Last Mile Deliveries: How Far Can We Go?

By |2024-01-04T15:42:47+01:00April 19th 2022|Sustainable Infrastructure|

The COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns have put immense pressure on global logistics: movement came to a halt while demand for goods remained the same. How can this demand be met in cities without causing a traffic nightmare – especially thinking about last mile deliveries? Payal Pandya shares some ideas from Dublin, Ireland.

The growth of the urban population in recent years combined with the e-commerce boom and purchasing power of the middle class made it easier for the people and the businesses to make the shift from business-to-business (B2B) to business-to-customer (B2C), meaning the businesses reaching out to the customers directly. The online channels are now thriving and the delivery vehicles from numerous companies can be seen on the road making deliveries or moving goods.

After a prolonged lockdown, the cities are finally opening up and the number of people and vehicles on the road is increasing rapidly. On the other hand, the e-commerce market is also expected to grow by almost $11 trillion by 2025. This would put tremendous stress on the city infrastructure resulting in increased congestion and declined air quality. The cities now have to be smarter to make use of the existing space and infrastructure more efficiently and build a basis for future developments.

Last Mile Deliveries in Dublin, Ireland

Dublin’s infrastructure can date back to centuries and yet the city has thrived as one of the fastest growing urban economies in Europe. Someone once said, with great power comes great responsibility and hence, with its ever-growing population and limited space availability, there is a demand to focus on both environmental sustainability and smart city concepts. The two ideas here are interlinked.

Among many solutions considered for reducing emissions, congestion, delivery cost, and for providing a quality customer experience related to deliveries, changing the last mile delivery seem to be one of the most practical solutions. Last mile delivery is the final step of the delivery journey and the step that interacts most with the city. If you have seen a delivery vehicle looming around your house or a postman struggling with an address, that’s a last mile delivery issue.

The Last Mile Delivery Challenge and SENATOR

In 2018, Dublin City Council and Enterprise Ireland co-funded the “Last Mile Delivery Challenge” as a part of the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR). This challenge identified tech solutions that could improve the efficiency of urban deliveries while positively affecting the environment and quality of life.

In 2020, to further explore the concept, Dublin City Council joined the SENATOR Consortium which is coordinated by the Spanish Postal Operator, Correos. SENATOR is a project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The project is a demonstration of cities committed to developing strategies and actions towards more sustainable mobility. Dublin and Zaragoza, as the two urban living labs, will provide pilot sites to develop new models to improve the planning and management of urban logistics.

Real change towards a more sustainable last mile would need collaboration across the ecosystem involving operators, transporters, administrations, and citizens. SENATOR aims to develop a smart network operator, as a control tower that will work as support tool for decision making, integration, and planning of all logistics operations.

Dublin As An Urban Living Lab

There were two major learnings from the Last Mile Delivery Challenge. First, the use of micro-hubs for the last mile deliveries and second, managing the kerbside of the city. Micro-hubs, or popularly known as Eco Hubs in certain cities, are mini distribution centres that are strategically located to serve a smaller range of service areas. The micro-hubs are chosen to allow for a modal shift in last mile deliveries to low or zero-emission modes (for example electric-assisted cargo bikes, walkers, et cetera).

Urban Consolidation Centres (UCC) and parcel lockers are the two other concepts that, when combined with micro-hubs, can revolutionise the delivery logistics. UCC refers to a larger, permanent facility located in and around urban areas, where all the parcels and deliveries of a particular area are combined into fewer deliveries to reduce the number of vehicles by making sure that the carrying capacity is fully utilised.

Doorstep delivery has become a norm. However, with the exponential growth of e-commerce and increase in urban population, this part of the last mile delivery has become highly inefficient in terms of productivity, expenditure, congestion, and environment. There have been numerous pilots on the use of parcel lockers, which allow the consumers to freely choose the time and place for their deliveries. For example, Mechelen city, in collaboration with Belgian Post provider, BPost, trialled the solution and installed parcel lockers at ‘slipper distance’: that is a 400-metre radius from strategic public locations.

When you combine the three concepts, UCC, micro-hubs and parcel lockers, you may see a completely different delivery ecosystem. The parcels would now travel from a warehouse to UCC to a micro-hub to a locker where the customer can pick them up. The big change in the whole process would be that the last stretch of the delivery would be emission-free. Now, imagine the impact if multiple deliveries and courier companies using the shared infrastructure and shared multi-modal fleets with a control tower sitting on top as a support tool. This could result in operational efficiencies, cost savings, reduction in congestion, and possibly improved air quality. However, this would require a very high level of cooperation between different private operators and public bodies to further support and facilitate the process.

The second major learning from the Last Mile Delivery Challenge is that the Dublin SENATOR Team, which includes University College Dublin and An Post, is planning to explore how to better use the kerbside space. The pandemic has forced the government, commercial vehicle owners, and business owners to think about the available kerb space. The kerb is being used like never before, with more delivery drivers servicing the e-commerce boom, more cyclists and pedestrians looking for space, restaurants and bars facilitating outdoor seating, and an increase in demand for parking spaces for shared car services, private vehicle owners, and so on. The demand for the same space seems to be endless. Cities today need a strategic approach to dynamically manage the kerb space and find innovative solutions as soon as possible.

Dublin City Council aims to better understand the kerb space of the city and as a part of the SENATOR project, is looking to develop pilot projects to map the assets on and around the kerbside. The knowledge developed and digital tools employed will help equip the city council to deal with the changing demands of the kerbside.

We realise that the public and private sectors will have to come together to balance competing interests, make difficult decisions, and implement them at large scale. This would require cities to be persistent and resilient. The road to a sustainable ecosystem in a city is a long one with several curves and turns and sustainable deliveries are just a small step to make cities smarter for a better future.

Payal Pandya
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