‘The last mile’: how can we improve the start and end of journeys?

Street sceneThe 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.

Phil Couchman (DHL) talks about deliveries

Phil Couchman (DHL Chief Executive) explains local delivery practices

The Guest speakers focussed on a number of key aspects:

  • 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 debate

ITC Commissioner Steve Norris chairs the debate


A number of themes were raised in the subsequent discussion. These included the need to understand the way behavioural changes are shifting our travel patterns, including the fall in walking and the fall in younger people driving cars. In addition delegates noted the way in which changing retailing patterns have created new challenges for the delivery industry. A key issue was the need for good safety practices and driver training to ensure that home deliveries do not conflict with local community needs.

Others noted the importance of private hire vehicles as a component of the ‘last mile’ of journeys, as well as new market models for provision, such as car-hire schemes. Disabled passengers however still faced challenges in using private hire vehicles which were not always wheelchair friendly. Another important mode was cycling for the start and end of journeys, and delegates called for more investment in making cycling attractive and safe. The need to incorporate these insights into better policy making was clear to attendees, and it was suggested that more coherent urban and transport planning would help.