by Yiqian Zhang, Sustainable Mobility Officer, ICLEI World Secretariat

Last-mile delivery, currently subject to significant disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is getting a great deal of attention in the industry and with city leaders – rightfully so. Even before the pandemic, e-commerce was on the rise and so too were the new business models that address customer demand for ever faster delivery. New technologies and innovations like drones and robots are rapidly changing the mobility landscape. The challenges of the pandemic and the growing freight demand has left cities around the world facing a critical question: Can we rethink our cities around sustainable last-mile deliveries, and if so, where to begin?

In May 2021, ICLEI’s Sustainable Mobility team hosted a session on “Reimagining and addressing last mile deliveries through innovative solutions” at Autonomy Digital 2.0 – with city representatives and practitioners sharing their experience in piloting sustainable last mile options in their cities. What became clear from the conversation is that these pilot projects and initiatives have positive impacts on our health, the environment, air quality, road safety and accessibility.

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Integrate ecologistics planning at the neighborhood level

Last mile is a complex and interwoven topic, as it involves many different stakeholders. “There is a huge opportunity to shape the future of the demand patterns, to build local supply chains, and at the neighborhood level to link each other as stakeholders”, said Dr. Christopher Mejia-Argueta, Director of the MIT Food and Retail Operations Lab and Director, MIT SCALE network for Latin America and the Caribbean. As the Chair of the EcoLogistics Community, the city of Taoyuan has promoted ecologistics initiatives while establishing five demonstration projects in the city, known as one of the most vibrant industrial and technological cities. Daxi – a busy commercial and residential district, bears the brunt of poor air quality, noise pollution, and second lane-induced congestion due to the increasing number of delivery vehicles. With the challenges at hand, Taoyuan city held more than 30 meetings with logistics companies, local businesses, and residents to address their needs. As a result, a wide array of last-mile solutions were proposed, including: a shared distribution hub, traffic calming measures that focused on pedestrians and cyclists’ comfort and priority on the road, dedicated parking space for low emission freight vehicles and smart lockers that combine other services such as shared logistics cabinets for convenience stores.

Public-private partnership is key in reinventing the last-mile

Cargo bikes are taking off in the city of Bogota, which launched a 6-month pilot project to promote the use of alternative modes of transport in the last mile distribution of food, parcel, and medical services. Freight generators, logistics operators, technology providers and bike manufactures were involved and consulted throughout the process. Preliminary results show that, with the use of a collaborative cross-docking platform, up to 4.2 tons of emissions could be avoided per year from food and parcel deliveries using cargo e-bikes. The results also show that delivery vehicle drivers work 2 hours less while on average 15% more deliveries are made, due to the improved journey time reliability and operational efficiency.  “Cross-docking cycle-logistics is efficient, effective, and creates value for money,” said Camilo Urbano, Leader of Urban Planning at Pooling loads at shared distribution centers means fewer delivery vehicles and creates cost savings for logistics service providers. “The pandemic helped with the awareness-raising of cargo bikes as a viable delivery option” he added. To increase the uptake of cycle logistics, “the public and private sectors need to work closely together, and especially, a national regulatory framework needs to be established.”

Accelerate pragmatic intervention pilots

Small or medium-sized cities that do not have the innovation budget of a metropolis, or have little experience, have the ability to pilot last mile initiatives with committed city leaders and participation from key private players. The City of Rosario is one of Argentina’s pioneer cities on public bike sharing. Launched in 2015, Rosario’s existing bike sharing system, Mi Bici Tu Bici, is spread throughout the city with 53 docking stations near important destinations. As part of the EcoLogistics project, the city is planning to launch a demonstration project which will incorporate cargo bikes into the bike share system with geo-fencing technologies. Good bike infrastructure is important for the uptake of cargo bikes, as delivery riders require direct, safe, and attractive conditions for cycling. “In 2020, Rosario has invested approximately 430,000 euros in 54 kilometers of new bike lanes, which directly contributes to the implementation of the demonstration project,” said María Cantori, Environmental Undersecretary of the Municipality of Rosario. This project will also involve groups of volunteers such as local businesses, companies, shops, freight operators, and the users of the current bike share system to test for free, evaluate, and suggest areas for improvements as well as introduce communities of concern to the cargo bike share system. Incentives will also be provided to the businesses with municipal recognition of good environmental practices.

A promising way ahead

Last mile has seen developments and disruptions, but not at this speed and scale. Looking ahead, logistics needs and challenges will be different from today, especially in emerging economies, but actions must be taken to ensure sustainable development. While many cities worldwide are progressing in improving technology to cater to rising needs, the legal and regulatory framework needs to be up-to-date and favorable to innovations. Public-private partnerships can be enabled if stakeholders collaborate with shared resources and data to produce beneficial results. For cities with little experience to test innovative solutions, demonstration projects are excellent for engaging key players and for replication, scalability, and long-term transformation.

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