There are two main culprits that create traffic congestion: road freight and passenger vehicles. Both types of transport, unfortunately, have to share the same limited road space. Congestion means slower speeds and therefore longer trip times, leading to rising fuel costs, more wear-and-tear on vehicles and more air pollution. The consequences are not only economic and environmental but social as well. Driver frustration levels rise, collisions occur and emergency vehicles are severely challenged to provide essential services.

Inner city solutions – it’s all about the “last mile” (or two)

The rise in the number of smaller delivery trucks and vans are responsible for a big chunk of the congestion we experience in cities. The growth in internet shopping means e-retailers have to deliver smaller packages and groceries to more destinations, and as speedily as possible. Large distribution centres outside cities operate as hubs which deliver to smaller depots or clearinghouses within the inner city. From there, the “last mile” becomes the most challenging and expensive portion of the delivery journey.

Some global logistics companies are running trials and developing innovative ways to tackle this issue. Providing storage lockers at a central point or a retail location is a novel way of getting customers to collect goods ordered on-line (click-and-collect). It is doubtful whether this has any impact on traffic congestion if they have to use their own cars.

What is happening in leading countries?

In Berlin, the German courier service Messenger Transport + Logistics has just rolled out an innovative solution. The BentoBox is a transportable storage locker that can be loaded with parcels and then dropped off at a central depot after working hours. The courier deploys cargo bikes to achieve quick, cost efficient, emission free and almost silent distribution of the goods to the depot for customer collection the next day.

TNT is doing something similar in Brussels, one of the most congested cities in Europe. Their mobile depot, which works like the BentoBox, is a trailer that contains a large number of parcels. It is towed to a central location in the city after peak traffic has subsided. Parcels are delivered by last-mile drivers in small electric or human-powered vehicles.

The Cubicycle, which was developed in the Netherlands in association with DHL, has taken ease of delivery a step further. This express delivery vehicle has a reclining seat for the courier that allows for greater comfort, safety and speed. It has electric pedal assistance for additional speed and support in climbing hills, and it is easy to handle, with a tight turning cycle. DHL has launched two pilots of this City Hub concept— one in Frankfurt, Germany’s fifth largest city, and another in Utrecht in the Netherlands, which recently announced the target of becoming climate-neutral by 2030.

In Sweden, Gothenburg may have an answer too. Many of the city streets are now pedestrianised, parking is severely limited. Restrictions mean that normal deliveries with vans and lorries are only allowed between 5 am and 10 am on the main streets. Private transport companies are encouraged to leave their packages at a freight consolidation terminal from where Stadsleveransen’s (the City Delivery) fleet of two electric cars and two cargo bikes carry the goods the final few kilometres. Gothenburg’s 800-kilometre network of bike paths, including reduced-speed mixed zones, now rivals that of Stockholm.

According to a report by the EU-funded research project CycleLogistics, an estimated 51% of goods transported in cities could be shifted to bicycles and cargo bikes, significantly reducing emissions and congestion. If package-delivery drones like those proposed by Amazon ever get off the ground, they also hold the potential to decrease the number of truck trips on city and suburban streets.

Congestion and double parking

Congestion and parking are interrelated. Many delivery vehicles will double-park at the closest possible spot to their destination if there is no available parking. Cruising the street for 20 minutes looking for a loading bay or parking spot creates not only congestion but uses extra fuel and pollutes the air.

Parcel tracking systems are being employed to automatically send customers a text message to inform them of an imminent delivery. The idea is to have customers meet couriers at their door, minimising the time that a truck has to idle outside.

Inrix, a data analysis company, monitored traffic on every road in 123 cities, including London, Cardiff, Paris and Hamburg during September 2016.  It found more than 20,300 so-called “traffic hotspots” in UK cities – well over double the number in Germany and twice that of France. They define a traffic hotspot as a road where congestion forces drivers to drop their speed by 65% for at least two minutes.

Possible solutions to alleviate congestion

Many ideas, some radical, have been tried to improve congestion on major roads within towns and cities, with a limited amount of success. Some of these are using:
• High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to promote car-pooling. Vehicles with 2 or more passengers are allowed to use dedicated lanes at peak times.
• Reversible lanes which are applied at peak periods on busy routes, especially in commuter areas and on arterial roads
• Restrictions on inner city deliveries within regular office hours. Mexico City, Bangkok and Bogota have done this.
• The introduction of tolls and congestion charges in highly congested areas such as London.

All these measures can alleviate the problem but do not solve it. Congestion is partly the result of governments not being able to reconcile demands for road use with the available supply. Transport for London (TfL) is taking the lead by encouraging logistics companies and transporters to develop a Delivery and Servicing Plan (DSP) that should help individual firms manage their deliveries better and save money as a result. TfL will use these voluntary plans to provide input for urban planning and road network projects.

Anyone travelling regularly on the section of the M25 motorway around Heathrow Airport near London will have experienced congestion like no other. London is near the top of the list of the 10 most congested cities in Europe. Can we learn anything from Sweden or Germany that could be implemented in UK cities that will ease the bottlenecks?

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