Memo: Sustainable Transportation 6

Part of a series of “reading memos” that offer a brief summary of interesting academic content along with my personal reflections. This one covers Dablanc & Rodrigue’s chapter (“The Geography of Urban Freight”) from The Geography of Urban Transportation.


Urban freight distribution is the transportation of goods by/for commercial entities in cities (including warehousing, deliveries, and pick-ups), representing 10-15% of VMT in city streets and 3-5% of urban land use. The development of global supply chains and rising consumer consumption has compounded the challenges of ensuring efficient freight movements and gave rise to the field of city logistics.

Urban freight distribution presents externalities (i.e., congestion and pollution due to vehicles that are typically older, smaller, slower, and frequently idling) and logistical challenges (i.e., increased travel time variations due to congestion, competition for parking, “logistics sprawl” inducing more truck VMT, and the addition of freight trips in residential areas due to the rise in e-commerce). City logistics strategies to address these issues include optimization of deliveries (through vehicle tracking, route optimization, and “off-hours” deliveries), development of freight-specific facilities (e.g., dedicated parking for deliveries, logistics parks, or urban consolidation centers), and use of alternative vehicles (e.g., smaller vehicles, CNG/electric vehicles, cargo-cycles, or barges). 

The Logistics Performance Index (LPI) can be used as a key indicator of a city’s logistical capabilities. While existing city logistics strategies are limited in their cost-effectiveness, the authors propose sets of policies that can be applied to cities based on their typology – that is, whether they are a large metropolitan area of a developed economy (with Japanese cities being role models), a large metropolitan area in a developing country (having a modern economic sector and an informal system of vendors, prone to “motor transition” theory), a gateway city (concentrated regional hub for distribution), or a smart city (historical center of a middle-sized city).


Given the many centuries that global trade has existed, it’s surprising that city logistics still seems to be an emerging field with no definitively reliable and low-cost solutions to the challenges and externalities described. All the proposed strategies increase distribution costs and add delays, which I suppose is antithetical to the expectation of cheap, free-flowing goods that modern society expects. Urban consolidation centers (UCCs) are a clever idea but seem to require lots of coordination between many distributors that may not want to work together. This may explain why they have largely failed once cities stopped subsidizing them, though the story of Tokyo was a surprising counter-example. Clearly better collaboration between cities and the freight/logistics industries is needed, but I’m afraid we’re already far down a path where every goods distributor is on their own.

Cargo cycles are an interesting solution for last-mile delivery, especially for e-commerce goods in residential areas. I can see them being widely adopted in dense Asian cities where traditional trucks would have a hard time maneuvering, but I’m not sure how effective they would be in American cities where residences are much more dispersed. At the very least, they would be an environmental improvement over the polluting cargo trucks used today.

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