Evaluating possibilities for sustainable UK goods transport with Dr Kamran Mahroof

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Evaluating possibilities for sustainable UK goods transport with Dr Kamran Mahroof

With many parts of the world optimistic about the end of the pandemic being on the horizon, and COP 26 still on the minds of governments and big business, the drive to create sustainable supply chains is becoming increasingly more visible.

One of the many supply chain academics following this trend closely is Dr Kamran Mahroof, an Assistant Professor in Supply Chain Analytics at Bradford University. Dr Kamran himself is currently part of a local project aimed at creating a more sustainable food supply chain, and also writes on the subject on the university’s website.

After one of Dr Kamran recent pieces on new solutions for addressing the home delivery boom caught our eye, we sat down with the man himself to discuss the issues affecting the move towards zero-emission goods transport, as well as the myriad of sustainable solutions that are being proposed for the decarbonisation of long-haul and last-mile transport.

Thanks for speaking to us at Trans.INFO Dr Kamran. Many governments have ambitious targets when it comes to reducing carbon footprints in the logistics sector, as do many logistics companies themselves. That said, achieving these targets without there being any significant knock-on effect to the efficiency of operations is certainly easier than done. Who ultimately shoulders the burden of responsibility when it comes to meeting this goal – the public or private sector? And what is the key to ensuring the two can work together for the mutual good of the climate?

I think it’s always important for us to understand with any new changes who is going to be on the receiving end of them, and where more of the work needs to be put in.

I honestly think it is important to work together and have that mutual understanding. The question is, what does that look like?

There will always be reluctance from the private sector. To what extent should they shoulder the burden of responsibility of trying to reduce carbon emissions? I believe that from the public sector point of view, more support can be provided, either in the shape of financial incentives for the private sector to get involved, or providing infrastructure, training and support.

While governments have the ability to regulate industries, through enacting legislation, sometimes it’s about assisting the private sector in realising the benefits, so I think there’s always a balancing act here. Instead of measures being imposed, there has to be mutual decisions whereby public actors engage with the private sector and set realistic, achievable goals. Easier said than done, but it really is about longevity and persuading companies of the long term benefits –  things like new markets that could open up, or providing access and support towards the development of new innovations to reduce emissions.

I believe that’s where you will see the private sector being more geared towards building that low carbon climate resilient future. I always give the example of the circular economy with regards to this. When you talk to businesses about the concept of a circular economy, they often say “fine, it sounds very good conceptually, but what does it mean for us?” That’s when we need to talk up the value of the circular economy and how it has the potential to in fact  make organisations more profitable and sustainable. The value proposition is a key.

When it comes to the private sector, it often is the bottom line that matters. The role of the public sector is thus to support private companies and nurture them where possible – give those financial incentives to get them to understand and to learn the longer-term benefits of new initiatives. There is often a mindset thing at play here too. Often decisions are not supported with data and there’s more reluctance to change. 

So I think co-creation and mutual understanding is key. Meanwhile, when it is possible, government entities can provide a lending hand and support the private sector.

Sign for London ultra low emission zone (geograph 6183970)

One of the things that local governments in the UK have done is introduce low emission or clear air zones, particularly in large cities. These zones fine hauliers whose vehicles are older and thus more polluting. However, there are signs that this is resulting in hauliers without the resources to upgrade simply avoiding the clear air zones completely. That, in turn, restricts choice and can result in supply chain challenges for businesses within the zone. With this in mind, to what extent is it important for logistics businesses to receive state funding for fleet upgrades? 

The first thing you have to really understand is who is operating in the sector. Often some of the smaller players are overlooked – organisations who may not necessarily make up the majority of the transportation infrastructure. 

Let’s just cite this issue with Greater Manchester, which I was watching with quite some interest. It actually links back to the point I made earlier regarding the financial anxiety related to driving down emissions.

We’re not looking at those financial anxieties that businesses and organisations have. Yes, there has been some funding put forward, particularly in Manchester itself. Across Greater Manchester, the government has also provided funding and support. However, it’s not accessible to all.

What we’re seeing now reminds me of the issues we’ve faced across the HGV sector as a whole, including the fuel crisis that we had not so long ago. Many of these issues were down to a lack of government support – particularly when it comes to infrastructure. 

So It’s very important to understand who the players are in the sector and recognise that one size does not fit all. Therefore, you have to be flexible in your schemes and in your approach. Is engagement happening, if so, with who? 

Some organisations will have enough skills and resources to burden some of that cost for the greater good. There might even be a commercial benefit for them to show that they act in an ethical and green manner. 

On the other hand, when it comes to smaller companies, if you’re not going to invest in them and provide them with an open door, progress is going to be very difficult because you will get kickbacks. We’ve seen that in the HGV sector and we are still suffering from it. 

A similar parallel exists whereby there has been a lack of funding for people in the haulage sector to obtain licenses, a lack of schemes to support training, a lack of support for infrastructure and rest stop facilities.

Likewise, if we’re trying to bring in these clean air zones, how are you allowing small firms to make the upgrades they need? You simply can’t expect an organisation, especially smaller businesses to completely introduce a new fleet overnight, over a month or even over a number of years. There must be some subsidies and support from the government, that works for all types of businesses operating in this sector. 

Otherwise, we’re going to see more and more of these schemes with ambitious plans that are put on hold or subject to a public backlash.

Do you think there has to be a nationwide sustainable goods transport effort then? At the moment, we’ve got all these different zones, and businesses can apply for grants or loans within those zones, but there’s always going to be businesses that are on the fringes of these zones, and then the problem will just resurface?

Absolutely, we have to have wider and more universal approaches across the regions so as to ensure not only that all industry players are on board, but also for them to actively engage in the process. 

What we’ve seen in the Manchester case is exactly the opposite of that – they’re not willing to comply because of the anxiety that it brings.

Given the scale at which the UK and some other nations are set to turn towards electric vehicles, how confident are you about the country’s ambitious 2030 and 2040 COP targets being met?

It’s always been a challenge. I work quite closely on this at a local level at a sustainable transportation hub, where I represent our institution. We are looking at the challenge not just from an energy point of view, but also from an infrastructural one. 

From the government perspective, they are confident that the national grid will cope with the proposed plans. Some of these challenges will be mitigated through things like including smart charging approaches, which reduce the impact vehicle charging could have on the grid itself.

But, there is a need for us to look at innovative approaches, whilst also being realistic with the timeline and the progress made so far. 

The government has published some documentation recently to respond to a lot of the challenges people have mentioned, some of which concerned the infrastructure that is being developed. 

As I recall, around 500 new chargers on average are being added to the network on a monthly basis. Also, evidence shows that even when it comes to off-street parking, we’ll meet the vast majority of the charging needs.  

That said, I think there’s still a need for us to really carefully plan what this will all look like. We appear to be supporting infrastructure development, which is great, though there still needs to be more conversations around, for instance, what managing peak electricity demand actually looks like. 

When is the power demand likely to actually occur, will it be spread out throughout the day, or will there be a similar phenomenon to that of TV Pickup (where people in the UK all use appliances like kettles and refrigerators at the same time, during TV commercials), in this case, will we have EV Pickup? where people start plugging in their cars after returning from work commutes in the evening, at around, say 6pm? We should also consider to what extent we can be more creative in looking at how people charge their vehicles or the timings of charging the vehicles.

Moreover, there’s things we need to really be open about in terms of understanding the extent of the impact changes will have on consumer behavior, so as to find the best places for charging points.There’s not much clarity on this at present and it’s something that I personally feel needs to be highlighted. Ultimately, it’s the behaviour of everyday people that shapes how charging infrastructure is used.  Focus has also largely been on the impact of EV charging on the grid, based on residential charging, but we need to also factor in the effects of nonresidential charging. 

Photo © Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

What should theoretically come first? Should we have the charging infrastructure to encourage the use of e-vehicles, or should the construction of charging points be a response to the growing number of e-vehicles purchases?

I think there will always be a lack of confidence and some financial anxiety from the private sector if they suddenly see they need to invest and remodel manufacturing.

You can never be too prepared when it comes to infrastructure, – it just is so important. It’s not just a case of putting in place a system that works, but also exploring the adoption factors and the impact it has on consumers, as I referred to earlier. 

Although it doesn’t take much for big manufacturers to roll out new lines, thanks to the skills and the economies of scale that they have at their disposal, I think infrastructure gives additional confidence to the private sector.

For example, if we see an abundance of charging points at service stations, it will have an impact on our likelihood to upgrade in a confident manner. So I would always prioritize infrastructure for the confidence of both the private sector and consumers. Our convenience needs to be factored in as well.

How much of a role do you see things like solar-panels on trailer roofs and aerodynamically streamlined trucks having on the drive to lower emissions?

Such innovative approaches, are essential as it’s going to require a combination of all these different innovations to bring more systemic impact across the board. Though some of these methods might seem little, in the grand scheme of things, they play their part.

It is nonetheless important to capture data here and have an evidence based approach as well. I think we have to be careful not to just throw in everything under the guise of us trying to achieve net zero without the evidence base to support it.

Some concepts might be better in some contexts than others. Let us take solar panels, for instance, not always effective and require the right conditions. 

We can’t just rely on electric vehicles and some of the more radical approaches. We have to consider all these approaches and incremental changes to help with the wider systemic impact – provided the data and evidence supports it. If more people adopt these methods, we may possibly see a shift in consumption patterns, which may influence companies to respond to that, and also adopt more sustainable methods. So again, it all adds up. 

Another area you’ve touched on regarding sustainable goods transport is efficiencies brought about by the digitalisation of logistics processes. To what degree do you envisage small logistics companies being able to regularly share data so as to maximise the capacity per truck? Although this is already happening in numerous cases, it could arguably be more widespread.

Data is going to increasingly play a huge role, whether we like it or not. It provides us with transparency, which is pivotal from a logistical point of view, given the issues we have faced during the COVID pandemic.

The knock on effect COVID has had on the supply chain has exacerbated issues related to a lack of data or data being utilised incorrectly.

The more data you have, the more optimised in the field you can become. There will be challenges with that though, and some of the things that we’re working on at the moment is trying to understand data, interpret it and make actionable decisions from it. Otherwise, it’s just noise. Then you’re just collecting more and more data, which leads to what we refer to as analysis paralysis. 

So it’s about identifying what data sources we need, and how that can contribute towards driving down costs and being more productive. Here, It is nonetheless important to have the right skill sets in place; organisations need to start recruiting individuals in supply chain roles, such as supply chain analysts, who can interrogate the data. 

Secondly, when it comes to data, there’s always the concern of being too closely monitored. Organisations may not necessarily want that, while individuals, let’s say drivers or others involved in the movement of goods, may not want it either because performance suddenly comes under the spotlight with relative ease. 

However, we can address that by showing the benefits of data and how it could make their work easier by planning routes better. Sharing the data across the sector, if possible, would be even better, as it allows you to take collaborative decisions to overcome crisis situations and recover sooner. If you’re sharing data, you’ll be able to really maximize the benefits across the board. 

Data will continue to play a huge role – especially for smaller players in the logistic sector. It helps with better planning, which is key when you have limited resources, can lower costs and help you take ownership of your order-to-delivery processes.

Simply Collect parcel lockers

Photo © Maksym Kozlenko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to last mile deliveries, you’ve written about the idea that consumers may have to be willing to use collection points rather than home delivery. Do you therefore see parcel lockers as a workable solution for British consumers in this case?

Well, one thing we’ve got to be mindful of is that costs are often offset by the customer based on how the products get to them. 

If you imagine that we suddenly go from a traditional HGV to one with a longer trailer combination, you’re potentially putting 14 extra pallets on a single Decker, or even 28 on a double decker. So of course you’re raising productivity and lowering costs as there’s less drivers for one trip, and that cost can be offset to the customer. 

Now, if you are not delivering to the customer’s address, and you are asking the consumers to come to the depot, again, you’re reducing the costs associated with the last mile. So essentially, you’re not having to charge the consumer for coming to their door. 

Collection points can be seen as inconvenient, but if it allows for more to be delivered in one go, potentially shorter delivery lead-times and lower costs, that may be sufficient for us to get into our cars or onto our bicycles to pick up our parcels. So if you can transport an item to a point located in and around your locality, you’ve already reduced the cost at one end of the supply chain. It therefore really makes sense to factor collection points and ‘dark stores’  given the customer benefits and wider benefits to the wider transportation ecosystem. . 

Also, as I don’t have to actually pay more for that, I’m more than happy to drive down and pick an item up. So again, it comes back to showing the benefit, and why would the consumer be drawn to it. 

When it comes to the parcel lockers you mentioned, yes they make life easy for everyone involved – the consumer, the companies and those who are driving the vans. As supply chain is about interconnectivity across the board, when we add up all these elements together I really do see this becoming an increasingly popular approach. 

I recently wrote an opinion piece on the rise of dark stores and dark kitchens or ghost kitchens, and we found that during the pandemic, more and more stores have been reevaluating their retail space because of a lack of footfall. What they’ve simply done is they’ve rented out unused units as delivery and collection points. So I think this hybrid model will work so long as the wider infrastructure around it allows.

One of the more radical ideas we discussed prior to this interview was the idea of using underground infrastructure. Is this something that can ever realistically be viable given the cost?

It is certainly something that’s being talked about, and as you say, it certainly is radical. My take is that I think we need to do what we’re doing on top of the existing road network, rather than going under at this moment in time. That’s probably more realistic. 

Going under has its obvious benefits, but how soon do they outweigh the costs, is the real question. For instance, something as mammoth as having an underground rail network system for transporting goods would entail significant equipment, material and labour costs.

So although there is an opportunity to be explored here, it most definitely needs analysis. I think if we are better connected on the top of the road, there’s probably not even a need to go under. 

To be clear, what I mean by being better connected on top is having more optimised transportation routes, having better data sharing access points and having things such as “parcels as passengers’ utilising the rail networks during non-peak times and at night, offering reliable routes, minimising air pollution, and having well connected local hubs.

It would be preferable to work with our existing infrastructure, as there are many implications of going underground. Besides the fact it would cost billions of pounds, the benefits would probably only be seen in 20-30 years. 

So a solution such as this is very long term, and I think there’s still a lot that can be done through our existing rail networks and transportation systems. For now, that is probably for the long term future rather than being something immediate.

Finally, I understand that you are involved in a few supply chain projects at the moment with the university and on a local level. Could you tell a bit more about these projects? 

Of course, what COVID has shown is that relying on products that come from too far out of your network can have implications. So one of the things we’re doing at the moment more locally in Bradford is exploring a sustainable food system within the Bradford region itself. Bradford is quite unique in the fact it has a lot of green space and agricultural potential, and we have a diverse population, with a significant and diverse food specialism. So we are examining how we can achieve an equitable, sustainable and resilient local food self-reliance, to help overcome racial, economic, and other inequities in our local food system. Therefore, we need to establish what good looks like, and what the key building blocks are for supporting a resilient urban supply system.

Myself and colleagues are also working on several projects exploring smart farming and the feasibility of AI drones to promote cleaner agricultural production. One of our recently published studies, in which we used an interpretive structural modelling approach, found that unproductive labour and pesticide hazard were key challenges, which actually have an impact on the wider supply system itself.

We are also coming to an end with a project to understand factors which influence the adoption of AI drones amongst farmers too. The ultimate aim here is to understand the potential of AI drones, within emerging economies, where increasing agricultural productivity remains one of the major goals for such economies. So those are some of the immediate projects we’re working on here at Bradford with our international collaborators in Malaysia and agricultural producers out in Nigeria as well.

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