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Urban scenarios of decarbonisation: last-mile logistics challenge

Urban scenarios of decarbonisation: the last-mile logistics challenge
© TRENtoYOU | youris.com

[Gabriella Cattaneo | youris.com] – Home deliveries generate increasing traffic and carbon emissions in urban centres, particularly in the last mile. The solution? Pool deliveries and use electric vehicles. But cities trying to do so are discovering that this apparently simple transition requires negotiation with multiple stakeholders and a lot of innovation, as proven by the experiences of Trento (Italy) and Gotheborg (Sweden).

It is a familiar sight for any city dweller: the truck double parked or stopping traffic on a busy road to deliver some package at a house door. Commercial deliveries are an increasing congestion issue, particularly for European historical city centres. And it is only going to get worse. Growing demand for e-commerce delivery is expected to result in 36% more urban delivery vehicles in city centres by 2030, leading to more emissions and traffic congestion. Without effective intervention, urban last-mile delivery emissions and traffic congestion are set to increase by over 30% in the top 100 cities globally by 2030, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum [->]. The good news is that effective interventions could reduce CO2 emissions by 30%, congestion by 30% and delivery costs by 25% by 2030 compared to a do-nothing scenario. The bad news is that effective interventions require action at multiple levels, from incentivizing electronic delivery vehicles, to leveraging data-based connectivity solutions like dynamic rerouting and load-pooling, to tweaking time-zones for deliveries, all within a coherent regulatory framework. Many cities have started to pilot and run various such initiatives, finding out that orchestrating this kind of systemic transitions is hard, particularly when they engage with private stakeholders.

One such experience is the TRENtoYOU initiative launched by the Municipality of Trento, a pleasant Italian city in the Alps, close to the famous Dolomites, as part of the European project Stardust [->]. Trento’s historic centre is a restricted traffic zone, but still receives over 550 consignments every day from public and commercial enterprises, plus many more deliveries for residents and offices. To reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions, in October 2021 the city launched the TRENtoYOU service, based on a warehouse outside the city centre which collects goods from traditional couriers and moves them to electric vehicles provided by the service, with a very low token payment. To motivate shop owners and deliverers, the service promisesflexibility – deliveries at any time, outside the rigid schedule of the restricted traffic zone, a major reason of complaint by traders – and free warehouse space (because many small restaurants or shops have no storage space for supplies).

Valentina Benoni, head of the sustainable mobility office of the Municipality of Trento, explains “In other cities such as Vicenza the use of electric vehicles for deliveries in the city centre is compulsory, but we decided to adopt a less directive approach”. Unfortunately, the answer by the potential users has been less than satisfactory. “After one year, we still have too few users compared to our hopes” explains Marco Cattani, director of Trentino Mobilità, the company managing the service for the Municipality. Courier services, which operate with razor-thin margins depending on speed and efficiency, could not accept the time loss due to switching vehicles. City traders used the service only for local deliveries, since the pilot service covers only the small area of the city centre. Other factors (market days, shop closures days) reduced the demand further. The impact on traffic reduction has been marginal, but on the other hand the initiative has increased both the awareness of the CO2 emissions issue and the number of electric vehicles of cargo-bikes used for urban deliveries. In December 2022, after reviewing the results of the first year of the pilot, the Municipality of Trento decided to continue the pilot service until October 2023 – as originally planned – with the resources needed to respond to actual demand, continuing to work with couriers and traders to minimize CO2 emissions.

Faced with similar problems, the city of Göthenburg, Sweden, has launched an initiative similar to TRENto YOU but on a much larger scale and with the active engagement of leading stakeholders. Project Smoovit involves 11 partners covering all the transport value chain, including, for example, Vinnova (research and engineering organisation), Volvo (the vehicle maker), DHL (the global logistics organisation) and Traffikontoret, the city’s traffic agency. The main goals are to reduce the number of lorries on trunk roads entering the city by approximately 40%, and to reduce fossil fuel vehicles for goods transport in pedestrian areas by 75%. The approach is to optimize goods distribution, leveraging data about transport flows, with two steps:

  • first, goods are collected in various Urban Consolidation Centres and consolidated into fewer, fully charged lorries;
  • second, the lorries go to a city hub where the goods are moved to a fleet of smaller, lower emission vehicles.

The key success factor will be the actors’ willingness to share data transparently and accept the use of a dynamic decision-making algorithm for logistics decisions. The project wants to develop business models and a standardised collaboration approach for the sector. The first goods were delivered to the city in February 2022. Parcels from DHL and Best were brought into the consolidation centre and consolidated onto cargo bikes for last-mile distribution by Pling Transport to nearby recipients. Volvo is driving the development of cargo consolidation solutions and the plan is to invite more local operators to participate. It is too soon to know whether this approach will work, but the scale of the effort and the relevance of the stakeholders involved seem promising.

This is not the only initiative launched by Göthenburg, whose ambition to leverage innovative technologies to achieve net zero carbon is well known in the smart cities environment. The city is at the forefront of experimentation with geofencing, the practice of digitally regulating the speed, emissions and access of connected vehicles to special zones, creating dynamic environmental zones. Once emissions in a dynamic zone exceed a certain threshold, hybrid vehicles in the area receive a geofence notification. The vehicle can then determine autonomously whether its battery capacity is sufficient for it to transit through the geofence area. If this is not the case, the vehicle must drive around the zone. As soon as the vehicle crosses the limit of the geofence zone, it automatically switches to electric propulsion.

It is still too early to measure the actual impacts of this initiative. The lessons learned by these experiences show that modifying the behaviour of stakeholders to reduce urban carbon emissions is not easy. Trento’s story shows the need to take into account the complexity of the logistics value chain and provide the right incentives for business operators, even when a beneficial new service is provided. Göthenburg’s initiatives show the value of investing in innovative technology infrastructures to support new ways of collaboration between stakeholders.