Discussing future last mile sustainability outcomes with University of Groningen researcher Paul Plazier

Discussing future last mile sustainability outcomes with University of Groningen researcher Paul Plazier

A recent UlaaDS (Urban Logistics as an on-Demand Service) report, funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, presents six scenarios for last-mile logistics in the year 2035 and identifies key themes policy makers should consider in addressing the uncertain future of last-mile logistics.

Among those involved in the research was Paul Plazier, who holds a postdoctoral research position with the transport geography-chair at University of Groningen and works as a sustainable mobility consultant at MuConsult.

With last mile operators’ sustainability plans increasingly coming under the spotlight, we sat down with Paul to discuss the findings of the report, including the roles of the public and private sectors, as well as the importance of city authorities and data sharing.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us at Trans.INFO. What factors do you think will determine the kind of future scenario we have in last mile urban logistics? The report envisages 2 successful scenarios with varying degrees of contributions from the public and private sectors. 

We studied different “driving forces” shaping the future of last-mile logistics, such as the level of involvement of local authorities and types of policies, the level of cooperation between logistics stakeholders, and the level of innovation by the sector.

We see that in two out of the six scenarios, the transition to sustainable last-mile logistics is successfully made. In one, the public and private sector parties are equally invested in realizing this transition. In the other, the whole transition is led top down by local government, for instance with stricter regulation of the last mile logistics sphere.

The common feature in those two scenarios is that local authorities really have stepped up their game and have become way more active than they are now when it comes to providing a level playing field in order for the last-mile domain to operate in a sustainable manner.

They have done this by engaging more actively with stakeholders for example. They understand what logistics stakeholders’ needs are, what their worries are and what they need to do in order to get through this transition. And they have set a clear vision, formulated policies, and have communicated this clearly in order to create a level playing field.

Interestingly, we find that private parties, such as the logistics operators, are also looking to local authorities to create this level playing field. According to them, local authorities are in a position to oversee the playing field. They guard societal values, and also have the interests of their citizens at heart.

But it also means that there is still a lot of work to be done on their behalf. It means freeing up capacity in policymaking, actively engaging in the network and learning about logistics as well, because we see some of these authorities have very little manpower available to work on these issues. Local authorities need to become logistics experts to be full conversation partners, to be able to converse with professionals. The three cities that we studied in this project have started this process, but many other cities have yet to do so.

When it comes to decarbonisation in last mile logistics, who ought to take the lead – the public sector or the private sector? 

In the two scenarios where the sustainability transition is achieved, we can see high levels of activity both in the public and private sector. But some scenarios tell another story: in one of them, we see high levels of public sector initiative but a rather lethargic private sector. Here, low levels of innovation prevent the sustainability transition from coming into full effect.

In another scenario, we see high levels innovation by the private sector but lack of involvement by local authorities. As a result, logistics operators’ business models are optimized individually, but the lack of government-induced cooperation again prevents a full transition to more sustainable last-mile logistics.

Our study does not state the likelihood of these scenarios coming into being. But what it tell us is that a transition to more sustainable logistics can only take place if public and private actors are equally invested in this transition and both do their part.

For instance, this means local authorities setting a vision, regulatory framework and defining the requirements to the system. Buth then logistics operators then have to come through as well, to realize sustainable operations and logistics management practices on the ground.

The report also refers to the cities of Bremen, Groningen and Mechelen as being “front-runners in transitioning towards sustainable urban logistics”. Why is this the case and what can other cities learn from the experience of these 3 locations?

The three cities share similarities in terms of their policy track records. They have a history of progressive policy making when it comes to sustainable transport. Bremen implemented a sustainable traffic plan in 2014, while Groningen in the Netherlands has a long history of accommodating active modes. It is one of the cities with the highest levels of cycling in the world. Mechelen has a similar set-up with car free and low-emission zones in the city centre.

This shows that these 3 cities have been dealing with the subject of sustainable mobility for a while now. On top of that, in recent years, they have been concentrating on sustainable urban logistics plans as an extension to mobility plans. Via this process they are actively trying to engage in a stakeholder network of logistics players in their respective cities. They are also trying to come up with policies to better regulate and facilitate last mile logistics in their cities.

In terms of translatability of the study’s findings, I think it’s interesting to point out that the three cities show very similar features. First of all, they’re all mid-sized cities in their respective countries, they are similar in terms of population density, urban area, and structure. Moreover, they are all 3 historic cities with very clear and confined historic inner city centres where challenges in last mile logistics really come together in a very constrained space. This is why it is interesting to study these cities, as they stand model and can compare to many other European cities.

Finally, the 3 cities also have a track record when it comes to European research projects. They’re all involved in UlaaDS now, and they have all been involved in other projects prior to this as well, where they have been experimenting with solutions with a logistics consortium.

This shows that they’re keen to learn from each other and look past their own city and country boundaries to see whether there are solutions elsewhere that might fit into their cities. So this is the reason why we could refer to these three cities as last mile logistics front runners.

Another key takeaway from the report was the importance of local authorities and city councils. Why are they so pivotal here, could legislation regarding sustainable last mile operations not be implemented at a national level? 

In this study, we specifically looked at the action that can be undertaken by local authorities. So admittedly, the study results are biased towards actions that can be taken at the local level.

I think however that the reason local authorities are so important is, as we mentioned earlier, that last mile logistics is highly context specific and context sensitive. The state of logistics really differs from place to place – and as a result, specific policies and measures that might be taken in one place might not automatically work in another.

City authorities know their local stakeholders, get feedback from their citizens with regards to what they would like to happen to these cities. They’re aware of the issues that are at play in their respective space, and are most capable of balancing between all these different needs and interests.

Having said that, there is definitely a role for national governments here. We do hear back from respondents that some decisions might be more appropriately taken at a national government level.

An important example that we got back from respondents, for instance, concerns regulation of autonomous driving. Cities might want to experiment with this, but are awaiting verdict from the national government as this issue pertains to national traffic safety laws.

And then there is the issue of alignment of actions between cities. We hear back from logistics operators that in some cases, they would like to see decisions being taken across cities in a generalized way. It would be very hard for logistics operators to work in different cities with different requirements and consequently have to come up with solutions that vary greatly between different cities

So, in that sense, I think some level of alignment at the national level makes sense. In the Netherlands, for instance, a large group of city authorities and private parties have agreed to realize zero-emission logistics zones in 2025. The implementation is largely up to the respective cities, but through such an approach, cities engage with each other and share best practices, and are more likely to end up implementing similar policies.

How much is data sharing likely to be key in the drive towards a sustainable last mile, and what are the barriers to more data sharing taking place? 

Data sharing, according to our study, is very important to this transition for a number of reasons. It is obviously important to assess whether the logistics system is making progress on sustainability goals and whether policies need to be reformulated. This can be supported by data sharing between private parties and public authorities, whose task it is to monitor such progress.

But more fundamentally, respondents mention that data is important in the cooperation between stakeholders. For instance, it provides the insights needed to gear up consolidation levels, increase truck loading efficiency and streamline operations such as cross-docking parcels in logistics hubs.

However, respondents indicate that there are very important barriers that have yet to be overcome. In this day and age, data is money. Private companies are not willing to let go of data, as customer and operations data is crucial to gain a competitive edge.

Furthermore, because of the rapid developments in ICTs, it is also very hard to judge whether data that is considered safe to share today, such anonymized and aggregated data, will also be safe to share tomorrow. New techniques to extract new information from that data could emerge, thus suddenly making this data valuable to competitors.

Going back to the exchange of data between logistics operators and local authorities – operators are sometimes not sure whether their data is in safe hands with local authorities, for fear of hacks or data breaches. More so, local authorities themselves sometimes feel that they’re not capable of handling the data safely. In that sense, handling and sharing data is also very much an issue of trust. As long as the government really doesn’t trust itself with it, I doubt that private operators will trust their data in the hands of local authorities.

Across scenarios, however, participants agree that data exchange is needed to set up smart city management systems, such as intelligent congestion charging and flexible time windows. These are crucial to realize the sustainability transition. But again, there is a there is a lot of learning to do among local authorities on how to work with this data, to get the most out of it while handling it securely.

A Last Mile Sustainability report I recently read expressed concern about the extent to which they felt a number of major operators were 'greenwashing’. Do you feel this is representative of the status quo, and if so, what can be done to get companies to raise their game? 

That’s an interesting question, it’s difficult to generalise and I can only relate back to my experiences. And I see that within this UlaaDS consortium we have partners who are genuinely trying to work out ways in which to make their operations more sustainable.

A main conclusion from our report is that the sustainability transition may be compromised by private stakeholders who have to trade-off a sustainability alternative to their primary interests. In other words, their primary interest to apply innovations is to adapt to changing customer preferences and to maintain competitive advantages, but not to maximise sustainability potential.

As long as that is the case, it might be very hard to realize more sustainable modes of operation. However, I also see positives. What I see in this ULaaDS consortium is that both public and private parties are highly motivated to realize more sustainable modes of operation as they realize that the status quo is untenable. But last mile logistics is highly complex and there is not one uniform model for what works and what doesn’t. One way for them to deal with this is to engage joint fact finding: work together to conduct state of the art research, to set up and learn from experiments, and upscale successful ones into working solutions.

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