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What is urban logistics?

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In the next of a series of articles defining industry terms, SHD asks: What is urban logistics?

In his 2016 book The Geography of Transport Systems, the Canadian scholar Jean-Paul Rodrigue describes urban logistics as ‘the means over which freight distribution can take place in urban areas as well as the strategies that can improve its overall efficiency while mitigating congestion and environmental externalities.’

In layman’s terms, this translates in to building warehouse facilities close to their final delivery points while avoiding as much traffic congestion as possible.

The need for more logistics facilities within city centres (traditionally storage and distribution hubs have, of course, been sited out of town and near to the motorway networks) is being driven – like so many of the societal changes that the first world is currently wrestling with - by the rapid growth of online shopping.

Indeed, thanks mainly to the number of e-commerce deliveries that will be required to serve the needs of today and tomorrow’s online consumers, the total amount of urban kilometres travelled by distribution vehicles worldwide is expected to triple over the next three decades.

Unsurprisingly there is a good deal of concern that the growing number of delivery vehicles operating in cities and major conurbations will inevitably bring increased congestion, air pollution and noise, all of which will negatively impact upon the quality of life within built-up areas.

The ability to offer fast deliveries and easy returns can give online retailers a decisive competitive advantage and, with 67 per cent of the world’s population predicted to be living in cities and urban areas by 2050, more and more supply chain professionals are focussing their attention on innovative ways of improving the last mile delivery of goods.

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But with urban land set aside for industrial use very much at a premium, the pressure is on to make the maximum use of all available space at urban logistics sites. For example, in the UK, multi-storey warehouses are expected to become another ‘new normal’ across many urban landscapes, just as they already are in some congested Asian cities such as Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore.

Underground warehouses are also likely to emerge as a feature in urban sprawls where land is in short supply or where building restrictions prohibit the construction of what are invariably visually unappealing storage hubs.

Advances in technology might be able to solve some of the urban delivery challenges. For example, Amazon and others are known to be working on the development of UFOs (unmanned flying objects) for urban parcel deliveries. But consumer drone delivery is yet to have been tested on a large scale anywhere in the world, so it seems that delivery drones are still some way off.

In addition to drones, a number of other autonomous delivery solutions are at different stages of development, testing or rollout, such as autonomous vehicles (cars, vans and trucks), robots and droids. These solutions have the potential to revolutionise urban deliveries, but they still have many obstacles to overcome before they can be adopted in a big way. 

So, while technology is advancing at a rapid pace, for the time being at least, road vehicles will continue to be responsible for the overwhelming majority of urban deliveries.

The urban logistics focus may have shifted from business-to-business to business-to-consumer deliveries thanks to the e-commerce boom, but the needs of the wide variety of businesses that still operate within cities and rely on efficiency of their supply chains to meet the demands of their customers, cannot be overlooked.

In its report, Feeding London 2030, the UK Warehousing Association highlighted some of the issues arising from the need for more frequent daily drop-offs that are required to replenish the growing number of city-centre grocery retail stores.

UKWA’s report shows that, with the population of the UK’s cities growing at an unprecedented rate, an urban logistics crisis is looming which, if not addressed, will lead to a shortage of essential food supplies on the shelves of grocery retailers and other food outlets – far more serious than that currently being experienced in some areas.

“Things are stretched across London’s food and drink supply chains and current logistics thinking is no longer fit for purpose” warns the report’s lead author, Andrew Morgan.

He continues: “New trends in the way food and drink products are bought and consumed – added to the capital’s changing population profile and a transport infrastructure that is already creaking – are bringing significant challenges to food and drink manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, caterers and logistics companies.

“For too long the food and drink industry and its logistics partners have been overly reactive in their approach to meeting changing consumer demands and supplying food and drink that is both safe and delivered on time to London’s retail and food service outlets at an appropriate cost will become increasingly difficult.”

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