Increase in e-commerce-related last-mile deliveries clog urban streets

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Anyone involved in the supply chain knows that e-commerce has had a major impact on the industry. While much of the impact has been positive, e-commerce is also causing badly clogged roads and streets during peak hours.

Think tanks and urban planners have been hard at work, zeroing in on possible ways to reduce the steady stream of last-mile delivery vehicles within city limits, but hitting upon a comprehensive solution has proven elusive.

FreightWaves spoke with Johanna Amaya-Leal, a professor in the Supply Chain Management Department at Iowa State University, on the impact ecommerce and its associated last-mile deliveries have on the urban environment. Amaya-Leal and her team of researchers recently published a two-part study that reviews transportation initiatives undertaken across 32 countries and 56 cities and ranks them in order of effectiveness.

“People today don’t have to go to the store to buy something, but can order it online. They know that they can receive the parcel in a certain time window,” said Amaya-Leal. “Also, the delivery companies promise them fast delivery times, like same-day delivery.” This turns out to be a problem, as punishing schedules force carriers to send out cargo in less than truckload (LTL) trucks, rather than waiting for cargo consolidation and sending them out as a full truckload. The situation snowballs, as cities contend with half-empty last-mile vehicles on their streets.

Amaya-Leal spoke about a few initiatives that could push people to cover a few blocks to receive their parcels, and thus alleviate the last-mile situation. “Making customers get to a place where they can pick up the delivery would remove vehicles from the street. This is why Amazon and UPS have lockers, which helps them make deliveries to a single point, from which  customers can pick up their orders,” she said.

“Other ways include using cargo cycles, which UPS and DHL are implementing in urban areas. Instead of sending trucks, they have people on bicycles with a cargo container on the back, making deliveries,” she continued. “This is environmentally friendly, and though it can’t totally replace the capacity of a delivery van, it can be used in densely populated areas, where cycles can reach last-mile locations without any trouble.”

When asked about the need for regulations to restrict movement of last-mile delivery vans within city boundaries during peak hours, Amaya-Leal insisted that all it would do is make things worse. “If you tell companies that they can only deliver within a certain time-frame, it puts so much pressure in the system that they would be rushing to get in and out within that period of time, and thus would make the roads congested, no matter what,” she pointed out.

Restrictions imposed on the size of vehicles would also be counter-intuitive. Amaya-Leal contends that removing large vehicles from the road would often put two smaller vehicles in its place, thereby increasing congestion and emissions.

“There is a new initiative called freight demand management, that is about making customers one of the decision-makers in the relationship between buyers and suppliers. Cities today are looking to bring in change as well,” according to Amaya-Leal. “For example, environmentally friendly vehicles are provided exclusive parking spots at locations that are hard to get. There’s also focus on making the customer move more, and not just order online and wait till the parcel gets to their doorstep.”

Amaya-Leal advocates for the need to develop a strategy that connects decision-makers, consumers, shippers, and delivery companies. “Even though this is a single problem, it is viewed differently by different stakeholders. Establishing a partnership would give us an idea of how the stakeholders perceive the issue, and help while implementing initiatives,” she stated.

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu writes editorial commentary on cutting-edge technology within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from industry frontrunners and thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes neo-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics. He hopes to settle down in a village and grow his own food at some point in time. But for now, he is happy to live with his wife in the middle of a German metropolitan.