Written by 19:23 Blog, Smart Cities

Rethinking Urban Logistics in the On-Demand Economy, by Jon Glasco

Last mile urban logistics

Rethinking urban logistics is a core part of any smart city strategy. Wander through a European city on a warm evening, and you’ll likely encounter some pedestrian-friendly streets perfect for leisurely strolls. However, return the next morning, and the scene is transformed. The less walkable streets are crowded with delivery vans blocking sidewalks, creating safety hazards, and adding to congestion and pollution.

The growth of e-commerce, already straining urban logistics before the global pandemic, surged dramatically in 2020, fuelling unprecedented demand for fast deliveries. Delivery and freight vehicles, while accounting for 25% of urban traffic, occupy 40% of road space and generate 40% of transport emissions.

For cities grappling with the negative impact of urban freight and e-commerce deliveries, the post-pandemic era offers little respite. E-commerce participation is expected to increase to 560 million people in Europe by 2025 (up from 450 million pre-pandemic). The World Economic Forum predicts a staggering 36% increase in delivery vehicles in the top 100 cities over the next decade.

These urban logistics challenges disrupt the quality of life in cities, prompting the search for innovative solutions. Tomorrow Mobility predicts that sustainable last-mile delivery solutions could slash air pollution by 70% and congestion by 50%. Despite the potential benefits, change agents and stakeholders struggle to find sustainable solutions.

How can smart cities, freight operators and stakeholders cooperate to improve and optimize logistics operations? European cities and policymakers attempt to answer this question through wide-ranging research and experimentation in collaborative projects which:

  • Focus on shared, integrated logistics platforms (SENATOR)
  • Aim for digital transformation of urban logistics (DISCO)
  • Facilitate collaborative logistics ecosystems (ULaaDS and SPROUT)
  • Explore opportunities for digital twins (LEAD).

Shared, integrated urban logistics platforms

Innovative digital platforms can help to optimize urban deliveries while reducing costs. Europe’s H2020-funded SENATOR project was launched in 2020 to develop a cutting-edge digital smart network operator platform that fosters shared, integrated and more sustainable delivery solutions urban freight logistics.

SENATOR’s goal is to solve problems in urban, metropolitan and peri-urban areas and deliver governance policies pertaining to user demand, transport planning, freight and logistics planning and urban infrastructure.

Within SENATOR, Dublin and Zaragoza were selected as Urban Living Labs—pilot cities aimed at ensuring project replicability and sustainability across various policy frameworks, allowing solutions to be tested and adapted within real-life urban environments.

In late 2023, SENATOR released a mobile app tailored for logistics operators. This was followed a few months later with an announcement of ‘technology maturity’ and the start of an operational phase to evaluate how SENATOR’s technology and artificial intelligence can improve the distribution of goods.

The insights gained from implementing pilots within the project are already being considered to tackle urban planning challenges. A press release stated: “The Irish Government’s Department of Transport recently introduced a proposal for a new strategy aimed at managing and alleviating congestion in Irish towns and cities … and this strategy draws insights from the SENATOR project pilot in Dublin.”

SENATOR has a work package dedicated to exploiting the results. This includes twinning or clustering with other projects to share findings on how to implement (economically) sustainable urban logistic measures, and also relies on private companies in the SENATOR consortium, such as Deusto Tech, DotGis or Software AG, to take this technology to the market.

Digital transformation of urban logistics

DISCO (Data-driven, Integrated, Syncromodal, Collaborative and Optimised) is a European project and consortium with 47 partners. The project aims to develop an ‘urban freight meta-model’ with data sharing for logistics planning. The cities involved in this project include Copenhagen, Ghent, Thessaloniki, Helsinki and Padua, with Prague, Piacenza, Aarhus and North Hesse as follower cities, and a Spanish cluster of Barcelona, Valencia and Zaragoza serving as Living Labs.

With an ambitious vision of a new generation of sustainable urban freight operations, DISCO intends to guide cities by demonstrating 23 flagship solutions for optimizing urban space. In a span of more than 40 months, DISCO and its partners plan to facilitate data sharing activities among logistics stakeholders and introduce urban freight data space ecosystems.

As an example of how EU projects are interconnected, Sarasa explained that Zaragoza plans to build upon SENATOR: “We are starting the DISCO project to create an urban logistics dataspace which is intended to feed from SENATOR data. In theory, this data will allow us to spot opportunities for other non-incumbent operators in the urban logistics field.”

Collaborative ecosystems

It is hardly surprising that the pandemic raised the awareness of an urgent need for more coordination between cities and delivery operators. ULaaDS (Urban Logistics as an on-Demand Service), another H2020 initiative, was designed to facilitate logistics solutions in the cities of Mechelen, Bremen and Groningen.

The ULaaDS mission: “To foster sustainable cities through deployment of innovative, shared, zero-emission logistics, while dealing with the impact of the on-demand economy.”

Three testing schemes in the ULaaDS project were created to evaluate collaboration in delivery ecosystems and demonstrate the effectiveness of:

  • Containerized last-mile delivery by replacing vans with specially designed electric cargo bikes
  • Integrated logistics management through a city-wide platform linking urban delivery capacities
  • Shared economy platforms for on-demand logistics

The city of Mechelen realized that finding solutions to logistics and delivery problems is a complex pursuit involving a diverse ecosystem, zero-emission and autonomous vehicles, cargo e-bikes, loading and unloading policies, vehicle restrictions, microhubs and lockers, and open data policies. Through its participation in ULaaDS, Mechelen facilitated cooperation among multiple logistics operators. Belgian Post Group (bpost), Ecokoeriers and UPS cooperated in an inner city trial, while the Flanders Institute for Logistics and bpost worked in an outer city autonomous vehicle trial.

Project deliverables included a replication booklet, a decision support toolbox, best practices from trials, takeaways for adaptive urban freight policies and a final event video.

Digital twins technology

In Spain, the Zaragoza Logistics Centre (ZLC) is a leading research and educational institute affiliated with the University of Zaragoza and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Carolina Ciprés, director of research at ZLC, said the Centre participated in SPROUT (Sustainable Policy RespOnse to Urban Mobility Transition), a project designed to deliver innovative, data-driven policies for urban mobility patterns.

Multiple pilot cities involved in SPROUT addressed last-mile delivery challenges. Valencia, Spain, for example, evaluated intermodal hubs within the city boundaries which bring together passenger and freight traffic. A pilot project in Padua, Italy included self-driving pods for cargo-hitching, giving passenger transport an additional freight-carrying capacity. IoT technologies In Kalisz, Poland were used for logistics planning and management of freight vehicle parking, loading and unloading operations.

Other research highlighted by Ciprés is ZLC’s participation in the LEAD project to:

  • Create digital twins of logistics networks in six cities (Budapest, Lyon, Madrid, Oslo, Porto and The Hague)
  • Develop low-emission adaptive last-mile logistics solutions in the on-demand economy
  • Share results and knowledge with other cities, enabling smarter, low-emission logistics operations

“City logistics solutions will be represented by a set of value case scenarios that address the requirements of the on-demand economy and the pressures caused by the increase of parcel deliveries,” according to the LEAD project website.

Accelerating a logistics transition

Can cities and ecosystem partners innovate fast enough and make systemic changes to keep pace with the growth of e-commerce and the complexity of urban logistics? While each collaborative project adds to our knowledge of challenges and possible solutions, it is doubtful that any standalone project will trigger a transformation of the logistics sector.

Accelerating the transition to widespread adoption of innovative logistics platforms and optimization will likely require a process of aggregating the knowledge gained from multiple EU projects. This collective knowledge could empower a unified logistics model adaptable to city-specific challenges.

This article is published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Max Böhme en Unsplash

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Tags: , Last modified: 25/06/2024