Framing sustainable urban logistics in cities

Freight movement forms an invisible ecosystem that supports urban economies and communities. Freight transport makes up about 25 percent of traffic in cities but takes up 40 percent of road space and creates 40 percent of transport-related emissions. Freight traffic also disproportionally contributes to road accidents and pollution, imposing hardships on urban communities.

Demand for urban freight is on the rise. With online sales three times higher than traditional retail, the negative effects of urban freight will continue to increase if left unaddressed. However, urban planners and city governments often prioritize the improvement of passenger transport, leaving urban logistics to develop organically and take shape under the pressures of the private sector.

The diversity of stakeholders involved in urban logistics systems and lack of data on urban freight accentuate the difficulty local governments experience in managing urban freight. Nonetheless, urban logistics must be addressed as it is vital to balanced economic growth, efficiency, and livability in cities.

Four policy goals for ecologistics

With these challenges in mind, how should cities be thinking about steering their urban logistics systems in a more sustainable direction?

Urban logistics is defined as the goods and service-related transport movement that begin and ends in the city, and traditionally, the performance of the system is measured against operational efficiency, reliability, and profitability. However, while these three measures are important, particularly to the private sector, they do not fully take into account the needs of all stakeholders in the city. In order to ensure the well-being of the community at large, as well as balanced economic growth, sustainability must be considered.

ICLEI outlines four policy goals that balance the interests of all stakeholders to help cities achieve sustainable urban freight systems:

  • Environmental sustainability refers to reduced air and noise pollution, GHG emissions, energy consumption from freight operations
  • Social equity ensures safety, public participation in city policies, and overall quality of life of the local communities to minimize disturbances to the communities resulting from logistics operations
  • Economic sustainability maintains the economic competitiveness of the city and addresses energy efficiency and overall freight sector efficiency and affordability
  • Operational efficiency is a coefficient of delivery productivity (e.g., average payload), utilization (e.g., fleet), and reliability (e.g., timeliness).

Strategies for sustainable urban freight

How can cities manage and plan for sustainable urban logistics to achieve these four policy goals?
The Avoid-Shift-Improve approach is common in the transport sector and these strategies are highly applicable to sustainable urban freight. However, the complexity of urban logistics systems requires yet another key strategy – integration is vital to enable the effective and practical transformation of sustainable urban logistics systems.
In order to help cities organize their approach to tackling urban freight, ICLEI’s EcoLogistics Framework utilizes Avoid-Shift-Improve-Integrate to offer local governments strategies that are cross-cutting in nature and pivotal to create enabling institutional frameworks.

Avoid: System efficiency and consolidation
The Avoid strategies refer to managing demand for freight trips by preventing or reducing the need for goods delivery by improving system efficiency. Local governments can employ avoidance strategies by promoting local production and consumption, implementing mixed land-use policies that reduce trip generation and distance, and establishing strong partnerships through freight clusters. One of the most typical examples of freight demand management is to stagger the freight delivery by having off-hour limits. Congestion charging and fuel taxes increase the price of freight delivery, forcing shippers to seek better alternatives to consolidate shipments and reduce costs, thus addressing externalities. The City of Rotterdam, Netherlands, is planning to demarcate a Zero Emissions Logistics Zone by 2025. An emission-free city center does not only require a shift to zero-emissions vehicles but also in consolidation and streamlining operations in goods distribution.

Shift: Freight movement and optimization
If freight movement is necessary, the freight activity should be shifted to more efficient modes while optimizing each trip by enhancing vehicle capacity and loads and reducing empty trips. In Germany, 27.3 percent of commercial vehicles have less than 3.5 tonnes of vacant space on the road. London’s Freight Plan (2007) aims to maximize the use of rail, water, bicycle and on-foot freight delivery where possible. Urban consolidation centers (UCC) can yield environmental benefits, reduce delivery distance and optimize rutes.o A study in Copenhagen City, Denmark estimates UCCs can reduce emissions by 70 percent and kilometers drive by about 65 percent, although finding financially viable options is also a key determinant of its attractiveness for shippers.

Improve: Operations, vehicles, and fuels
Improvement strategies aim to enhance the energy efficiency of vehicles and fuels by upgrading the operations throughout the supply chain network. The focus of improvement is to optimize each trip by optimizing routes and using more efficient vehicles and cleaner fuels. For example, speed management and eco-driving training is a simple yet effective measure that reduces emissions 5 – 7 percent. In addition to last-mile solutions, energy-efficient warehouses are also crucial as they currently generate around 13 percent of supply chain emissions. Lastly, adopting renewable technologies to power the operations of the warehouses or vehicles is essential to reduce emissions in the long-term.

Integrate: Enabling factors and measures
The strategies under integration are cross-cutting innovations and reforms to complement resources and incentivize the transition to sustainable urban logistics planning and implementation. One of them is the institutional and legal framework, including urban freight policy and reporting. In Taoyuan City, cargo bicycles are not allowed to operate on the streets due to the traffic law, compelling the city to be creative in searching for new lightweight vehicle solutions. Multi-stakeholder consultation and partnership are essential to overcome the data gap and generate support for the city’s policies and goals. Other integrated measures include financing and business models (green infrastructure finance, tracking and communication platform); capacity building and awareness (campaign for local consumption); and technology (smart logistics hub, autonomous warehousing, digitization), which are also factors that support the four policy goals: social equity, environmental and economic sustainability, and operational efficiency.

By Beatrice Ch’ng and Dana Vigran

Dana is a communications professional who has worked with international organizations in Guatemala, Germany, the U.S. and the U.K to help them craft and share stories that further their work. With a background in gender and development and youth rights, Dana is committed to fostering locally-led, sustainable development. Dana has an MSc in Gender, Development and Globalization from the London School of Economics and a BA in History and Theater from Occidental College.