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Urban planners must work with logistics providers to develop integrated concepts to align deliveries with other elements of urban living.

This is a dialogue that has hardly begun, argues a new study of the impact of e-commerce on urban living and city planning.

Parcel research and consulting firm M-R-U teamed up with building and real estate consultant Drees & Sommer and consulting firm LNC to explore the interface between urban planning and the spread of logistics activities in US cities in the wake of the rise of online shopping.

The study calls for a larger focus on logistics in urban planning and collaboration to develop new concepts.

The rapid growth of e-commerce is a major driver of traffic volume in urban areas, and this is likely exacerbated by the push for ever-shorter delivery times, the study notes. At the same time, growing deliveries to city residents are driving the need for parcel logistics providers to set up micro-distribution centres in cities, competing for scarce urban space and generating more vehicle traffic. In addition, these locations need parking spaces.

Parcel providers have reported growing opposition from communities and residents. This tallies with observations in the study that logistics has largely been perceived by residents in terms of disruption – increasing traffic congestion and blocking sidewalks and driveways – while the important function of making goods available at all times has been largely ignored.

While logistics is still largely regarded in terms of noise, pollution and traffic disruption, the experience of the pandemic and the rise of residential deliveries has shifted the public perception and raised awareness of a need to find solutions, the study notes. Beyond addressing the immediate needs, this means that logistics has to be factored into urban planning, the authors wrote.

They call for a more integrated planning approach to be taken with a wider lens. Not only have logistics requirements rarely been considered on a par with other functional elements of city planning, but new solutions are necessary, possibly including other modes of transport and collaborative use of space, the study finds.

Jason JonMichael, assistant director smart mobility, parking enterprise and mobility services for the Texas city of Austin, sees a compelling case for aligning his plans with the requirements of parcel logistics players.

“I need a place to consolidate commuters between downtown and rural areas, and so do delivery companies. We should work together,” he said.

Joint pilot projects with logistics operators can help municipal authorities understand modal changes, which ultimately helps them with their planning, he added.

At the same time he sees a need for city departments to understand the requirements of logistics providers better. In terms of the trend towards electric delivery vehicles, the city should make sure that there are enough charging stations available, he said.

The two sides approach the issue from opposite ends. While priorities for urban authorities are aligned around the reduction of the impact of logistics on urban living – curbing pollution and noise, curtailing delivery vehicle traffic in pedestrian zones – delivery providers seek unhampered access and often cling to their proprietary business model with little inclination to share resources with competitors, the study found. Collaborative delivery systems are the exception rather than the rule, the authors wrote.

Another challenge lies in the different time horizons that urban planners and parcel delivery firms operate with. Urban projects may well take 10 years or more from the masterplan stage to completion, whereas the parcel industry is currently in a stage of rapid development and experimentation with new concepts.

The study sees some promise in mixed-use concepts of buildings and flexible time windows. For instance, it points to trials with the use of sections of parking garages during off hours for parcel sorting and distribution activities. There have also been trials to use boats and trams in some cities, but these usually require interfaces with other modes, and bring up some challenges, the authors found.

Sometimes it is a matter of aligning a new delivery device with infrastructure designed for something else. The city of Austin has allowed a company that fields bots to deliver pizzas to use bike lanes.

“This gives us a lot of learning opportunities,” Mr JonMichael said.

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