ITC considers how to improve urban freight distribution

How can we improve urban freight distribution in Britain?

The Occasion

Against a background of rapidly changing retail behaviour, concerns about urban air pollution, and the importance of moving goods in a cost-effective manner, the need to improve freight movements in our cities is as important as ever. Can we find ways of serving our wants as residents and consumers while addressing these issues? Using a range of case studies the ITC has been exploring new urban freight initiatives in London and assessing whether these might be applicable elsewhere in the UK.

To debate this important policy issue the ITC hosted a Discussion Evening on 14th July 2016 with a panel of senior experts. Chaired by ITC Commissioner and former British Ports Federation Director Nicholas Finney OBE, over 70 guests attended and the subject was introduced through talks from a distinguished panel of experts comprising: Dr Tom Cherrett, Associate Professor in Urban Logistics at the University of Southampton; Ian Wainwright, Head of Freight and Fleet Programmes at Transport for London; and Phil Roe, Managing Director of Transport at DHL UK & Ireland.


Urban freight distribution  – Key issues raised by the speakers:

  • Dr Tom Cherrett provided an overview of the key challenges facing UK cities when trying to improve urban freight distribution. These challenges include population and job growth, leading to increased demand for road space, and the need for a better understanding of the spatial and timing aspects of logistics activities. He noted that this was linked to rising consumer expectations and the need to challenge the popular assumption that home deliveries were ‘free’. Local authorities have control over traffic and parking regulations and he argued that we need the right blend of ‘carrot and stick’ initiatives when planning regulation and spatial infrastructure. Dr Cherrett explained that technology provided new opportunities, and he highlighted a number of developments, including autonomous delivery vehicles (drones), shared freight services, dynamic service scheduling, collaborative action and freight traffic control. He concluded by noting that the ‘last mile’ problem had to be addressed.
Dr Tom Cherrett addresses delegates

Dr Tom Cherrett addresses delegates

  • Ian Wainwright discussed the approach that London was taking in managing urban freight distribution. He explained that TfL benefited from having a set of dedicated freight staff who interacted with the industry and developed policy options. He noted that one third of peak morning traffic in Central London is freight related, but the proportion in the evening peak was much lower. Like many cities London was facing a range of traffic problems including poor air quality and worsening congestion. As a result TfL has developed a strategy for meeting London’s freight needs with the safest, cleanest and most efficient deliveries possible. This uses a three-pronged approach of ‘minimise, match and mitigate’ to improve safety, reduce congestion and improve air quality. He concluded there were roles for TfL, boroughs, regulators, operators and customers in finding solutions that would improve procurement practices, upgrade fleets, increase collaboration, change behaviour, and develop better forms of street and urban design.
Ian Wainwright presents his perspective to the audience

Ian Wainwright presents his perspective to the audience

  • Phil Roe provided an industry perspective on how to improve urban distribution in the context of the rise of the city. He began by pointing out that globally cities were continuing to grow, and their residents were consuming more than ever, such that cities were responsible for 75% of energy consumption. How to deliver more goods in tighter urban spaces was therefore an urgent problem, with deliveries getting smaller but more frequent. He suggested that the consumer of the future would have new opportunities, with 3D printing creating small-scale manufacturing industries, and in-home healthcare alleviating the need for patients to be taken to A&E departments. Currently consumer trends were forcing companies to offer daily delivery services in order to stay competitive in the market against giants such as Amazon. Solutions were likely to be driven by technology, providing cleaner and quieter vehicles, and improving supply chain management. An initial problem, he observed, is that technology-led solutions are often more expensive than traditional methods, so incentives are required to change delivery practices. He concluded that collaboration between industry and government is needed, using sensible regulation, devolution, incentives and new standards.

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • A sensible land use policy needs to be developed in order to improve urban freight practices. Delegates observed that planning frameworks needed to include provision for adequate freight and urban distribution. As more brownfield sites in UK cities are being bought and used to address the housing shortage, this also means fewer urban opportunities exist for providing suitable commercial distribution centres. Some suggested that the Old Oak Common development site provided an opportunity for a case study to see how sensible planning can address urban freight needs. Others pointed out that distribution centres were moving to the edge of cities, where land values were lower, with new solutions required to reach city centres.
  • Retiming of deliveries can offer significant advantages for urban distribution. It was observed that retiming of freight deliveries could offer many benefits, as shown in a number of European city case studies. Some suggested that the public was now increasingly used to 24/7 shopping and the prospect of night deliveries should be reconsidered. The ITC’s case study on retiming showed that this could help to reduce congestion, the number of vehicles used, and costs while avoiding additional noise disturbance. Some pointed out that the London Lorry Control Scheme was out of date and unduly added costs to night deliveries. Councillors, it was observed, were fearful of upsetting their voters, but public fears about noisy night deliveries could be alleviated by demonstrating how quiet urban freight movements could now be.
Commissioner Nicholas Finney leads delegates in the discussion

Commissioner Nicholas Finney leads delegates in the discussion

  • We should consider other modes besides road traffic when looking at improving urban distribution. In London, it was noted that the Rivers Thames and Lea had roles in moving some of London’s freight off the road, and 50% of aggregate already entered the city by water. More wharfs and piers could be opened up out of hours, it was suggested. Another delegate pointed out that rail freight could be more widely used if properly linked into urban consolidation centres. However, this would depend on stronger commitments to achieve modal shift and a better planning framework to build in these ambitions.
  • Regulation of urban freight distribution is needed, but it should be intelligently framed. It was suggested that good regulation is important in order to ensure that better urban distribution methods become the norm. However, a number of guests noted that logistics companies face regulatory barriers that hinder the implementation of solutions to the urban freight challenges discussed. One noted that freight operators are hesitant to be the first to implement new initiatives because of the unbalanced costs that they would incur compared to competitors. Some concerns were expressed that local authorities were looking for quick wins which meant that the infrastructure for new initiatives, such as electric vehicles, was underdeveloped.
  • Cities should learn from each other to improve urban distribution. A number of guests expressed a hope that initiatives in London could be expanded to other UK cities. In addition, there were calls for cities across Europe to learn from each other about how to tackle the challenges of urban distribution. There was praise for TfL’s understanding of the issues, but also calls for more dedicated urban freight teams to be employed in other cities. Developing funding for initiatives was also an area where UK cities could learn from examples elsewhere.