In today’s article, I would like to introduce in more detail what was the research topic of my PhD and still is one of the main research threads I follow: urban logistics.
Over the years, I have realised how easy it is to underestimate what lies behind the urban delivery of goods. As I always tell my students: “When logistics work, you don’t see it”, and it is when problems start to occur (we get a late delivery, we don’t hear from the parcel we are waiting for, we read in the newspaper about a carrier strike) that we realise it exists. In reality, supplying shops (and citizens who buy online) in an urban centre is a complex operation given the many constraints. Let’s think about the historic centre of a European city. We will understand why we talk about the “problem of delivering goods in an urban environment”.
In fact, the increase in the city’s resident population and the increase in deliveries from online shopping to private citizens have led to the rise in the demand for goods and a more significant fragmentation and frequency of deliveries. Obviously, this affects citizens’ quality of life, leading to increased congestion, air and noise pollution, and the risk of accidents. The Institute for City Logistics was founded in Kyoto in 1999 to address these negative impacts.
The institute has coined a definition of the term city logistics: “City Logistics is defined as “The process for totally optimising the logistics and transport activities by private companies in urban areas while considering the traffic conditions, congestion issues and combustible consumption, to reduce the number of vehicles on the cities, through the rationalisation of its operations”. In many ways, City Logistics projects have as their primary objective to improve the citizens’ quality of life. However, business actors – especially those located in the historic centers, often difficult to access and subject to ad hoc regulations – are often advantaged by more regular and efficient goods distribution services. To achieve their objectives, City Logistics projects usually focus on three aspects: i) the reduction of traffic congestion and interference with the mobility of people; ii) the reduction of pollution factors related to the distribution of goods, primarily (but not exclusively) through the use of low-emission or clean (i.e. Electric) vehicles; iii) the reduction of indirect costs related to the distribution of goods, for example, reducing the risk of accidents through a reduction in the number of vehicles in circulation.
Urban freight distribution depends on a vast array of factors such as population characteristics, the economic activities in the territory, and the peculiarities of the city centre from the geographical, urban and architectural heritage points of view. Some of the main traits that characterise the challenges posed by City Logistics projects are summarised in Table 1.
Table 1: Characterisation of urban freight distribution
According to several problem dimensions, to deal with these challenges, the idea of City Logistics born in the late 90s, has spurred several initiatives to study, understand, implement, and realise the optimisation of freight transport on an urban scale. The solutions already explored and experimented with at European and national levels are different (infrastructural, managerial, technological).
The scientific literature about city logistics has classified the main interventions in four main areas:
- Access restriction: access restriction measures include actions to prevent or restrict access to the city or to certain areas (typically the historical centres). The advantage of this type of intervention is that introducing measures to limit access and circulation generally requires relatively low investment, which relates essentially to the adaptation of traditional billboards. However, in cases where the control is somewhat automated (i.e. via cameras), the investment may be substantial. On the other hand, however, it should be noted that the costs are not negligible relative to the human, technological and financial resources necessary for the supervision of the activities, the authorisation procedures (if present), and checks of the compliance with the limitations.
- Infrastructure: Infrastructure measures include interventions to increase the endowment of physical structures available for the activities of urban freight distribution (i.e. city warehouses, reserved parking slot…). Included in this area, the construction of new facilities or the redefinition of how to use existing structures, usually aimed at those involved in different processes from the urban distribution of goods. These measures are intended to increase the level of efficiency and potential of urban freight distribution.
- Technology: Technological measures include initiatives based on the use of innovative technologies, both in the ICT applied to urban mobility (info mobility) and in the propulsion systems of commercial vehicles (hybrid or electric vehicles). About info mobility, technology today offers possibilities that were unthinkable a few years ago. With the opening of information systems in public administrations and municipal companies (see Digital Agenda), it will be possible to have access to a vast amount of data that will enable a systemic perspective in decision-making, not only local optimisation. Connected to this, it is possible to create solutions and adaptive rules that take advantage of forecasts based on historical data and real-time decision making (for example, on routes, traffic times, etc.).
- Regulations: Such measures include initiatives activated by local governments to regulate different aspects of the movement of commercial vehicles, aiming at changing the preferences of the users concerning the use of infrastructure and urban transport. The final goal is to reduce congestion in urban centres through more efficient use of available infrastructure.
Even though things have changed since I first entered the world of city logistics about ten years ago, thanks to new technological developments and a renewed focus on climate change, the types of solutions remain the same.
In the following articles, we will look at the city logistics solutions most widely adopted in Europe and worldwide in recent years.