Online shopping boom fuels need for new urban freight strategies

Increasing urban freight services could contribute significantly to traffic congestion, air quality, and for road safety.

The city of Santa Monica launched the first zero-emission delivery zone in the United States earlier this year. Johnny Roedel photo via Pexels.

On Thursday, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), Bloomberg Associates and the Pembina Institute released Building Healthy Cities in the Doorstep-Delivery Era: Sustainable urban freight solutions from around the world, a report that identifies the most effective and innovative interventions to reduce and optimize delivery truck traffic in cities across North America as online shopping has surged.

While city residents stayed home in large numbers over the last year, delivery vehicles helped to close the retail gap, bringing billions of packages from warehouse shelves directly to residential doorsteps. These urban freight vehicles have also brought consequences of increased delivery services in the form of traffic congestion, air quality, and for road safety.

By 2030, The World Economic Forum predicts an increased demand for e-commerce will mean 26 per cent more delivery vehicles in inner cities.  This will mean an increase in emissions and traffic congestion of more than 30 per cent in the top 100 global cities by 2030.

The report provides case studies of innovative ideas that have been tested by global cities, including the use of electric delivery vehicles, parcel lockers, low-emission zones and digital support for small business.

“Online shopping has an on-street impact in cities, where sales can be measured in traffic, congestion and the pollution of delivery trucks,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, principal with Bloomberg Associates and NACTO chair. “Cities have more examples than ever to prevent city streets from becoming vast loading zones and must take urgent steps to ward off the gathering delivery deadlock.”

Beyond emergency and temporary measures to respond to community needs, managing urban freight is expected to be one of the next big challenges to cities, according to Corrine Kisner, executive director of NACTO.

“Managing the increasingly unsustainable influx of delivery vehicles on city streets will be key to creating vibrant, healthy, and sustainable cities,” said Kisner. “This report points to concrete ways to untangle the traffic jam of increasingly unsustainable freight traffic while supporting residents and local economies.”

The city of Santa Monica launched the first zero-emission delivery zone in the United States earlier this year and New York City announced its council will introduce a comprehensive package of bills to curb impacts from urban freight.

“Managing urban freight isn’t just about the environment, though the carbon footprint of our deliveries is significant,” said Carolyn Kim, director of transportation with Pembina Institute. “It’s about air quality, road safety, equity and how sustainable our communities are. The solutions to building the cities we want and need are already out there — we just need to scale them up everywhere.”

The demonstrated success of pilots and programs bolsters the case for expanding these strategies as local governments create new plans to strengthen cities in recovery from the pandemic. Other case studies showcase emerging, new ideas including waterway logistics or e-commerce tax schemes, represent the bold thinking on urban freight needed to ensure equitable city building.


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