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  • Writer's pictureTravis Fried

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

Moving freight is vital to our ability to live in cities and access goods — but who bears the costs of moving goods, and who benefits from the access that goods movement provides? These costs and benefits have not been borne equally.

Boxes of fresh produce being sorted.

The last blog post revealed how urban freight is largely missing in discussions around transportation equity and accessibility. Freight delivers immense benefits to cities and residents. These benefits go beyond economic development, which is often how policymakers see freight. Not to say these economic benefits are small potatoes. Roughly 40 percent of Washington jobs connect to freight, generating $92 billion in economic impact annually.

So while the benefits of the urban freight system are foundational to cities, they go largely overlooked. The value of a freight system comes when you enjoy a good meal, receive essential medicines, or get lost in a favorite book. Put simply: Moving freight is vital to our ability to live in cities and access goods.

But who bears the costs of moving goods, and who benefits from the access that goods movement provides? These costs and benefits have not been borne equally.

Freight’s Critical History is Part of Urban Development’s Critical History

Rising home deliveries are spurring concerns around increased traffic. Residents are speaking up about trucks increasingly active in their neighborhoods, as well as the pollution and safety worries they bring. Activists have protested the construction of new warehouses in Seattle and other cities. Many have pointed out that these new distribution centers are more likely to locate in neighborhoods with high proportions of people of color.

The association between warehousing and its proximity to marginalized communities predates the rise of e-commerce. One study shows a decades-long history of warehouses being built in the backyards of Black and Hispanic residents in Los Angeles and its industrial outskirts. This pattern can be traced back to discriminatory policies and practices in the historic placement of industrial land use and infrastructure.

Starting around the 1920’s American cities started tightening zoning regimes, in part to control the spread of smokestacks and other noxious land uses. Racial discrimination was often baked into early urban development processes. Language coded into some property deeds dictated what races you could or couldn’t sell to, and later ‘red-lining’ barred Black families from receiving federal home loans. Practices like these had the effect of not only shielding White homeowners from Black and immigrant “encroachment,” but also from early industrial development.

Fast forward to the 1950s and the building of the interstate highway system. Highways quickly became the backbone of cross-regional trade, helping launch a steady decline of freight rail in favor of long-haul trucking. In several cases, these new urban highways were built through the heart of many vibrant Black neighborhoods. While middle-class White neighborhood associations were often able to protest and successfully redirect highway plans, Black community members did not have the same success.

Do Today’s Online Shoppers Bear the Whole Cost of their Purchases?

Explicitly discriminatory practices are illegal today, but their historic use has effectively locked in many land use patterns still seen today. This has placed some ports, railyards, warehouses, and truck corridors into conflict with historically marginalized communities. Consequences in these neighborhoods range from exposure to higher levels of harmful diesel exhaust to more hazmat spills. One study in Minneapolis-St. Paul found that low-income, non-White majority neighborhoods are more likely to experience crashes with freight vehicles than other neighborhoods.

At the Urban Freight Lab, we modeled the flow of home delivery traffic between urban distribution centers and end customers in metro Seattle, and found that the populations affected most by home delivery traffic were those who lived near distribution centers and highways. These factors outweighed delivery demand itself. In other words, it wasn’t the households receiving the most packages who experienced the most traffic.

The Urban Freight Lab found that the populations affected most by home delivery traffic are those who lived near distribution centers and highways, rather than those receiving the most packages.

We found that majority non-White neighborhoods were exposed to triple the delivery traffic volume density, despite making only half the online purchases as White populations. (Our results are currently under review for publication.)

Negotiating a More Just Urban Freight Future

Much of the inner-urban Gilded Age industrial development has since shuttered or sprawled into the suburbs. Some old waterfront and downtown-adjacent warehouses have found renewed lives as luxury lofts or mixed-use office buildings, occasionally expelling the communities who had lived there when the site was still generating freight.

Of course, today’s injustices don’t exist in a vacuum. They intertwine with history and replicate through today’s imperfect political and economic processes. Achieving justice in cities will require more than a downtown bike lane, even one wide enough to fit a cargo bike.

At our recent summer meeting, one UFL member called out the concern that the urban freight community was not systematically addressing historical injustices. The member noted how many “sustainable” logistics pilots, be they autonomous delivery robots or cargo e-bicycle microhubs, concentrate in a handful of affluent aspirational ‘smart cities’ or Silicon Valley-infused incubator districts. Racial biases also emerge in these new service offerings and even in the algorithms themselves.

Another UFL member Michael Morgenson, Global Ventures Lead at Ford Next, pointed to a mobility-testing hub housed in Detroit’s long-abandoned Michigan Central rail station. The hub is intended to bridge the equity divide between global innovation and the sometimes problematic impacts of that innovation on local communities. According to the project website, Michigan Central centers on equity and inclusivity by investing in community engagement platforms, artist programs, workforce development opportunities, green space renovation, and food rescue and delivery programs, among other efforts.

Photo of Michigan Central in Corktown, Detroit.
Michigan Central in Corktown, Detroit hosts retail, office spaces and a testing bed for emerging mobility technologies, such as autonomous drone-based deliveries. Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

Another UFL member, Stephen Zoepf, formerly of Lacuna Technologies, writes that open mobility data and open-source digital technologies not only help cities and companies analyze equity in proposed projects but enable transparency for community members to guide the urban planning process.

We know urban freight is essential to creating accessible cities and UFL members stress freight systems must be equitable and just for everyone. Knowing there’s still work to be done on equity, UFL members are exploring new ways to use data, programs, and logistical tools that not only help make cities safer, cleaner, more equitable and joyful places to live, but also bring communities to the negotiating table in meaningful ways.


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