CityFixer

Fixing a Secret Cause of Urban Traffic

Delivery trucks are responsible for a big chunk of the congestion we experience. Here are some ideas for getting them off the road.

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Package trucks—those familiar parcel delivery vehicles that double-park on your block—have become an international target of commuter ire.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, a significant amount of city gridlock can be attributed to restrictions on freight movement, like a lack of space for trucks in cities. By one estimate, 947,000 hours of vehicle delay annually can be attributed to delivery trucks parked curbside in downtown areas.

And it's only getting worse. Many cities are tightening laws that restrict the operation of large vehicles. At the same time, the rise of internet shopping has made courier services more important to urban commerce than ever. Analysts at IBISWorld Inc., an independent source of industry research, expect internet shopping to be the driving force of growth in the $188.5 billion global courier and delivery sector, which was hit hard by the recession and by high gas prices in 2008.

But cities are taking action. Over the last couple of years, urbanists have dreamed up a handful of new parcel delivery strategies. A number got a field test in Europe last year as part of CITYLOG, a project funded by the European Union to evaluate fresh ideas in urban transport.

Courtesy of CITYLOG

One of these new strategies, the BentoBox, works by shifting delivery truck activity away from peak driving hours. If congestion reduction is the goal, the ideal time to deliver packages would be late at night—but customers won’t likely be smiling when they answer the door. Named after a single-serving Japanese takeout tray, the BentoBox is a storage locker that can be loaded with parcels and then dropped off at a local docking station after hours. Customers in the area can access one of six subdivided units with a key the following morning.

Researchers say the BentoBox could be particularly effective in residential districts, shopping malls, and central squares surrounded by offices. During tests in Turin, Italy, last year, one of CITYLOG’s commercial partners, Netherlands-based courier service TNT Express, found that the BentoBox system resulted in:

Fewer heavy weight vehicles in downtown areas during rush hour, less pollution and noise in city centres, and more flexibility for customers—all of which contribute to better logistics for shopping centres and delivery zones.

TNT Express has its own program aimed at piloting urban delivery solutions. In Brussels, where the courier company delivers about 1300 parcels per week, three-quarters of those deliveries are already made using pedal-assisted electric tricycles. These small vehicles are more environmentally sound than large trucks and vans, and much less disruptive to traffic patterns when parked.

Images via TNT

TNT is modeling a new distribution model for Brussels that it calls the "mobile depot." In this system, which works similarly to the BentoBox, a trailer containing a large number of parcels is towed to a central location in the city during off hours. Parcels are delivered by last-mile drivers in small electric or human-powered vehicles. If a few of these mobile depots could be dropped in strategic locations around the city, package trucks, which currently use surface streets and highways en route to distribution hubs located outside the city, could be eliminated.

Some of the less visible delivery strategies being tested rely on telematics systems—tools at the nexus of communications and navigation tech. "Route optimization" is a term of art in the transportation logistics sector that describes the use telematics systems to make deliveries as seamless as possible.

CITYLOG researchers conceived of a three-tiered telematics solution to optimize delivery routes. First, a pre-trip planning application maps the most traffic-friendly sequence for drivers to deliver their packages. On the road, a dynamic navigation application keeps the route up-to-date, altering it as necessary to reflect real-time changes in traffic conditions. A last-mile parcel tracking system then automatically sends customers a text message to inform them of imminent delivery. The idea is to have customers meet couriers at the door, minimizing the time that a truck has to be double-parked at the curb.

Whether couriers will soon be looking at stopwatches while you sign for your packages remains to be seen.

About the Author

  • Greg Nichols is a journalist and author living in Oakland, California. His first book, STRIKING GRIDIRON, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books (an imprint of St. Martin's Press) in fall 2014. Receiving packages from UPS is by far the most exciting part of his day.