Redefining urban space: the hidden impact of logistics in cities

Logistics activities on a pedestrian street

Image by Tale Ørving

Space use for logistics activities: more than a parking problem

In dense urban cores, space is a scarce resource for both businesses and residents. The diverse needs for space usage often lead to conflicts between private and public interests, as well as among various users, such as pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers, and logistics operators. The competition for space is particularly evident in the allocation of parking areas. Urban freight parking competes with spaces for private cars, cycle lanes, sidewalks, and pedestrian zones. Providing less parking space for trucks, however, also means more trucks parked haphazardly, exacerbating traffic congestion. In Seattle, a significant 28% of the total trip time for commercial vehicles is spent searching for a parking space, adding more congestion to the city. When implementing a pedestrian area, cities want to improve liveability by making areas more attractive for residents, shoppers, and tourists, while also trying to cut down local pollution. However, the impact of such urban planning on logistics activities, and vice versa, is not sufficiently taken into consideration in pedestrianisation plans, even though it can worsen congestion by concentrating vehicles on surrounding roads and/or during delivery windows (deliveries are usually authorised in the morning in pedestrian areas).

It is important for cities to give more thought to how logistics activities are occupying space and the subsequent impact on urban liveability. The issue of space usage for logistics extends beyond parking and traffic concerns; it encompasses the broader organisation of logistics activities and its implications for urban planning, environment, and social dynamics. In addition to the space used by vehicles, there is also a need for available areas to install logistics facilities. Due to the lack of available space and high prices, many of them have moved from the inner city to the fringes of metropolitan areas, where land is cheaper and suitable for large warehouses. This phenomenon known as logistics sprawl is often driven by pedestrianisation and the associated increase in the rental value of commercial floors. However, relocating logistics facilities to the outskirts can also create many negative externalities, such as air pollution, noise, and congestion. This is because trucks and vans have to drive further to enter city centres, where there is a high concentration of people and businesses awaiting deliveries. The areas to which logistics facilities are moved are also often low- and medium-income neighbourhoods, meaning that these population groups are more exposed to the negative consequences of logistics activities. It shows that the organisation of urban logistics also raises concerns regarding class and environmental justice.

Logistics activities, typically managed by private entities, are organised to maximise efficiency and minimise costs, often overlooking the planning and liveability aspects of urban spaces. To help cities in influencing the choice of logistics vehicles and the organisation of space usage, it is crucial for research to explore ways to comprehensively assess the nuisances caused by vehicles, not just in terms of efficiency but also considering sustainability and liveability. For instance, developing tools to compare the real impact of different types of vehicles could be a significant step forward.

Making the invisible visible 

Space use is usually measured by the surface area occupied by vehicles. This way of measuring the impact of logistics vehicles on cities, however, does not take into consideration other kinds of nuisances, thus not fully representing the effects on city liveability. Due to a lack of measurements, other nuisances remain largely invisible. For example, when comparing a cargo bike and a van, many different impacts could be taken into consideration: pollution, noise, congestion, as well as safety and how vehicles interact with pedestrians and other vulnerable traffic users. This raises several pertinent questions: Do people avoid pedestrian areas during delivery hours due to these externalities? Does the presence of a large vehicle parked in front of a shop negatively affect its sales? Can blocked sight lines caused by large vehicles lead to psychological distress or safety hazards? Are parents more concerned about their children’s safety when logistics vehicles are operating nearby?

A recent study by Just Economics (2022) has shed light on the hidden environmental and social costs associated with different types of logistics vehicles. The cost of e-cargo bikes is estimated to be 8.58 times lower than the cost of diesel vans and 7.00 times less than electric vans. This calculation takes into account the environmental costs (climate change, air pollution, noise and water pollution) and the social costs (accidents, infrastructure costs, congestion and health implications for riders versus drivers). The study also highlights that pricing does not fully capture the economic cost of deliveries made by vans, since drivers are covering parts of the costs themselves, including vehicle purchase or fuel. In contrast, cargo bike riders are usually employed on a payroll, with these costs covered by their employer.

So, how can we make these issues more visible when making decisions at the city level? It would be impractical to measure all these negative impacts city-wide. More feasible is the area-time (m2.t) approach, which measures the space used over time by a vehicle remaining in the same location. It considers the vehicle’s footprint, as well as the period of time the vehicle occupies the area. It is an effective tool for comparing the impact of a large vehicle that occupies a street for a short period versus a smaller vehicle that remains for a longer duration. The Elskedeby (“Beloved City”) project that took place in Oslo takes this indicator one step further by improving the calculation of the area occupied by a vehicle, acknowledging that the actual space occupied extends beyond the vehicle’s physical dimensions. For example, when a vehicle is parked, it creates a surrounding zone where it is impossible to walk, cycle, or drive, with larger vehicles necessitating wider zones. Additionally, when vehicles are loading and unloading, they require space not only for the open doors and liftgate, but also for the driver. While smaller vehicles, such as cargo bikes, close their door when delivering goods, trucks usually leave their liftgate down. The Elskedeby method also considers this by assigning varied weights to the space used during loading/unloading, depending on the vehicle type.

Although this is an improvement, this indicator does not fully capture the externalities created by different vehicles. We suggest that nuisances may increase exponentially with the vehicle volume, meaning that volume could be a proxy to compare the extent of nuisance caused. More research is needed to evaluate this hypothesis, and the ULaaDS project has tried to contribute to this area of study.

The ULaaDS connection

The ULaaDS project aimed to develop an indicator for space use efficiency based on the volume occupied by different vehicles and facilities. This is particularly relevant in densely populated areas, where the visual obstruction caused by a vehicle can have impacts on the delivery zone. The space use efficiency indicator essentially reports the amount of cargo delivered over time in relation to the vehicle’s size.

All ULaaDS trials have been evaluated through the lens of space use efficiency, but a prime example of this in action is the Rytle trial in Bremen, which effectively illustrates the potential of cargo bikes to revolutionise space use in inner-city areas for general cargo transport. In this trial, consolidated goods are delivered by a 7.5-ton truck to micro hubs near the city centre, from where they are transloaded to cargo bikes. These purpose-built cargo bikes are capable of carrying either a swappable container or a Euro pallet, which allows them to replace truck movements in the most crowded areas of Bremen. During the trial, the average weight of individual deliveries was nearly 70 kg, challenging the traditional narrative that cargo bikes are only suitable for delivering small packages.  

Read the full insight on the ULaaDS website.


Author: Amy McCready



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