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  • Writer's pictureTravis Fried

Freight’s Role in Delivering Equitable Cities (Part I)

What does an equitable and just freight system actually look like?


Man in bicycle helmet packs groceries into paper bags.

Spend enough time on social media and you’ll likely encounter an image like the one below. These images help us make sense of broad and weighty topics like ‘equality,’ ‘equity,’ and ‘justice.’ These are concepts that philosophers have debated since Aristotle, that rally Black Lives Matter activists, and mobilize political investments. For instance, the European Union’s $19.5 billion ‘Just Transition Fund’ that seeks to mitigate the “socio-economic impact” of a low- and zero-carbon energy transition or President Biden’s Justice40 initiative that sets “40% of the benefits from federal investments to disadvantaged communities.”


As these images below show, we all want to pick an apple but something prevents everyone from being able to get at that apple equally–the height of the ladder, the slant of the tree. The result leaves some content and others unsatisfied. The natural resolution, of course, isn’t simply to give everyone the same step stool (equality), but to adjust its height according to the needs of the person (equity), and ideally fix the underlying structures that necessitate uneven ladders in the first place (justice).



Simple enough. But much like the coastline to a cartographer, the closer you examine these concepts, the more complicated it becomes to trace their shape. Sure, most can agree: equity and justice are important goals to strive for. But if we move beyond the allegory and ask, “what does an equitable and just system actually look like?” the answer becomes more complex. This two-part blog post hopes to straighten the coastline a tad, exploring how urban freight fits into conversations around equity and justice.


Sure, most can agree: equity and justice are important goals to strive for. But if we move beyond the allegory and ask, “what does an equitable and just system actually look like?” the answer becomes more complex.

What is Equity in Urban Freight?


We asked UFL members this question at the summer 2022 quarterly meeting. Their responses, shown in the graphic below, cover a wide range of ideas and topics. Some define equity in terms of equal access to the numerous benefits a freight system brings; others call for a reduction in freight costs — like pollution, noise and traffic — to historically marginalized people.


Members differ on who the appropriate stakeholders are when it comes to addressing equity in urban freight. Is it the public agencies and big companies currently driving zero-carbon transitions? The warehouse workers, owner-operators and migrant truck drivers? The customers who shop online? Or the families who live near warehouses and truck routes?

Addressing these challenges is no simple task. Such questions challenge the urban freight community to grapple with the implications of histories of injustices that remain visible in today’s freight networks. And it also challenges us to look beyond the purview of planners and policymakers and assess the active role logistics companies play in delivering equity. In fact, evidence suggests the C-suite does think seriously about justice both within and beyond the context of the company. These understandings can be a foundation for a more equitable freight system and creating a truly equitable city.


Word cloud

Logistics Mobilizes Access


It's our ability to access opportunities that make cities enjoyable places to live. Be it access to good food, to work and play, to friends and family. Since the proliferation of the automobile post-WWII, many cities, especially in the U.S., have seen a widening spatial and temporal gulf between where we live and where we wish to go. For example, see how measurements of traffic speeds and throughput drove highway budgets and infrastructure at the price of mass transit in American cities. Today we see the effects. Congested highways (no matter how wide) and suburban sprawl leave many isolated in their homes or stuck in traffic. In addition to contributing to growing traffic collisions and emissions, sprawl and private car-based development has created enormous inequities in access to economic opportunities.


The drive to increase accessibility has spawned a wave of projects under the banner of making cities more equitable, like “Complete Streets” in the U.S. or “15-minute cities” in Europe. These initiatives envision people-centered infrastructure, accessible services, open-source digital infrastructure, and lively neighborhoods for some of the most vulnerable road users. Success stories of these accessibility initiatives celebrate pedestrian-only ‘Open Streets’, protected bike paths, data sharing, bus lanes, as well as mixed- and densified land-use transformations.


However, urban freight is notably absent from many of these paradigm-shifting projects (including its criticisms). Of the 1,468 projects, policies and reports tracked by Shared Use Mobility Center, a U.S.-based resource center focused on transformational urban mobility, roughly 10 mention urban freight (one is UFL’s own Seattle Neighborhood Delivery Hub pilot).


This blind spot implies that the most livable city is one in which freight is neither seen nor heard. And many proposed urban freight solutions seek to achieve just that, such as freight tunnels under Sidewalk Labs’ now defunct ‘smart neighborhood’ in Quayside, Toronto.


But this outlook doesn’t account for freight’s crucial role in cities. An equitable freight system ensures everyone has access to the things needed to survive and flourish and reduces the barriers to making that possible. Logistics solutions span creating digital visibility of curbside loading space to reduce delivery vehicles’ “cruising for parking,” and thus possible contentions with vulnerable road users, or exploring the role of home-delivery in improving accessibility to important goods such as food and medical supplies. In fact, researchers in cities from Gothenburg (Sweden) to Portland (Oregon) note how COVID-19 exacerbated exclusion from home-based access to goods for some marginalized groups, such as low-income, racial minority, elderly, and populations with physical disabilities.


An equitable freight system ensures everyone has access to the things needed to survive and flourish and reduces the barriers to making that possible.

The Urban Freight Lab and its members are tackling this issue by addressing equity in urban freight more directly. The next blog post will look deeper at how historic inequities remain visible in today’s freight system, and what some members are doing to address this.

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