Lost in Translation? Considering Overseas Freight Planning Designs through a North American Lens
Reflections, questions, and concerns about four innovative freight planning strategies.
At the spring Urban Freight Lab (UFL) meeting, members heard about four innovative approaches to planning streets so both people and goods can move more efficiently, safely, and sustainably. The catch? Europe is the only place most of these ideas have successfully scaled. So, how might these ideas translate or get adapted to a North American context as we look toward 2030?
In our last blog, we talked about an integrated freight and pedestrian approach Gothenburg, Sweden, has had on its streets for two decades. London, for its part, has had a low-emission zone (LEZ) for a decade and a half, with plans to expand its ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) in summer 2023. Meantime, in North American cities by and large we’re still figuring out how to pilot innovations — let alone roll them out on city streets in a big way.
And that’s no surprise, said Philippe Crist of the The International Transport Forum (ITF).
“Going from what is possible to what is actionable is going to be challenging in some instances, quite difficult in some instances, and in a handful of leading cities we’ll see some real progress,” Crist told UFL members. “And that’s OK because that’s how progress happens.”
So, what can we tackle first to make headway here? Ramp up modeling of innovative strategies, then test them on the street — much like the UFL has done with parcel lockers, a zero-emission last-mile delivery hub, and a first-of-its-kind real-time and forecasting curb parking app for commercial delivery drivers. Maybe that’s how we come up with a homegrown U.S. approach that works for our diverse physical and political landscape.
Here, we explore UFL member reflections to four innovative strategies presented and discussed at the spring meeting. We share overall reactions as well as questions and concerns raised about the challenges such strategies might face in a North American environment.
Concept 1: Zero- or Low-Emissions Zones
Concept 1 at a glance:
Only "greener" vehicles that meet set emissions specs can enter the zone.
Zones incentivize electrification and/or microfreight.
Some zones are designated by parking spots versus entire geographic area (or areas).
These zero- or low-emissions strategies rely on changing behavior through top-down regulation. Many UFL members said they appreciated that the concept creates a level playing field among competitors in the freight sector and between the freight sector and other street users. Members suggested the freight industry wouldn’t feel singled out or disproportionately burdened since everyone must abide by the same regulatory scheme.
UFL members by and large also valued the clarity of the approach. Rules, pricing and enforcement are clear, with pricing being the main lever to drive behavior change. (For example, vehicles that don’t meet London’s LEZ emission standards but use the city LEZ zone must pay a daily charge or face a penalty charge, incentivizing use of LEVs.) This certainty and clarity lets companies plan ahead with less concern about policies changing year by year.
On the whole, while there seemed to be consensus that this type of approach would have the most impact on reducing emissions, many questions remained. Are there enough zero-emission freight vehicles (ZEVs) on the road to make this work now? (Many thought no.) Will there be enough by 2030? (Many thought yes.) Notably, to date, the only zero-emission delivery zone in the United States is a voluntary pilot in Santa Monica, California, that ended in December 2022. And while the nation’s first congestion pricing program, in New York City, has been approved to move forward, many questions abound. Given that the U.S. does not yet have any mandatory or widespread congestion pricing or LEZs (and as such, no domestic track record to show or learn from), members wondered how these approaches will work here.
Concepts 2 & 3: Shared Streets and Freight Integration
Concept 2 at a glance:
Pedestrians, bicycles, delivery and passenger vehicles share the street, with passenger vehicle parking generally limited to more short-term/load/unload, if any at all.
Goods vehicles have access at low speeds.
Freight vehicle load/unload zones are sometimes designated to avoid conflicts with other street users.
Streets have no curbs, allowing free movement of bikes and pedestrians.
Concept 3 at a glance:
As with concept 2, pedestrians, bicycles, delivery, and passenger vehicles share the street and vehicle speeds are slowed.
Pedestrian infrastructure consumes more space than traditional streets.
Parking is designated for traditionally sized delivery vehicles, waste, cargo bikes, and parcel lockers.
Both the shared streets and freight integration approaches embody integration principles, with streets designed to meet the needs of multiple users, from pedestrians and cyclists and passenger vehicles to freight trucks and cargo bikes. (Though some shared street models ban passenger vehicles altogether.) Both approaches envision safer (via slow vehicle speed and expanded pedestrian infrastructure); more efficient; and more sustainable street use (via enhanced pedestrian infrastructure and designated places for cargo bikes and parcel lockers, both of which reduce the environmental impacts of last-mile delivery.)
Where the shared street is level and has no through lane or curbs, the freight integration concept street has both. The freight integration approach envisions a curb reallocated from car parking to freight loading/unloading — with parcel lockers and cargo bike parking, too.
UFL members overall appreciated the way both these integrated approaches provide mode flexibility. Depending on weather, EV availability and/or customer demand, they could service these integrated streets with an array of varying vehicles. If an area had unusually high parcel demand, United Parcel Service (UPS) could send a truck. For lower demand areas, it could be a smaller EV or cargo bikes instead. The approach doesn’t rely on prohibiting trucks or other vehicles, which members found appealing.
On shared streets, freight vehicles get the flexibility to park and load/unload close to their delivery destination in exchange for very slow speed. In the freight integration scenario, freight gets designated parking spots and load/unload space for both delivery trucks and cargo bikes.
But flexibility can be tricky because carriers value consistency. Take the scenario where rules are intended to make curb use more flexible, say, by granting freight more access during certain times of day. Some carriers might be able to flex their operations to take advantage of that time window for greater curb access. But if a driver is in a pinch and needs to complete a delivery outside that time range, that flexible curb becomes less helpful to carriers. And changes in vehicle types or delivery modes like lockers envisioned in some of these flexible street concepts will take careful planning to execute. The trick seems to be finding the sweet spot along the flexibility spectrum.
Meantime, these integrated approaches fly in the face of our current siloed state of built infrastructure and planning in the U.S. In other words, sidewalks for pedestrians. Bike lanes for bikes. Travel lanes for cars and trucks.
UFL members noted how challenging it could be to make major structural changes to the existing built environment in the U.S. That made us wonder: Are there ways to move toward more integrated streetscapes by 2030 with limited investment? Could we take a page from pandemic-inspired adaptations to the built environment — like closed streets and expanded outdoor dining — that cities rolled out quickly to respond to the crisis? In other words, could we try out a menu of low-cost infrastructure changes in the near term before investing in pricier permanent changes to the streetscape?
Concept 4: Privately Coordinated Optimization via Urban Consolidation Center
Concept 4 at a glance:
Redistributes deliveries from a central location (new/existing facilities) in a neighborhood.
As such, outside carriers and companies may relinquish direct access to customers.
Encourages adoption of EV or microfreight options.
UFL members heard about an urban consolidation center in Sweden that functions akin to what typically happens at university campuses, hospitals, and shopping centers in the U.S. In this model, designed to serve a still-developing residential and commercial district outside Stockholm, all carriers drop off and pick their goods at one of three collection centers. A separate private company then does all the transporting of goods to customers and schedules pickups with tenants inside the district in electric vehicles to reduce the number of direct deliveries. This approach requires buy-in from both carriers and customers. (The private company, Urban Services, is a joint venture between the district’s principal developer as well as several smaller ones.)
Neither this nor a related model in Seattle, one piloted by UFL (shown in the image above), changes the physical street infrastructure the way concepts 2 and 3 do. The UFL pilot created a last-mile delivery neighborhood microhub to test sustainable innovative urban logistics strategies on the ground. It used an existing parking lot in a dense Seattle neighborhood as a home base for services like a common carrier parcel locker and last-mile package deliveries made via electric-assist cargo bikes from a container sited at the parking lot.
All in all, members were generally skeptical about widespread North American application of the urban consolidation example from Sweden. Many said a top-down regulatory approach that forces carriers to work together might be feasible. But members had a hard time envisioning this working outside of private, campus-like institutions or major office towers or developments. From a business perspective, they thought carriers — who are on the hook for the entire delivery — might be wary of giving up the “final mile.” In other words, it could be risky to rely on someone else to successfully perform the main customer-facing part of the journey.
UFL members seemed inclined to think that some adaptations and spin offs of these four core concepts are what it will take to bend behavior toward achieving our 2030 priorities. And members acknowledged that both the public and private sector need to embrace some experimentation to meet those priorities.
Since the concepts discussed here are unlikely to translate one-to-one from a European, Asian, or global context to a U.S. and North American context, that likely means much more testing and piloting here at home to build our own “Made in America” playbook for these concepts. Europe and Asia have different built environments, different funding systems, and different governance and political systems from our own. It seems the only way we’ll know what can work in the U.S. and North America is to try, do, and learn.
Many UFL private sector members are already on the frontlines testing and learning with cities across the country, from a cargo bike delivery pilot in Boston with Net Zero Logistics to UPS pilots from Seattle to New York City and Amazon deploying cargo bikes in New York City.
Let’s keep cracking to meet our 2030 goals.
London Low-Emission Zone, Ultra Low-Emission, and Congestion Charge map from Transport for London.
NACTO shared streets illustration from NACTO.
AIANY integrated streets illustration by Stantec for American Institute of Architects, New York.
Seattle Neighborhood Delivery Hub photo by Urban Freight Lab.