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  • Writer's pictureUrban Freight Lab

The Freight Space Race: Planning Streets for More Efficient & Sustainable Movement of People & Goods

Space is the scarcest resource in cities. How can we best use street space to do more for more street users?

Mention the “space race” and it tends to conjure up the Cold War-era competition between the United States and the then-USSR to “conquer” outer space. But at the winter meeting of the Urban Freight Lab (UFL), members heard about a different race playing out on our streets right under our noses. It’s what Philippe Crist of the International Transportation Forum (ITF) dubs the freight space race.

On a New York City sidewalk, a delivery worker sorts through a variety of packages (pet food, meal kits, etc.) for delivery.
Where’s the space? Sorting packages for delivery on a New York City sidewalk. Photo by ablokhin.

That race is about managing the competing demands for space in cities. Users of the space are competing to retain and grow space for their needs to improve deliveries, urban function, and residents’ well-being. For urban freight advocates it’s about making deliveries in cities less disruptive and more sustainable by focusing on the street space use of freight activities. It’s a race involving freight carriers, freight receivers, governments, and communities.

The freight space race isn’t new. But it’s been amplified and made more visible in the wake of the intertwined ecommerce boom and the Covid-19 pandemic, as planners in many cities scrambled to create public spaces for people through things like street closures, parks, and pedestrian ways.

Meantime, by and large, considering city space for goods has been an afterthought. And when goods delivery is considered, it tends to be siloed from the work of planning streets for people. So, there’s a freight plan, maybe. (Our research into 58 of the largest, densest, and fastest-growing cities found most do not have freight plans.) A bike plan. A transit plan. A pedestrian plan. But there’s nothing that integrates everything at the street level across all users.

This siloing hasn’t served cities or the freight sector particularly well. The rise of the “complete streets” concept is a rejoinder of sorts. (And, notably, UFL member Seattle Department of Transportation for the first time plans to create a multimodal and integrated 20-year transportation plan, later this year.) Unsurprisingly, given the less-than-stellar siloed approach to planning, UFL members prioritized planning streets for people and goods as a key topic in the Goods Movement 2030 project.

The Space versus Time Dilemma

On top of the siloing in planning and policy, there’s the tendency for both the public and private sectors to focus on time versus space. Yet it’s space that’s often cities’ scarcest resource, Crist noted.

Planners and engineers often use time as a metric for success: How successfully have we minimized travel time? The freight sector is concerned about saving time, too. For the industry, space tends to come up only when it translates into time. Like, when a lack of space (for parking/unloading) means a delivery driver takes more time to complete deliveries. That time is money, expressed in standard corporate metrics like delivery per hour and cost per delivery. Of course, while companies don’t control the space on city streets, they do rely on using it.

This focus on time has led to policies that provide more space to vehicles so those vehicles can move more quickly, leading to an over-allocation of space. The challenge, Crist said, is to better optimize the use of that space, making space more flexible and dynamic as cities in Europe and Japan (and some U.S. cities like San Francisco) are doing. The goal would be to develop approaches that maximize the use of space over a span of 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Giving space its due may require the use of metrics more focused on space. And it may require “a new cartography” of urban freight logistics. Although the UFL has been involved in numerous foundational data collection studies, we still have a pretty tenuous grasp of what’s happening on the ground.

Although the UFL has been involved in numerous foundational data collection studies, we still have a pretty tenuous grasp of what’s happening on the ground.

Managing Space Amid Fast-Changing Supply Chain Logistics (aka Freight Isn’t Just Big Trucks)

The freight space race comes at a time of explosive innovation in supply chain logistics. Thanks to the ecommerce home delivery boom, companies have developed new ways to efficiently move goods in the urban last mile — and minimize what UFL member company BrightDrop calls “Curbageddon.” Innovations include things like electric carts that allow delivery workers to move packages more easily on sidewalks and cargo bikes that allow workers to use bike lanes and park close to their destination. Such innovative modes use street space in diverse and distinct ways. As such, they challenge more traditional planning that’s tended to focus almost exclusively on large trucks.

How are these innovations incorporated into cities’ approach to using infrastructure or space? New York City has carved out bike corrals to accommodate this emerging mode. Berkeley, California, has granted wide access to autonomous delivery company Kiwibots. Another California city, Santa Monica, has similarly granted autonomous delivery devices access to public space (sidewalks and “pedestrian paths of travel”) through a municipal code update. Other cities including Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., are contemplating adding parcel lockers in public spaces (like at transit stations). Minneapolis, Minnesota, has gone as far as testing a low-tech version of lockers to understand their usefulness.

So, urban freight – and the space needed to serve it – isn’t just about trucks. To be clear, we’re not saying large freight vehicles are a thing of the past; cities still will need to plan for and accommodate them. We’re just saying the mix of vehicles is changing and growing beyond trucks and that design of and plans for use of street space should reflect this reality.

What Does It Look Like When We Plan Streets for People and Goods? And When We Don't?

Gothenburg, Sweden, offers one vision of planning streets for people and goods. Since the 1990s, the European city has taken a holistic view of planning and traffic with the goal of creating safe and lively streets, UFL members heard from Gothenburg planner Ann-Sofie Karlsson. As shown in the photo below, the city’s “walking streets'' are designed to be pedestrian and bike friendly but still open to freight deliveries during set hours, with vehicle speed limited to nine miles an hour. Its “pedestrian areas” are open to all vehicles (including freight) but with an even slower speed limit of just under four miles an hour. This approach emphasizes minimizing conflict among diverse users of the space and maximizing safety, rather than banning vehicles outright.

People walking on a busy street in Sweden.
A “walking street'' in Gothenburg, Sweden, offers easy freight parking for slower vehicle speed. Photo by I99pema via Wikimedia Commons.

Streets are intentionally designed to invite pedestrians to use the whole space, with street entrances clearly marked with things like a bump, pillars, or big potted plants and furnishings like benches and ample bike racks. Cobblestone streets are made level, with no curb to speak of.

Because the walking streets have no sidewalks and no parked cars, the road is broader, granting two-way accessibility. With loading more accessible and convenient, trucks can get much closer to their delivery destination versus looking for a handful of loading zones farther away. It’s a classic space versus time tradeoff: Easy parking space for slower vehicle speed.

Reaction from the freight industry? Overwhelmingly positive, Karlsson said, as they value the ability to bring their vehicles right to their destination. Along the street, stopping is not limited to specific zones. Rather, trucks can park in their desired location. Notably, the city stays in regular communication with the industry so any issues that surface can be tackled in a timely manner.

Sure, there are differences in context between Sweden and the United States. Anne Goodchild, the UFL’s founding director and a University of Washington professor, notes that while Swedes and Americans shop online at a comparable rate, deliveries to pick-up points (like lockers) are more common in Sweden than deliveries to apartments. And package delivery by cargo cycles and smaller vans is more widespread there, too. But Gothenburg shows one example of the mutual benefits possible when planning and managing in an integrated way for both people and goods.

When cities don’t adequately plan for goods, you can wind up with a scenario like the one featured above — with limited space to accommodate freight vehicles and their delivery needs. While UFL research shows drivers try to park in legal and/or sanctioned spaces, when those options are so limited and insufficient, they are forced to park in non-sanctioned spaces.

Challenges Ahead for Both Cities and the Freight Sector

The challenge for cities is to integrate and plan for freight in city space. Ultimately, both the public and private sectors will need to think and act flexibly to meet the challenges of the great freight space race as cities move to climate-friendlier planning and transportation.

From the city perspective, this means understanding that deliveries need to take place in “pedestrian” spaces—and that some deliveries cannot shift out of large vehicles and into smaller modes. From the freight perspective, this means understanding the need to continue adapting how to make those deliveries (e.g. via cargo bikes and light- or medium-duty vehicles for packages and smaller items where possible) in a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly cityscape.

As ecommerce grows and we shift toward denser, more populous cities, more mixing and integration of freight and other modes seems inevitable. That means more competition for limited space. And more impetus for public-private coordination to best plan and use that space for people and goods.

The great freight space race is on.


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