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Post-Pandemic Cities: Fighting Congestion in the E-Commerce Age

Dr. Anne Goodchild, founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center at the University of Washington | Courtesy of Anne Goodchild

A Conversation With Urban Freight Expert Dr. Anne Goodchild

Congested city streets. Trucks fighting for curb space. Bottlenecks on beltways and bridge approaches as freight-laden semis rumble toward crowded urban centers. Pedestrians, cyclists, commuters, rideshare vehicles, and parcel-crammed vans—all contending with one another.

This was the picture in many cities before the pandemic hit, fueled in part by the on-demand economy. An October 2019 New York Times report carried a blunt headline—“The Internet Brings Chaos to N.Y. Streets”—and cited revealing metrics, including 1.5 million packages delivered daily in the city that year and $27 million in parking fines paid by Fedex, FreshDirect, Peapod, and UPS to cover 515,000 summonses issued in 2018.

With online-ordering habits only reinforced during the health crisis and vehicle traffic set to rise across America as 2021 advances, urban congestion is certain to stage a comeback.

But Dr. Anne Goodchild, founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center at the University of Washington in Seattle, points out that there are ways for cities to rebound smartly, rather than simply returning to chaotic streets when vehicles and people crowd together again.

A leader in the Center’s Urban Freight Lab—a working group of researchers, urban planners, and industry representatives—Goodchild, who earned a doctorate from Berkeley in civil and environmental engineering, helped pioneer the study of truck traffic and city congestion.

A specialist in urban delivery networks, mobility hubs, supply-chain management, land use, and the environmental impacts of commercial transport, she talks to us about delivery innovation, freight optimization, forward-looking companies, and exciting developments to watch.

Q. Can you highlight some of Urban Freight Lab’s work in support of cities?

One of the things we offer is the Final 50 Feet Toolkit. Built from tools developed for our own research and packaged for easy use by others, these instruments—including data collection methods and metrics for evaluating urban freight performance—help cities understand and solve local urban freight challenges. In addition, all our research projects result in publicly available reports on our website. We’ve written about the sustainability of grocery delivery, how much time trucks spend looking for parking, and the performance of cargo bikes, to name a few.

Another element is our proximity to both the public and private sectors, which allows us to see boundary-breaking solutions. And our technical expertise gives us tools to figure out how they can work. We were the first to recognize and explore the Final 50 Feet problem in the urban goods delivery system, as well as to quantify commercial vehicle parking cruising and to test common-carrier lockers on public spaces in North America.

Finally, I’d mention the fact that we’re committed to implementing practical tests and trials of new solutions—an essential component of research in applied engineering. Right now, we’re testing a shared mobility hub, sensors to monitor commercial parking areas, a mobile app to provide drivers with real-time parking availability in commercial spaces, and those lockers on both public and private property.

Q. What is a freight plan and why should major urban areas create one?

Photographer: meunierd | Source: Shutterstock

A freight plan lays out a vision, priorities, and programs for urban freight in a municipality. It should be written in consultation with communities and freight businesses. It maps how the region intends to catch up and keep pace with expected growth, and outlines investments the region is making to support goods movement and access to goods and services. Without this, there is no coordinated approach, and necessary investments may not be made or may be made in a wasteful manner—depriving carriers, consumers, and communities of economic, sustainability, and quality-of-life benefits.

Q. Where do you see solutions to the Final 50 Feet problem?

Challenges in urban freight stem overwhelmingly from the high cost and inefficiency of this very last part of the supply chain. However, prior to our initial work, this set of problems had been overlooked in favor of the “last mile,” and in-vehicle challenges like routing and scheduling. The Final 50 Feet has been overlooked in part because of the complexity of the problems here—public space, competing objectives, infrastructure designed for multiple purposes, and much legacy infrastructure that doesn’t accommodate modern equipment and loads.

After studying the problem in detail and collecting empirical data, we identified key procedural and infrastructure bottlenecks. Using this research, we launched pilot-testing of different solutions, including those common carrier lockers, which increase delivery density, reduce failed delivery rates, and reduce Final 50 Feet distance; common microhubs, which increase delivery density and enable soft-modes for the Final 50 Feet; and digital visualization of commercial parking availability, which reduces dwell time and parking seeking.

Q. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has touted the environmental benefit of grocery home delivery, versus consumers driving to a store. But this seems a suburban scenario. In your view, how green is grocery delivery to urban consumers?

Photographer: Egrigorovich | Source: Shutterstock

It really depends on how the groceries are delivered. Services like Instacart—which provide on-demand delivery with individual shoppers—don’t provide an efficiency over typical shopping. Someone else just makes the trip for you. However, services where one delivery truck makes many deliveries in a single trip sometimes provide efficiencies. Our research shows that details make the difference as to whether delivery is better than your driving trip—factors like the density of your neighborhood, the type of vehicle you drive, the distance you drive to the store, and where your groceries are delivered from. In other words, it’s not just a suburban scenario.

Q. As you survey the private sector through the lens of your field and its concerns, are there any companies that stand out in terms of innovation and foresight?

There are so many! It’s a time of great change and innovation in the urban freight and e-commerce space. How we shop is changing, vehicles are changing, tools for online tracking and purchasing are changing, and this is both enabled by, and motivation for, innovations.

Traditional carriers like UPS and USPS have adapted relatively seamlessly to the challenges of COVID. While consumers might not have noticed, this has required tremendous upstream adaptation and change. In addition, they’ve been testing out new delivery technologies such as drones and cargo bikes.

A UPS cargo bike on display for a media event in New York City in 2019. | Photographer: rblfmr | Source: Shutterstock

Retailers have also been remarkably adaptable both in responding to the supply and demand changes from COVID, but also in providing new ways for us to shop. This is the result of huge investments in sensors, data systems, and operations that most consumers don’t see. While many consumers recognize Amazon as an innovator in this space, I’ve also been impressed with traditional retailer Nordstrom, which has experimented with different retail space and integrated social media tools very effectively. PepsiCo is another retailer I’ve had the opportunity to learn about. They’re using technology and operational strategies at the cutting-edge of research and innovation.

Since 2012, there has been a lot more venture capital invested in supply chain and logistics startups. This reflects a number of changes, including developments in data science, communications, and sensor technology. And with these services, including Convoy, we are poised to make significant gains with challenges that have long plagued freight transportation. I’d also highlight some traditional manufacturers like Michelin, GM, and Ford. They’ve been investing in the future of mobility and realize it includes a much larger range of services and equipment than their traditional product lines. You’ll see exciting stuff from them in the next few years.

Q. What urban freight development has you especially excited?

Neighborhood hubs. Call them mobility hubs, logistics hubs, microhubs—these are places you’ll see serving neighborhood-scale mobility, goods, and services needs. That might be individuals picking up a shared vehicle or a package, or it may provide space for a logistics company to launch an e-bike. These hubs will improve access for consumers but also allow companies to provide attractive, sustainable businesses at scale. We have something in the works in Seattle that I’m really excited to launch.

Contributor Phil Hanrahan Outdoors

Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.

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