we are already at $500 billion (2020). And we're not going to see a downturn in this.

Our roads and streets really weren't designed for that volume or those number of packages moving around.

AB: So while there's some key challenges, we also have some big opportunities to reboot some of our city shaping policy making and practice. Can you talk me through the ten big opportunities and the five big moves you have identified in the report?

SS: With the ten opportunities, they are all intertwined and its important to understand that these opportunities are opportunities by themselves. But they're all connected.

My favourite one is having that focus on people and places. I'm a town planner and for me, having that collective experience of COVID and living locally has completely changed what cities mean. I spend a lot of time in my neighbourhood. So did other people. I want more from my local places, so a focus on people and places I think is one of the key opportunities that we can bring in to the last mile urban freigh discussion.

And with that comes better walking and cycling infrastructure. The other key point for me is the one about creating of jobs. The creation of jobs, I think, was a critical point in the report. Where you are a city planner, you're thinking, oh yeah, how can we redesign cities? But then you think about people that live within it that have lost jobs. We had pilots working in supermarkets during COVID but then delivery platforms have offered this critical lifeline for people who may not have had access to very essential money in a time of need. So that for me as well as empowering local businesses, were critical things that perhaps I wasn't thinking about when we started writing the report.

And the other thing was creating competitive advantage for businesses. There's a critical figure in the report that really caught my eye. Companies like FedEx, UPS, DHL - they accept parking fines as a fee to do business. That's a real failure of how our system works, that that should just not be. There are real opportunities to convert that into positive behaviour.

And then you've got opportunities for better health, better communities and getting down to vision zero. Productive use of infrastructure is another one of my favourites. Active modes and smaller vehicles are others. They're making much better use of infrastructure, existing and future.

And then, lastly, the opportunity to leverage technology. We've got so much technology at our fingertips, let's use it!

AB: The five big moves. It was nice to see that as I got to the end of the report, not only was it outlining a whole heap of challenges and opportunities, but you had some pretty practical big moves there. What really stands out for you that you'd share without our listeners?

SS: When we started the report, we thought all the five moves were of the same importance, but I think a really critical finding was that there are some that were fundamental. But then there are some that really help you accelerate that transition towards micro-mobility.

So three of them were fundamental. Firstly having the ability to safely move around, so making it safer for people to get from A to B using micro mobility vehicles. The second is being able to easily pick up and drop off whatever it is that you are delivering or picking up, and that that is both within buildings along our curb sides.

And this is what we talked about earlier - that our cities just weren't designed for this. We never anticipated a bunch of bicycles or e bikes or even cars to be stopping off at our curb sides, pulling out, and doing that over again every single day. We just hadn't thought about it, so our parking zones aren't designed for it. Buildings aren't designed for it.

The third is having policy leadership setting those long term goals. That's critical, and that's something City leaders need to be doing. We are already seeing that a number of our cities, in fact, all the examples that we referred to in the report have really strong policy leadership when it came to safety and emissions.

So the other two ways of accelerating the transition include re-moding, predominantly changing the modes that we're using for deliveries to start to bring in micro mobility, especially for the last mile.

It is the last mile that we've highlighted is the big opportunity here and so the final big move is then testing and scaling up what works.

AB: Okay, so, Shifani, my last question is what does this mean for us Urbanists?

SS: You know that question keeps me up at night!

Every single person needs to do their bit. It's not just those creating cities, it's also those using it. It's those demanding for things like bike lanes. It's those providing it. It's those designing it.

I think your question "can we do it?" - the optimist in me says, absolutely we can. And if we don't, it would be silly of us to lose this opportunity that COVID presented with all the negative that's come of it.

I think the positive is that our neighbourhoods are really vibrant and seeing more people walk around - it's excellent. So how do we leverage that and move forward where our cities and local places are fit for us - are fit for our future generations and don't ruin it for them.

So in my mind as Urbanists, what we can do is start having conversations. And I think that is what this paper has started. You know, we are talking about this and I think it's as much a responsibility on the city leaders as it is as consumers and those that dwell within it.

And as Urbanists in our daily working lives, I think we can start to push it a little bit more. I think we're too quiet at times. Often we're used to engineering solutions to our city problems. This is a social problem.

About Shifani Sood

Shifani is passionate about creating liveable cities and regions, being an experienced transport professional with a background in Urban Planning and Environmental Studies. She has been deeply involved in city shaping projects focusing on industry disruption and what this means for cities through her recent work.

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