The Search for a Better Delivery Truck System for Old, Narrow European Streets

EU ideas for reducing road freight-related congestion.

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European cities may have an international reputation for getting people out of cars and onto to buses and bikes, but many urban areas here still suffer from a semi-permanent congestion headache.

According to the most recent report from the TomTom Congestion Index, plenty of European cities have road traffic delays that equal or even surpass those in the United States. Warsaw, Marseille, and Palermo all have congestion worse than America’s worst offender, Los Angeles, while Paris, Rome, and Stuttgart hover at around the same level. Admittedly, the worst cases, Moscow and Istanbul, aren’t EU members, but even within the union’s borders many city roads are routinely clogged. The consequences of this systematic congestion aren't all negative – bottlenecks can ultimately cut pollution by encouraging drivers onto public transit. Still, the EU has been looking hard at ways to clear city center roads of traffic, and of trucks in particular. Some of the ideas they’ve come up with are pretty great.

City Move, an EU-funded project, has been working on new ideas for road freight. In historic European cities where shops are often in densely packed old streets, delivery trucks can be even more of a headache than elsewhere. To clear streets of peak-hour trucks and make delivery swifter, City Move has developed a new container system that blends design features from both container shipping and post office boxes. They call this system, successfully piloted in Lyon last year, the Bentobox, presumably because its different compartments resemble a Japanese lunchbox. The Bentobox is effectively a large cart into which any number of different-sized storage containers can be slotted. A set of these boxes can be wheeled easily up a ramp into a truck, speeding up loading times.

The boxes are then shipped to small downtown storage facilities, where customers can pick up their goods when it suits them, opening their allotted container with a password, pre-delivered by SMS, that is entered at a touchscreen docking station. The password system means recipients no longer need to be on-site for their delivery at a fixed time. The concept’s obvious limitation is that it requires a small downtown depot space to function, making it perhaps better suited to city center malls that have off-street loading bays already set aside. As a way of both taking stress off roads at peak hours and getting more flexibility into the delivery chain, however, it certainly makes sense.

The BentoBox pilot program in Lyon, France, courtesy City Move and City Log.

City Move's other bright idea also involves a mini-depot and a vague conceptual connection to food service. The Freightbus scheme scraps the typical truck chassis – effectively an old school warehouse on wheels – and strips it down to a container ship-like hulk onto which three large units can be quickly bolted. The truck then acts as a bus boy between a central distribution station and a much smaller depot near (but not in) a city’s core. The truck dumps its units at this depot, where they are slotted on to three smaller vans for onward delivery, a process detailed in this animation.

The FreightBus pilot program in Lyon, courtesy City Move and City Log.

This simple reduction in size can make delivery cleaner, faster and less intrusive. Getting these ideas beyond pilot stage will be a slower process than developing them – they require investment in vehicles and depots and a logistical rethink. As a way of adapting to city streets rather than blasting them out of trucks way, however, they show some smart, feasible ways forward.

Top image: A narrow street in Rome, Italy (Henryk Sadura /Shutterstock.com)

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