ITC debates improving our journeys

The Last Mile: how can we improve the first and last miles of our journeys?

Phil Couchman addresses audience

The Occasion

The first and last miles of our journeys are often the most complex, yet frequently receive limited attention from policy makers. For passengers, getting to and from their transport connections can involve serious obstacles for the mobility impaired and for those unfamiliar with their surroundings. At the same time new challenges are arising for the logistics industry, as the shape of our shopping moves towards home deliveries. How are we to cope with these new patterns of behaviour? Will our streets be ready for these changes, and how can they be designed to improve the first and last mile of our journeys? And can technology help us address these issues?

The ITC hosted a Discussion Evening to debate these issues on 11th February 2014 chaired by Steve Norris, an ITC Commissioner and former Minister of Transport. The subject was introduced via presentations from a distinguished panel comprising: Ben Plowden, Director of Planning and Surface Transport at Transport for London; Phil Couchman, Chief Executive of DHL Express UK & Ireland; Dr Alice Maynard, Founder of Future Inclusion; and Anna Rose, Director at Space Syntax.


The first and last mile of journeys – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Ben Plowden focused on the importance of walking during the first and last miles of our journeys. This mattered, he explained, because walking was the most common way to access other modes of transport, and it had an ability to increase capacity and resilience on the transport system as a whole, as witnessed during the Olympics and also through the Legible London scheme providing information on connections by foot. Economically, pedestrians also spend more on shopping, due to high-frequency local visits. However, he noted that major challenges remain for pedestrians and disabled people on our streets, including safety problems (pedestrians are over-represented in casualty figures), street design and navigability. These, Mr Plowden noted, were being addressed through substantial investment in road safety, public realm improvements and the Legible London scheme providing better signage for walkers.
  • Phil Couchman recognized that local residential deliveries posed a big challenge for the logistics industry, and were rising fast with double-digit annual growth. Although DHL grew out of a business-to-business model, online shopping had changed delivery needs, and in an intensely competitive industry improving the efficiency of private deliveries was essential. He praised the UK postcode system for its precision, but noted that new initiatives were required to improve the business model and customer experience, such as the use of parcel lockers, electronic notification of missed deliveries, and weekend operations. Mr Couchman explained that these changes were also resulting in innovation for the last mile of deliveries, including experimenting with bicycles, dual-fuel vehicles or electric cars, and improved telematics.
  • Dr Alice Maynard explained that great travel challenges still exist for disabled people, not only on their last mile, but also their entire journey. She illustrated this with her journey to the event, explaining problems accessing taxis and travelling across cobbles and through roadworks. Dr Maynard highlighted three categories of obstacles faced by the disabled, including natural phenomena (such as ice or tree roots), authority issues (e.g. street design or lamps), and the actions of other people (such as parking on pavements). She noted that authority issues could be addressed, and called for changes in public awareness and behaviour. She also raised the importance of interagency links, such as transport with social care, that are crucial for disabled people.
  • Anna Rose stressed the importance of good urban street design which helps to shape movement patterns. She noted that cities should plan for better pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and that we should not ignore small-scale journeys. The design a of buildings and urban areas can also be improved to allow better through routes, and prevent roads and rail links (including stations) from becoming barriers to movement. She argued we should think in terms of a network to create places of transaction and general urban delight, and use science and knowledge available to help us create better networks in urban design.

Steve Norris chairs discussion

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • Behavioural changes are shifting our travel patterns. Attendees noted that research has shown we walk less than in the past, with a particular fall in shorter journeys, partly due to the changing nature of retailing patterns, with fewer local shops and people traveling further for their everyday needs. Another behavioural change, picked up by the ITC’s co-sponsored ‘On the Move’ study, is that young people are driving less and obtaining their driving licenses later. In addition, our aging population has implications since the elderly often do not travel far, have greater need of public conveniences, and perhaps their first mile is their last mile. We need to consider these issues when planning street design and improving transport provision.
  • Changing retailing patterns have created new challenges for the delivery industry. There was much discussion on the way our purchasing patterns are changing and the implications this has for logistics and deliveries. The increase in online shopping has greatly increased and residential deliveries now account for a significant portion of overall business for operators. Some suggested this was resulting in low van loads, and that greater integration of courier services was necessary. Others suggested that deliveries from store would continue, particularly for supermarkets. Logistics experts noted that measures to accommodate this shift were now being developed: for example, through more efficient van design, use of storage lockers, possibly at stations, for delivery pick-ups, and more use of weekend and night-time deliveries.
  • Safety and good driver training are essential to ensure that home deliveries do not conflict with local community needs. Some guests noted that the increase in home deliveries by van conflicted with walking needs, by blocking roads or creating safety issues. Logistics experts explained that good driver training was essential, and that accidents were being reduced. An example was DHL’s launch of a child road safety campaign, requirements for drivers to take a training certificate, and incorporation of high-tech telematics in its delivery vehicles.
  • Private hire vehicles are an important component of the ‘last mile’ of journeys. A number of attendees pointed out that taxi and private hire vehicles played a crucial role in the first/last mile of journeys, increasingly so with the fall in car ownership by young people. New market models for service provision were emerging, including car-share schemes. Problems, however, remained for those with mobility impairments, particularly outside London, were vehicles were not always wheelchair accessible, and users could be hit with differential pricing due to their space and mobility requirements. There were calls to create a national system of taxi regulations and to ensure that private hire was more affordable for all.
  • Cycling has a crucial role to play in improving the first/last mile. Some noted that although the UK has a National Cycling Strategy, we are arguably in transition in terms of cycling infrastructure development. Improvements and issues to consider include more use of home deliveries by bicycle, the impact of vans on cyclist safety, and cycling as a mode to connect with other forms of transport, helping to disperse passengers from major transport hubs. Calls were made to provide more bike parking facilities at stations and transport interchanges.
  • How can this be incorporated into better policy making? Attendees stressed the importance of using these ideas about better transport integration to improve policy. Suggestions included the need to develop coherent urban and transport planning by taking into account modal choice at the start/end of journeys, and creating incentives for station improvements through reform of rail franchising. Policymakers were encouraged to act on these issues and improve accessibility.