A cleaner, greener, faster ‘Last Mile’?…

By Gian Schiava

December 2021

Multiple City deliveries

How the new ‘last mile’ is minimising road congestion

Back in 2019 we looked at the challenges of city logistics, including deliveries in the crucial Last Mile where most waste is generated. Since then, an international health crisis has not only shaken our societies but triggered accelerating growth in online orders. Gian Schiava reports on how companies are responding.

In our previous article we highlighted the expert views of Walther Ploos van Amstel, Professor in City Logistics at the University of Amsterdam. Besides publishing many interesting insights on this topic, he recently co-organised a ‘round table’ with various fellow specialists. Together they discussed and evaluated recent pilot projects and tests in the Netherlands and Belgium, with a view to building a sustainable model for urban distribution.

Cargo Bike Delivery

A cleaner, greener, faster ‘Last Mile’

He states that combined deliveries seem like one of the most obvious solutions to implement sooner rather than later. City centres with a concentration of bars and restaurants should be supplied by one carrier instead of each outlet being served by its own suppliers.

Robert Kreeft

Robert Kreeft, Somerset Capital Partners

Robert Kreeft, from Somerset Capital Partners, is responsible for the development of the City Logistics Innovation Campus (CLIC) near Amsterdam. He acknowledges the growing need for urban distribution and advocates the use of a ‘logistics control tower’ to co-ordinate the flows of goods into the city. He also believes there needs to be more co-operation in managing return flows.

Like an airport directing flights with cargo and passengers towards and from an airfield, a cityport could have such a role in Last Mile logistics for electric vehicles delivering packages or food into the city centre. Co-ordination and planning are key.

CLIC Amsterdam

City Logistics Innovation Campus (CLIC) near Amsterdam

Governments certainly have a vital role to play, if only in supporting SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) entities financially to help them invest in electric vehicles. The round table was attended by students from the Amsterdam School of Real Estate, whose graduates will be tomorrow’s experts in city logistics.

Exploiting the waterways

Whilst the round table tended to focus on exploring potential new solutions, DHL has been making real progress with practical alternative solutions in one of Britain’s most congested cities. For many years, DHL has already relied on bicycle couriers to handle many of its last-mile express deliveries in central London. Cargo bikes are now a common sight, but the packages still needed to be trucked into the city for distribution to the bike couriers.

DHL Cargo Bike

The last part of the route is completed via bicycle.

The solution was as simple as it was genius: a daily riverboat service! The River Thames, much underused today as a source of transportation, enables increases in both the efficiency and speed of parcel delivery. Electric vehicles load shipments onto the boat at a pier in the west of London, from which they are transported to another in the heart of the city. The last part of the route is completed via bicycle.

According to DHL, this unusual blend of transportation modes is not just cleaner but faster and more efficient than the more normal choices. Aside from London, DHL is exploring similar combinations of land and waterway use in places like Amsterdam and Venice. However, the best results to date have been recorded in London, especially in terms of transit time. The riverboat service is the latest addition to GoGreen, DHL’s group-wide environmental protection programme whose broader focus extends beyond deliveries in the Last Mile zone.

When in Rome… pick up the garbage

Whilst the DHL example shows advances in delivery times and efficiency, there are other ways in which logistics needs to make a contribution to city life. Our previous Last Mile article described a pan-European initiative called CITYLAB. This project focused on last-mile deliveries, not just in terms of effectivity but with regard to reducing urban waste, encouraging loaded return trips and increasing recycling efforts.

Poste Italiane

In Rome, the goal was to establish a circular recycling system.

In Rome, which was one of the seven ‘test labs’, the goal was to establish a circular recycling system. Waste would be picked up by Poste Italiane, the local postal service, with integration of direct and return flows. Waste management is not the only difficult challenge for this busy Italian city, so the aim of the pilot extended to minimising road congestion and emissions as well as enhancing recycling of urban waste. Its simple idea was that Poste Italiane should deliver mail and parcels using its electric vehicles and then collect recyclable waste on the return trip.

The project proved to be technically feasible and sustainable, with each of these round trips avoiding the emissions of a separate vehicle journey. At the same time, however, it was only applied on a small scale. For city-wide implementation, several further obstacles need to be overcome. In particular, it requires a network of many locations from which the recyclable waste can be easily collected. On a positive note, the temporary pilot scheme has resulted in a permanent organisation called TRElab which will try to roll out the project on the desired large scale.

Green technology

DHL’s GoGreen programme, mentioned earlier, aims to reduce all logistics-related emissions associated with the company’s activities. One way to achieve this is to develop and build upon new technologies. Good examples include standalone parcel pick-up machines, where customers can collect their online-ordered goods and even temperature-controlled groceries. These can be thought of as miniature automated warehouses with one exit/entry point. Located near to a convenience store, or in a shopping mall, they do not need to be manned. Their main advantage is that customers can pick up their orders 24/7.

The Last Mile remains a big challenge for logistics professionals. Large problems of congestion and pollution still need to be solved, while the race continues to deliver goods into cities in a more efficient and sustainable way. On the other hand, electric vehicles are becoming more common and we are seeing effective combinations of new, greener technologies. The dedication of logistics companies to such developments gives us great optimism for the future of urban distribution.