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  • Writer's pictureRishi Verma

Urban Freight in 2030: What Will We Measure?

We identified 6 crucial metrics that we can use to quantify progress toward our collective vision of urban freight in 2030.

Group of people in a meeting.

At the Spring meeting of the Urban Freight Lab, members voted to choose 6 crucial priorities for our project on Urban Freight in 2030. Though not specifically linked with research topics, these metrics were selected as the means by which we can quantify progress, or lack thereof, towards our collective vision of Urban Freight in 2030.

Our members identified these 6 metrics, and we will use them to set clear, consistent goals for Urban Freight in 2030.

Over rounds of small group discussions and large group voting, the following 6 priorities were identified:

  • CO2 Emissions

  • Congestion

  • Roadway Fatalities

  • Protected spaces for vulnerable users

  • Cost of delivery

  • Equity

How are each of these metrics related to urban freight, and what might it take to improve them? Though the research topics within our larger project will select and define each metric as is relevant, let’s broadly explore each metric below.

CO2 Emissions

How does this relate to urban freight?

Emitted as a byproduct of vehicle engines that burn any form of petroleum products, commonly gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel in the transportation industry, CO2 is a Greenhouse Gas (GHG), contributing to heat being trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.  Nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) are two of the other tailpipe GHGs, with the result being that 27% of total GHG emissions in the United States in 2020 came from the transportation sector. Diesel is the primary form of petroleum used in freight by both long-haul and last-mile vehicles, which can result in over 10,000 grams of CO2 emitted per gallon consumed. 

In urban freight, we can see this play out as the number of home deliveries continues to increase. Last-mile vehicles like box trucks and cargo vans repeatedly drive around cities, back and forth from warehouses, and spending time cruising when parking spaces aren’t available. All the while, these vehicles consume fuel. The result? In the U.S., medium and heavy-duty trucks already account for over 30% of CO2 emitted from transportation, and one collaboration between McKinsey and the World Economic Forum suggests up to a 20% increase in CO2 emissions in Tokyo by 2030 as a result of e-commerce. 

How could this be addressed? 

Electrification is an obvious answer to the issue of petroleum-powered vehicles, but there are also strategies that can be taken to reduce the number of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) as a result of e-commerce, thereby reducing tailpipe emissions as well. We’ll elaborate more on these below…


How does this relate to urban freight?

Anyone who has been stuck behind an unloading vehicle parked squarely in the travel lane knows the frustration of freight congestion in an urban environment. Though traffic congestion may be difficult to quantify, nonetheless we can identify some of its cases as they pertain to urban freight. Congestion can take forms such as the aforementioned cruising, in addition to queueing behaviors that last-mile vehicles may engage in. This involves driving around city blocks looking for open parking spaces near the target delivery building, and keeping a vehicle standing in an unauthorized space until parking opens up respectively. A previous UFL study found that commercial vehicle cruising comprised 28% of total trip time on average in Seattle. Some of this is a direct result of increased e-commerce since higher package volumes require more delivery vehicles on streets. However, this is not an inevitable result. 

How could this be addressed?

Curb reservation systems like the pilot program in Washington DC, and the UFL’s own curb sensor study are promising options for reducing driver behaviors that lead to congestion by reducing the amount of time spent searching or waiting for parking. Cargo bicycles and autonomous ground delivery vehicles (like the Amazon Scout) can provide an alternative mode of last-mile transportation instead of heavy-duty vehicles, requiring neither full-size parking spaces nor fossil fuels- both are electric powered. As mentioned in our previous section, some of these solutions could benefit CO2 emission rates as well. Finally, coordination and collaboration between the private and public sectors can yield facilities like microhubs, package lockers, and urban consolidation centers that can decrease the amount of time a driver needs to spend parked at the curb, also known as “dwell time”. 

Roadway Fatalities

How does this relate to urban freight?

Delivery vehicles are large, heavy, and difficult to maneuver. As a result, a higher delivery vehicle street presence has been linked with increased roadway injuries and fatalities. One study found that between 2009 and 2015, the number of off-interstate freight-related fatalities increased by 15%, compared with a mere 3% increase in vehicle crash fatalities in general. However, the vehicle itself isn’t entirely to blame. Urban spaces can be less safe than highways due to their high density of intersections, causing a higher volume of interactions between vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. These interactions can come in the form of pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles crossing in front of each other or vehicles moving or parking in spaces allocated to cyclists or pedestrians. Household income and percentage of minority population in study areas are also correlated with fatality rates, making this a land use and environmental justice issue in addition to a logistical one.

How could this be addressed?

This points to a few different strategies for addressing roadway fatalities: Reducing the number of delivery vehicles in urban environments, reducing the number of interactions, and reducing how dangerous each interaction is. The first is closely linked to the congestion mitigation options listed previously, but the second two suggest consideration of street design and speeds. One organization, Vision Zero, combines these considerations with an emphasis on equity in order to prioritize communities and demographics that are at the highest risk. Off-hour deliveries and driver safety training can address this metric as well, once again illustrating the need for private and public sector collaborations.

Protected Space for Vulnerable Users

How is this related to urban freight?

Back in April 2019, the #RedCupProject became a movement on Twitter following the death of bicycle advocate Dave Salovesh in an unprotected bicycle lane. Participants placed red plastic cups on the painted lines on edges of unprotected bicycle lanes (example) and took photos of the cups being flattened by passing cars. Indeed, bicycle lanes are not made safe merely by existing. Vehicles that drift into them by accident, use them accidentally or purposefully as turning or parking lanes, or neglect to check the space around them for bicycles can inadvertently cause injuries and fatalities. Freight vehicles in particular have larger blind spots resulting in less awareness of cyclists, and may be parked in insufficiently sized loading zones resulting in taking up part of a bicycle lane. 

How could this be addressed?

Protected bicycle lanes create barriers or space between vehicles and cyclists, which can reduce the risk of collisions. However, there is variation both in what a protected lane looks like (raised from the roadway, protected by posts etc.), and their effectiveness in reducing both injuries and fatalities. Total availability of protected space may not be a perfect metric by itself then, but further study into the best forms of protected spaces and their implementation can give communities a way to actively take steps to determine what they want their roadways to look like. 

Cost of Delivery

How is this related to urban freight?

Free delivery can make the difference between whether an online order is placed or not, but is any delivery really free? Time, fuel, and packaging are all resources being expended by a home delivery, whether the consumer directly pays for them or not. Furthermore, in response to increasing ecommerce, there’s been a growing rate of “warehouse sprawl”, as fulfillment and distribution centers move closer to customers. What’s the cost of this? In areas like Southern California, increased air pollution in minority communities due to high trucking activity. Also consider the monetary cost of switching a delivery fleet to electric vehicles. Amazon has made significant investments here, placing orders for 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian and an additional undisclosed amount from Stellantis. At the same time, the USPS is currently facing legal challenges over its order of 165,000 new mail trucks of which only 10% will be electric, a decision cited by the US Postmaster to be due to insufficient funding.  

How could this be addressed?

This is less an issue of reducing a high cost of delivery, and more one of making the cost of delivery transparent. Public policy mandates may increase the monetary cost of delivery, while the desire for shorter shipping times may increase the environmental cost of delivery, and it will be necessary for decision-makers to be aware of these effects. 


How is this related to urban freight?

Equity can take many forms in urban freight, from access to goods and services across different locations to small business viability in online marketplaces. Equity in urban freight is deeply linked with environmental justice as well, including the previously described roadway fatalities as well as other externalities from increased demand. Emissions as a result of freight movement can disproportionately affect communities of color, and the same is true for where warehouses and distribution centers tend to be located.

How could this be addressed?

Though equity is difficult to capture in a single metric, taking multiple measurements in different forms can guide and inform the decision making process for urban freight in much the same way as in other fields, like healthcare and education. Asking about who may be the vulnerable parties as a result of new policies in addition to keeping data and investigating patterns can help us to bring equity into each aspect of our research. Of course, equity is already inherent in some of our earlier sections, such as protected space for vulnerable users, but we aim to have equity inform and permeate through each of our topics. 

In Conclusion

These metrics are complex, interwoven, and at times, frustratingly opaque. However, to set and achieve either research or policy goals, we must begin by asking ourselves what we want to accomplish, and what options we have for measuring our progress. Our members identified these 6 metrics, and we will use them to set clear, consistent goals for Urban Freight in 2030.


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