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Building healthy cities in the doorstep-delivery era: Sustainable urban freight solutions from around the world

This report was prepared for the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) by the Pembina Institute, with support and input from Bloomberg Associates.

Read Building healthy cities in the doorstep-delivery era (pdf).

Read the press release >

See the report on Pembina’s website.

How to use this report
Urban freight solutions
Bold, new ideas
Ready for pick-up

Around the world, cities have undergone more than one year of COVID-19-related lockdowns and stay-at-home requirements. The pandemic has dramatically changed the daily lives of citizens and how we move people and goods within cities.What has become clearer during this time is that deliveries, and workers along the full supply chain of goods, are essential to everyday life, and to keeping businesses afloat and supporting economic recovery.But about 90 percent of the world’s transport energy continues to rely on fossil fuels. What does that mean within cities? With increasing demand for e-commerce delivery, we will see more vehicles on the road — the World Economic Forum predicts that this demand will result in 26 percent more delivery vehicles in inner cities by 2030. In turn, without effective intervention, that is expected to lead to a rise in both emissions and traffic congestion of more than 30 percent in most populous cities around the world.

As cities look beyond emergency or temporary measures to respond to community needs, they must develop their local economic recovery and transportation plans with climate resiliency, equity and safety concerns in mind to create vibrant, healthy, and sustainable societies in the medium and long-term. This will help create the cities we want and need. Taking action to manage urban freight has the potential to significantly impact city life in multiple ways:

Reduced air pollution and carbon emissions: Improperly managed urban deliveries contribute significant emissions due to idling, traffic congestion, and inefficient curbside use.

Improved road safety: Many cities in Europe and North America have already committed to “Vision Zero” strategies that aim to “eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” Those strategies include speed management, roadway design and curbside management, and are often complementary to other city land use and transportation plans.

Economic recovery: Supporting local and small businesses is critical to cities’ economic recovery. Urban freight planning can and should be done in a way that helps the local business sector survive and thrive.

Environmental and social justice: Freight infrastructure such as package fulfillment centers and sorting warehouses are often located in communities of color. This results in poorer air quality and health implications such as higher rates of cardiovascular diseases and infections like asthma and bronchitis, and lung cancer. While planners should reconsider how the location of these facilities are chosen, developing more efficient and cleaner urban freight systems will also help reduce the negative impacts on communities of color and low-income communities.

The good news is that effective interventions exist within the purview of cities to mitigate the potential social and environmental impacts of urban freight and help local businesses and communities thrive. Many of these initiatives have been successfully implemented for over a decade around the world. Others are newly being tested or have been seen as too bold — until now. More can and should be done to advanace and apply these solutions at a wider scale and turn pilots into permanent practices — especially as cities look for innovative solutions to this new doorstep delivery reality.

So, how are some cities already innovating? This report for city planners and policy-makers summarizes six solutions cities around the world are already piloting to address urban freight challenges and four bold new ideas that represent the kind of innovative thinking required by cities going forward. These 10 initiatives may serve as models for other jurisdictions.

Applying and adapting these solutions will vary from place to place. Considerations should be given to planning scale, the desired outcomes for your community, and the policy actors required for successful implementation.

Defining planning scale: Not all solutions are integrated into a city’s built form in the same way. Some target an individual location or street, while others can be implemented city-wide or can span multiple municipalities in dense metropolitan areas, like Greater London or Greater Paris areas, where planning can happen on a regional level. The planning scale describes the geographic level at which a solution is implemented.

Defining policy impacts: Understand the impact of each proposed planning solution based on impact indicators or the ability to achieve public policy objectives. Assessing solutions across these indicators shows just how comprehensive and complementary a solution can be to other city-building initiatives. A solution can be considered transformational if it addresses multiple indicators.

Defining policy actors: The movement of goods transcends political boundaries and requires coordination among a broad range of actors. Cities have the planning authority to regulate, manage and plan for where and how freight activities take place (local roads, public realm, built form and land use). But cities can sometimes move forward faster when they work with business and other levels of government, saving much sought-after municipal resources at the same time. These indicators show the kind of coordination and support required to execute policy and planning initiatives successfully.

Cities around the world are already piloting and implementing intersectional, urban freight solutions that, if scaled up or more widely adopted, serve to build healthier and more vibrant communities. Here are some of the most effective and promising examples that are ready to be put in place today.

1. Delivery microhubs

2. Parcel lockers

3. Curbside management tactics

4. Low-emission zones (LEZs)

5. Zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs)

6. Digital support for main street

Waterway logistics hubs

Underground delivery tunnels

E-commerce tax and sustainable shipping fees

New warehouse and supply chain models

Cities are the common ground where people, businesses, and goods meet, giving city planners the opportunity to shape these interactions and the impacts of city activity on its residents. What has become increasingly clear in recent times is that an increased demand for e-commerce delivery urgently requires forward-thinking planning, in order to prevent further environmental and health impacts on our cities and to ensure the resilience of a local economy.

A well-designed goods movement system that combines equitable public policy with low-emissions technology, and which holds business, regulators, and consumers accountable to improve their environmental performance, is the best path forward to mitigating the rising impacts of urban freight.

This report identifies six solutions, already being piloting around the world and ready for wider implementation, and four new ideas, representing the kind of bold action cities need now. Taking steps to manage urban freight can have significant positive impacts on city life, from reducing air pollution in vulnerable communities to boosting economic recovery. The path forward must include a combination of solutions that meets the unique needs of individual communities but should represent inclusive, sustainable innovation — not technological innovation for its own sake. Therein lies the challenge for cities in a post-pandemic world. And with that, consider this package of solutions now ready for pick-up.