Reuters

Freight is crippling metro areas, but it's rarely part of city planning.

In the grand scheme of urban mobility, it's easy to lose track of commercial freight movement. Commuters are the primary source of traffic coming into and out of the city, and parking causes much of the street-to-street congestion within it. Fact is, says transport scholar Genevieve Giuliano of the University of Southern California, it's so easy to forget about freight that metropolitan areas have done so for years — at their own peril.

"Any of us who live in cities and metropolitan areas are very dependent on urban freight, because that's how all of the goods and services we purchase get here," says Giuliano. "It's fascinating to me that it's never been a part of city planning."

The consequence of this historical oversight is that handling cargo has become the "newest urban transportation problem," according to Giuliano. While cities have been places of trade and exchange for as long as they've existed, planners have only recently begun to give freight its due consideration. Even the new wave of smart growth strategies — with its emphasis on reduced road capacity as well as mixed-use development — has created some unintended complications for commercial movement.

"The more that you follow these types of strategies without thinking about how freight actually gets delivered, the more problems you're going to generate," Giuliano says.

Giuliano boils these problems down into three categories. The first is what she calls the "metro core" problem: essentially the congestion and double-parking that occurs in city centers when trucks aren't well-managed during the first and last mile of delivery. The second is the environmental impact of moving freight through the metro area. And the third is the hub dilemma — the additional layer of commercial traffic that accrues at international nodes like Los Angeles (for port shipping) or Chicago (for rail freight).

Recently Giuliano and some colleagues conducted an international survey of best practices in urban freight management. What they found, for the most part, was that cities outside the United States tend to be handling the problem best.

Paris, for instance, is way ahead of the curve when it comes to experimenting with potential solutions to freight congestion. The city's most ambitious program may be its model of consolidating shipments outside the metro area then shipping them into the city center for redistribution. The plan isn't perfect — for one thing, handling goods an extra time increases costs — but it does address the classic urban freight problem of partly full trucks taking up space on city roads. 

London, meanwhile, recently established a low-emissions zone in the metro area. The zone targeted the worst environmental offenders, including heavy diesel trucks, and the early results are at least a little encouraging. One new study found a measurable change in fleet quality as well as a small improvement in air quality.

At the same time, it's unclear whether some of these progressive international strategies would transfer well to the United States. Government-imposed ideas like low-emission zones or road pricing haven't been embraced by American cities to date. What's more, says Giuliano, interstate commerce is protected so strongly at the national level that localities would have a hard time imposing any freight regulations on their own.

For that reason, Giuliano believes the most promising approach to freight problems in U.S. cities will be pacts negotiated directly with companies and operators. So even though Los Angeles can't impose regulations on ocean vessels, its port has developed a program that rewards compliance with emissions reduction and clean vehicles. And even though other cities might not be able to require electric trucks in downtown areas, they could offer attractive loading zone accommodations as a form of enticement.

"As states we can't impose regulations because of protection, so the next best thing is to have these negotiations to see what we can accomplish by providing incentives," says Giuliano. "The models we see in Europe, they're always initiated by government, but essentially they're partnerships: 'We have a problem, let's figure out how we're going to solve it.' "

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