The Changing Face and Challenges of Urban Logistics

City centres are facing a massive challenge due to congestion and pollution. For example, journey times in Central London have been rising 12% year-on-year. All city centres are experiencing a greater number of van and truck traffic – likely down to the immense change that e-commerce is bringing.

E-commerce doesn’t look set to stop in its tracks any time soon. In fact, we’re driving further and further for just-in-time deliveries. Without careful thought, this could make the urban logistics challenge worse, not better. £154bn was spent by us Brits online last year. From grocery shopping, to every little thing we need, e-commerce is meeting the need, but this poses a huge challenge for urban logistics.

Efficiency is Helping – For the Moment

At the moment, logistics operators have been taking great strides in modernising, and becoming adept at assimilating relevant technology to help them manage the problem. Increasingly, drivers are using real-time route management software, with information being channelled from dispatch and efficiencies being made as the route progresses. However, there comes a point when a more radical change will be needed if we are to sustain the growth of e-commerce.

We’re also seeing pressure on the logistics industry to become greener with their fleets. Back in June, London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, stated: “deliveries must become more efficient through consolidation, rescheduling or switching to more sustainable vehicles” with the overall aim being to “reduce freight traffic in the central London morning peak by 10% by 2026.”

There are intense pushes to increase congestion charging, including plans to introduce an Ultra Low Emission Zone from 2019. In real terms, that’s not a huge amount of time for logistics operators to update their fleets, or create even more ways to become more efficient.

The Last Mile

It’s important to note that perhaps the biggest challenge facing urban logistics is in the individual last mile of deliveries. It is here where congestion (and ergo, pollution) hit the hardest. It is here that just-in-time deliveries are causing a degree of inefficiency. Customers aren’t expected, or able, to wait. This makes for a huge amount of vans and trucks on the road completing these piecemeal deliveries.

It’s easy to see why Amazon is pushing forward with the idea of drone deliveries to combat this problem. Drones would certainly take the pressure off the urban centres caused by the ‘last mile’.

What Else Could Help?

It’s possible that drones aren’t the only answer, but rather automation as a whole. Whilst it is well publicised that Amazon is looking at drones, there are other solutions which are using automation.

Just Eat have partnered with Starship Technologies to deliver take-away food by robot. And perhaps things look promising for urban logistics on that front. The robot has been trialled in several urban centres including Greenwich and Milton Keynes, costing less than human delivery, and as yet not getting into an accident.

Perhaps what we are seeing at the moment is the peak of the problem and automation solutions are going to scale it back down to more manageable levels.

Automation Possibilities

It’s possible to begin to envisage how automation could radically transform urban logistics, and meet and solve the challenges of booming e-commerce and changing times. This current period is when we’re seeing a massive transition, and it is in fact exciting. However, logistics operators need to get up to speed or they are very quickly going to be as outdated as the dinosaur.

The benefits of automation are huge. Driverless vehicles, like the delivery robots by Just Eat, or Amazon’s drones, open up a range of possibilities. They could deliver in wider windows of time, reducing the pressure we see on congestion caused by limited human driver shifts. They could certainly reduce emissions and be a greener and more sustainable way of meeting e-commerce delivery needs. They potentially could cost less overall, with Just Eat saying the robots are costing £1 to deliver within a 3-mile radius compared to £3-£6 for the same journey by courier.

However, the costs and challenges to make automation of logistics on this scale a reality, rather than a pipe dream, could also make things harder. It’s going to be tough on logistics operators to embrace in terms of time, cost and knowledge. For the time being, you can understand why they are focusing on route optimisation software and using the technology they have already invested heavily in.

The Future of Urban Logistics

The ITC has come up has come up with the basis of how we can transform urban logistics. They are pushing for the following:

  • Collaboration: Logistics businesses must work in partnership with one another for the common good, and ultimately to enable cost savings for all.
  • Support for Innovative Pilot Schemes: By supporting automation pilot schemes, we can help to reduce the prohibitive barriers to entry which are stopping many logistics businesses from making changes. This will foster the creation and adoption of new solutions, as well as the ability to scale the changes.
  • Facilitate Behavioural Change: We need to change the expectations of both consumers and businesses to bring them into line with understanding the reality of urban logistics.
  • Create More Regulatory Frameworks: Whilst initiatives like the congestion charge, and the proposed Ultra Low Emission Zone are going some way to address the problems, it could be argued that they aren’t going far enough to facilitate the wide-scale change to urban logistics that is needed.

Some businesses are working their way towards this. CitySprint, an urban logistics delivery firm, has introduced an app to simplify collaboration between consumers and 55 different retail partners. Customers still get to choose a small window of delivery time, but it is all done more efficiently with a greater number of multi-drop stops for the drivers.

Whatever happens, change is certainly on the horizon for urban logistics for the foreseeable future. New approaches need to be developed and widely introduced, and then we can meet the demands of both e-commerce and our urban centres.

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