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  • Writer's pictureUrban Freight Lab

How Could a More Integrated Private-Public World Advance Our Goods Movement 2030 Priorities?

Here’s a 2030 vision for that more integrated world — and how we might tap digitization to get there.

Consider it the left hand, right hand challenge of the urban freight landscape. But a gentler riff on the whole “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” Each hand does know something about what the other hand is doing, but probably not enough.

On the left, there are Urban Freight Lab (UFL) member companies like Amazon and UPS that use the public right of way to move goods. On the right, there are various levels of government that manage and regulate that public right of way for all users. The hands are clearly connected. Yet each is independently engaged in digitization. If we’re serious about driving progress on the UFL’s six collective priorities by 2030, the left and the right hands need to be more synced.

This blog examines three digital ideas that could foster the private-public integration that we believe is needed to advance on these priorities. As we look to 2030, momentum is building toward digital transformation in transportation, spurred by recent landmark federal efforts like the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the U.S. Department of Transportation Research, Development, and Technology Strategic Plan highlighting digital innovation. Below are Big Digital Integration Ideas we think can move us closer to a more integrated private-public world — and closer to where we want the landscape to be in 2030.

Idea 1: More Digital Data Collection and More Digital Data Sharing

As we’ve noted, the private sector is charging ahead of the public sector on digitization and swimming in real-time data to improve efficiency. If the private sector wants the public sector to design and manage the right of way to better meet freight’s needs, the digital data gap between them must narrow. The public sector needs more data to support better understanding of freight that, in turn, leads to better decision-making.

Data can come from local or state public agencies boosting their own digital collection (via sensors, cameras, or cloud-based, big data solutions). Those agencies, in turn, can share data with the private sector. Seattle, for example, already shares key data with private industry, like navigation and routing providers.

On the flip side, data can come from the private sector sharing with the public sector. The latter is a tough sell for the urban freight industry, as we heard loud and clear at the fall UFL meeting. But both sectors can reap benefits from a more integrated understanding of the freight system in a given region. (Note that our last blog documented how private sector digitization can benefit everyone, not just companies’ own bottom lines.)

More integrated data could usher in benefits like lower transportation costs for operators and better transportation network efficiency, environmental sustainability, and safety. Data sharing can promote meaningful strategies to address freight industry decarbonization. It’s tough to effectively tackle a challenge like decarbonization without a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground now. Such sharing gives both the private and public sectors an accurate view and fuller understanding of freight activity — via things like purchase volume, delivery locations, and truck routes — and its associated emissions.

As a practical matter, without data, how do public agencies who shape the public right of way know whether or where to add more commercial load zones on the curb if they lack the data on freight demand? Same goes for setting requirements around size and use of loading bays to facilitate easier cross-docking; designing and rolling out freight corridors/freight lanes; and creating zoning and land use rules that could help meet freight warehousing demand while reducing its negative impacts on communities.

To include a freight lens in decision-making and planning, the public sector could use private sector data like where are freight vehicles originating from and where are they delivering to (origin-destination)? Same with demand data: Where and what type of deliveries are occurring across a given geography? And behavior data: What roads are delivery drivers using? Where is parking/loading happening? Off-street versus on-street? What are dwell times for parking/loading? The data also can surface important, timely qualitative insights into problems like road closures or lack of space for delivery activities.

To be sure, in some cases the public sector is starting to collect or purchase data like that mentioned above. But fiscal and other practical limits (like the public’s discomfort with tracking and surveillance tools) hinder public agencies from relying solely on that approach.

Meantime, data-sharing standardization frameworks offer both real-time and historic data to improve planning for urban freight demand, facilitate real-time policy changes, and enable freight companies to get real-time information on mission-critical things like curb availability. Groups like the Open Mobility Foundation (of which UFL members Seattle DOT and Lacuna Technologies are part) are building data standards and specifications that let private sector partners share a common set of data attributes among themselves and/or with government entities. Standards help private sector companies that operate in environments overseen by various levels of government (city, county, state, federal) the ability to share data in a common language between cities and agencies. We know these burgeoning efforts will need to accelerate if we want a more integrated world by 2030.

Idea 2: More Digital Infrastructure in the Public Sector + Digital Policy that Goes Along with It

Cities often create and oversee rules and policies on their streets in a near information vacuum from the private sector that operates within those rules and policies. The massive infusion of federal dollars and attention we mention above could help bring large-scale digital modernization to a public sector that today is still largely rooted in paint and concrete. That modernization should help set the stage for more public-private integration.

Think updated traffic and pedestrian signals. And digital streams of government-provided data on everything from freight lanes/corridors to road closures to traffic congestion. Those streams could supplement Google Maps and other existing private sector routing and navigation software toward improving efficiency and safety and mitigating conflicts in the public right of way.

Think about how Google Maps already incorporates real-time speed monitoring and compares it to posted speed limits. And how it already actively suggests reroutes and detours during major traffic disruptions or closures. The idea is for government to play a bigger role in communicating and influencing driver decisions and behavior by streaming more real-time APIs. Those could feed private sector spaces like routing software that guides how most people travel through cities today. That would help cities do things like help keep big trucks off smaller roadways and/or pedestrian-heavy traffic areas or near school zones, advancing safety and efficiency to benefit all.

With a modernized, digitized public data system, we could create dynamic curbs that respond to real-time demand. With common data standards and the ability to connect public and private data systems, we could optimize that dynamic curb management. And we could be sharing information about, say, parking/loading options other than the curb, like an off-street garage or underused loading dock.

Idea 3: More Digital “Nudges” to Shape Consumer Behavior (aka the Public) Toward Sustainability?

Our choices as consumers impact many (if not all) of the six priorities around which we want to see progress by 2030. Making transparent the full cost of delivery is a biggie. Sure, companies aim to get consumers what they want, when they want it. But this comes at an often hidden price, in terms of C02 emissions and a less efficient delivery system. But companies and governments can “nudge” consumer behavior toward the public good (or at least toward “less bad” options when it comes to carbon footprint.) We’re already starting to see companies pass on to consumers the literal cost — in price — of ultra-fast delivery. But can we do more to bring some of the digital modernization and integration to bear to nudge consumer behavior toward more environmentally sustainable options?

Ecommerce offers a digital platform to directly reach consumers and influence their choices through instituting pricing signals, educating consumers, and expanding consumers’ green options.

"Research shows that making information and choices transparent and available to consumers can make a real impact on consumer behavior toward improved sustainability."

Could companies offer consumers the option to pay a bit more or get an online credit toward future purchases to have their delivery made in a “green delivery option” zero-emission vehicle? Or to have their delivery come in sustainable packaging? Amazon already offers a digital credit to customers who choose a slower delivery option. E-retailers could go further to offer such credits for parcel locker deliveries, which save wasted miles and emissions by reducing the time delivery drivers are stopped to unload (dwell time), the number of independent stops a driver would need to make delivering address-to-address, failed deliveries and makes porch theft moot. Companies could list upfront the carbon impacts of various delivery options to nudge consumers toward the greener options when they check out.

Retailers and shippers could advance more seamless data integration within the private sector to aggregate orders and returns where possible. And more shared/common carrier lockers that are shipper- and retailer-agnostic could be advanced by the private sector and government alike.

Clearly, digitization can enable a more integrated private-public world for 2030. Will the players involved do what it takes to get there? We’ll leave that to the crystal ball readers.


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