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Logistics City: A Q&A With Laetitia Dablanc

Laetitia Dablanc
Laetitia Dablanc, head of the Logistics City Chair at University Gustave Eiffel | Courtesy of Laetitia Dablanc

Laetitia Dablanc heads the Logistics City Chair at University Gustave Eiffel in France. An expert in logistics sprawl and urban freight, her group produces an annual white paper on new developments in urban logistics, promoting greater understanding as the global economy becomes increasingly interdependent and supply chains grow more complex.

Q. Demand for freight is growing. What problems does this pose for urban and peri-urban communities?

View of a city highway, where much of the supply chain process takes place through trucks and other freight vehicles.
Source: Unsplash | Photographer: Matteo Catanese

Freight demand indeed is growing, especially from households, through online shopping. Some of this demand translates into consolidated deliveries (e.g., pick-up points instead of home deliveries) and, therefore, a reduction in net vehicle-miles. But much of this new demand is translating into more vehicle-miles, especially in urban and suburban communities where fast deliveries are common. This impacts congestion, pollution, and noise levels.

Increased demand for quicker deliveries (and even “instant deliveries”—deliveries in less than two hours) generates new types of jobs organized by platforms like UberEats or Amazon Flex. They provide flexible jobs for people who need additional income. For some people, they provide the only type of jobs available (e.g., discriminated populations and undocumented people in Europe, Venezuelan refugees in Latin America, etc.). However, this can have a cost to personal life, with low paying gigs and low social benefits.

Increased freight demand also translates into logistics real estate development. Peri-urban XXL fulfillment centers, large distribution centers, and small-sized urban warehouses are increasing quickly. This creates blue collar jobs for local communities, but also has the negative impact of increased truck traffic for those same communities. The built-land footprint also increases as a result.

Q. New urban warehouses are popping up in the City of Paris, where you’re based. What impact does this real estate have on supply chain management?

There is a niche demand for urban warehouses from e-retailers and from express parcel transport providers. Also, many urban logistics start-ups using innovative modes of transportation (like cargocycles) are looking for micro-hubs and urban logistics spaces to operate. These urban facilities make it easier to:

  • Deliver to consumers quicker.
  • Reduce overall negative impacts from the supply chain, mainly because of the consolidation of hauls getting into dense urban areas.
  • Enable the use of cleaner modes of transportation: electric vans, cargocycles, bicycles, pedestrian trips, follow robots, autonomous robots, etc.
Photographer: sylv1rob1 | Source: Shutterstock

Q. Paris has also seen a trend toward “logistics hotels”—warehouses that also house offices, urban farms, hotels, etc. What has the impact of this innovation been?

As an urban planner, I would say logistics hotels (mixed-use facilities with logistics as an important component of the floor space) are an exciting innovation in industrial architecture and planning. They tend to make local communities more accepting of industrial activities in cities. They are also smart buildings, minimizing environmental impacts, and land footprint.

For logistics real estate facility developers, logistics hotels are a way of increasing profitability of investment in urban logistics buildings. Offices, data centers, sport facilities, and other uses that are hosted in a logistics hotel generate higher rents than logistics does. It is a sound business model for investors in urban warehouses, that usually meet very high land costs and poor acceptability.

Q. Other organizations, such as REEF, are adapting existing, underutilized urban real estate (like parking facilities), using a modular infrastructure. What are your thoughts on this approach?

Photographer: Brad Remy | Source: Shutterstock

This is an excellent approach. Underutilized real estate in cities, including gas stations, underground and overground parking facilities, some retail facilities that have overcapacity or are obsolete in concept, provide prime opportunities for logistics facilities.

Of course, turning them into logistics facilities is not always easy. Land and construction costs are significant. Warehouses (in France, especially) are subject to strict building regulations, for safety or aesthetics reasons, making it complicated to build in cities. Underground parking facilities often do not have sufficient height limits to permit truck access, or they have steep ramps that are difficult for delivery bikes.

An accommodating municipality can help. The City of Paris has implemented specific rules to accommodate logistics facilities, of all sizes, in the 2016 zoning plan (plan local d’urbanisme).

Q. In your view, what actions are needed from policymakers to improve the sustainability and/or efficiency of urban logistics?

Enforce robust, simple and phased low-emission zones and pricing schemes. This is a good way to provide a level playing field for clean delivery operators in cities: if all freight operators are subject to strict rules about clean deliveries, the ones that are able to innovate (with recent trucks and vans, clean trucks and vans, new types of vehicles and modes, more efficient and consolidated deliveries, and good data analytics) will be able to gain market share.

Today, too many rules are not properly enforced (e.g., low-emission zones in many French cities), leaving “non-virtuous” operators able to operate, despite low environmental or social performance. French cities are too shy about truck pricing on urban roads. Let me remind you that plans for a truck pricing scheme in France were abandoned in 2014, following a relatively small wave of protests that originally didn’t even come from the freight transport sector. The freight sector is often more ready for a transition to cleaner deliveries than elected officials think they are.

Q. Why is the concept of proximity so important in logistics? 

I actually think it is not important. What I mean is, an urban warehouse is close to the final consumer, yes, but it is only the last stop in a long series of places a shipment, a good, a parcel, had to go through in order to arrive at the final consumer. There is no proximity when looking at the global supply chain. And this may not be a problem if transport is consolidated and modes are not polluting.

Q. Why is urban logistics so important for essential services, such as healthcare and groceries?

Urban logistics is important for all sectors. And of course, even more so in times of lockdowns for essential goods’ sectors.

Q. What other urban warehousing innovations would you like to see applied at scale?

More innovation in architecture and aesthetics for urban logistics facilities. Schools of architecture are not yet ready, and the curriculum should be improved.

Q. What role do you think automation will play in urban logistics?

I am actually drone curious. I realize drones and other delivery robots are now much cheaper to buy and operate, and I think drones could be part of urban—or rather suburban—logistics in the future. Regulations will be the main obstacle, not economics nor technology.

Created by: Phonlamai Photo | Source: Shutterstock

I think sidewalk robots are too complicated to maneuver in cities, therefore too slow and unproductive. But some street robots (Nuro types) seem to develop well in suburban areas. If consumers like them, they can become a possibility in corporate, hospital, or academic campuses, too.

Automation to process shipments in warehouses is also increasing. In urban areas, technological solutions appear toward automated micro-fulfillment solutions, which are very productive in their use of space (in underground facilities, in back of a shop, etc.).

Q. Mayor Hidalgo has committed to making Paris a 15-minute city. What role will urban logistics play in bringing this vision to life?

Jobs, goods, and all amenities available in a 15 minutes’ reach: this is great! In terms of goods, this is already the reality in Paris—the city enjoys a ubiquitous deployment of shops and pick-up points in most neighborhoods. So Mayor Hidalgo’s promise will be easy to fulfill in terms of stores and goods. The main new requirement will be that local stores need to be omni-channel now if they want to remain alive.

For jobs, I am not sure the 15-minute city makes sense. What we love about large metropolitan areas is the opportunity of a diverse and large volume of jobs offered. This means going places, from one end of the city to the other if needed. Urban logistics already supports such a metropolitan job market (fulfilling all sorts of offices, cafeterias, building sites, etc., with what they need). It will continue to do so.

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