What is Microfreight? Downsizing Delivery for a Multimodal and Sustainable Future
Sharing in NYC and looking ahead to more experimentation of small form factors.
“Why deliver two-pound burritos in two-ton cars?”
That’s the question posed by sidewalk delivery robot company Serve, which is delivering food in places like Los Angeles. Sure, using something other than a car for items like a burrito makes sense. But what about a sofa? Urban delivery is all about right-sizing, context, and connecting logically and efficiently to the broader delivery network.
At the Urban Freight Lab (UFL), we talk about things like sidewalk delivery robots and e-bikes as microfreight. Microfreight is about moving goods using smaller, more sustainable modes where possible. Think micromobility, but for moving goods, not people, in the last mile of delivery.
Microfreight was one of the four topics UFL members voted to explore as part of the Urban Freight in 2030 Project. In the right city context, using microfreight can be both economical for freight businesses and more sustainable in terms of decarbonization and city dweller quality of life. We intentionally chose to hold the UFL spring meeting on microfreight in New York City, a city on the leading edge of the multimodal goods movement. The city’s perch on that leading edge makes sense, as the densest city in the U.S.; a city with sky-high delivery demand coming from people living in sky-high towers; and a city government working to proactively manage that reality. To be sure, NYC is one of a kind when it comes to dense, vertical living. Because of this density and intense interaction between modes, the Big Apple is an important place to watch — and a great place for us to share learning, expertise, and ideas.
And when we watched the Midtown Manhattan streets during that UFL meeting, we saw throngs of people on e-bikes and cargo bikes making food and ecommerce deliveries. But microfreight is about much more than just bikes. It includes personal delivery devices (PDDs) and drones. It even includes walking, an element that permeates nearly every last-mile delivery segment, especially the final 50 feet of a trip. Yet walking is something normally talked about for moving people, much less so for moving goods. To be sure, we saw plenty of deliveries being made on foot while in NYC, too!
Here’s a rundown of what we consider to be microfreight.
Making Deliveries on Foot
Here, all deliveries are made on foot. The classic, oldie but goodie example: A human walking with a package in hand. Or walking with packages loaded onto an old-school hand cart or dolly. The tech-upgraded example: A human walking with goods stowed in an electric-assist cart (sometimes dubbed 'e-walker'), like the one from UFL member Brightdrop shown below. (The dense streets of Midtown Manhattan were chockablock with delivery people using walking carts). FedEx recently expanded its e-cart pilot with Brightdrop from one NYC neighborhood to five after seeing encouraging initial results. The carts increased package deliveries by 15% per hour, allowing FedEx to eliminate one on-road vehicle from the delivery route, reduce vehicle dwell time at the curb by half, and minimize the number of trips couriers made back to their vehicles to restock.
Making Deliveries on Bike
Cargo bikes are typically electric bikes made to carry goods, with compartments at the front, back, or both sides — or with a trailer attached. They can be two-, three-, or four-wheeled vehicles. In NYC, UFL members visited a cargo bike operation from fellow UFL members Amazon and Cornucopia Logistics. In sheer numbers, NYC is thought to have more bikes in use for last-mile delivery than any other city in the country. As such, the city offers a peek at what it’s like to rely on microfreight at something approximating scale. New York City DOT's Commercial Cargo Bicycle Pilot Program has more than 400 registered commercial cargo bike devices in operation. Participants include retailers like Amazon who use hundreds of e-cargo bikes to make deliveries for Whole Foods Market and Amazon Fresh customers. (Amazon owns Whole Foods.) Members had the opportunity to observe the behind-the-scenes operations and maintenance of a fleet of e-bikes and trailers. (Bikes break. Tires go flat.)
Making Deliveries by Personal Delivery Device (PDD)
A personal delivery device (PDD) is an automated or remotely piloted device, otherwise known as a sidewalk delivery robot, with storage space for packages, food, or other delivery items. College campuses are a common place PDDs are used. Cities that have piloted and/or have limited use of sidewalk delivery robots include the District of Columbia, Santa Monica, Miami, Los Angeles, and Houston. None of these cities have anywhere near the density of NYC. And their sidewalks bear little resemblance to the sea of humans who inhabit the typical NYC sidewalk. (It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that PDD pilots in NYC have sparked uproar.)
Making Deliveries by Drone
Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, are autonomous, semi-autonomous, or remote-controlled devices. UFL member Amazon has piloted autonomous, GPS-guided Prime Air drones in Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas, with the goal of delivering customer orders within 30 minutes. UFL member UPS has deployed drones to deliver prescriptions to the nation’s largest retirement community, in Florida, and service other medical campuses in places like Raleigh and San Diego. A Seattle-area pizza company is pledging to deliver pies and other food offerings by drone in 2024. While much still needs to be figured out when it comes to use cases and geography best suited for drones, they should be considered in a future multimodal approach to delivery.
We saw everything but drones and PDDs on the street in NYC. And the level of walking and bike-based delivery was notable. But even in a city at the forefront of microfreight, trucks still conduct 90% of freight deliveries.
One Way to Support the Move to Microfreight? Microhubs.
Logically, as we introduce microfreight as a new element in the delivery ecosystem, we need to think more about the broader delivery network and how smaller modes will plug into that. Microhubs are one tool.
The UFL defines a microhub this way:
"… as a special case of urban consolidation center with closer proximity to the delivery point and serving a smaller range of service area. A microhub is a logistics facility where goods are bundled inside the urban area boundaries, that serves a limited spatial range, and that allows a mode shift to low-emission vehicles or soft transportation modes (e.g., walking or cargo bikes) for last-mile deliveries."
If we’re trying to move out of bigger vehicles like trucks into smaller modes, we need a place for the goods transfer (also known as cross-docking) to happen. Ideally, cargo bikes should receive packages for delivery closer to destinations to capitalize on the advantages of these smaller devices. So we need microhubs, or something akin, to facilitate the transfer from larger vehicles to smaller ones. That microhub could be as simple as a designated parking spot. But we’re increasingly seeing ad hoc microhubs pop up on city sidewalks (e.g. packages being sorted on the sidewalk) and in curbside loading zones. The image below shows where microhubs fit in the broader delivery ecosystem.
At the spring meeting, we heard from UFL partner NYCDOT about plans to pilot microhubs in 20 sites over the next year. The agency is already planning to work on policies to facilitate microhubs, like increasing commercial loading zones and resolving cargo bike restrictions (such as width) at the city and state levels to allow for even larger deployment of these devices.
Parcel lockers and secure containers can also be used to stage packages that carriers can complete with a bike or other microfreight for last-mile delivery, as in the UFL’s Seattle Neighborhood Delivery Hub. (Parcel lockers can also be consumer-facing, where the final 50 feet delivery is performed by consumers themselves, potentially eliminating vehicle miles logged for final delivery.)
While we think right-sizing and moving to smaller modes will support livability and sustainability of cities, we need to acknowledge that not all goods can move via microfreight. Big, bulky goods will always need to be delivered in bigger vehicles. And vans and trucks can provide efficiencies in certain situations where downshifting to microfreight isn’t economically viable. NYC is rife with experimentation on microfreight and microhubs and offered us a place to see and discuss both. We hope to see more cities experiment in this space. After all, we’ve still got a long way to go before all the two-pound burritos in our cities stop getting delivered in two-ton cars.