Next-generation urban mobility: moving parcels

Strategy Director

While services like Uber and Amazon are hallmarks of our digital age, they were both conceived with a value proposition that prioritizes individual convenience and affordable value above all else. They aim to deliver a desirable product or service as cheaply and quickly as possible – pretty much the same business criteria that resulted in the McDonald’s menu. But fast and cheap is not always healthy.

This appeals to the individual consumer, for sure, but when multiplied by urban populations such as London or New York, it deals a serious hit to the circulatory health of the city – it’s the equivalent of living on a diet of quick fix ‘mobility Big Macs’.

Your convenience is choking us

While even Uber themselves admit that personal vehicles have contributed to the increased gridlock in our cities, there is no denying that delivery vehicles have increased toll on our roads and living environments as a result from the convenience of online shopping. With Amazon set to clear $258.22 billion in retail sales in the US alone in 2018, that’s a lot of smiley, brown boxes.

Add to this the supermarkets, eBay, meal kits, pet food etc. and you have highly inefficient, unilateral delivery systems, resulting in multiple vans clogging up city streets and parking spots, often parking some way back from the parcel’s destination.  In our own research, we met a London delivery van driver who had a 10 km route which took up to 12 hours to complete, thanks to the frequent stopping and hunting for parking. Add to this that his pedometer ticked an overage of 17 kms of walking a day with heavy parcels, and you realize there has to be a better way.

It’s a telling indicator that some of the big players in the courier industries don’t want to deal with city centers, with their lack of parking spaces and increasingly restrictive delivery hour restrictions. Instead, they are increasingly outsourcing their city center deliveries to smaller players that specialize in urban locations. In the Design Research world, we call this an excellent workaround – an indicator of how to design a more effective solution.

Working together to improve everyone’s experience

One approach is aggregation across certain providers. We currently have a heterogeneous flow of all these different vans – FedEx, UPS, Yodel, Hermes, private and business – all going down the same street. How can we make this more efficient? Are workarounds already happening in locations that have had no choice but to figure out this problem long before Amazon Prime?

Here we look to a more extreme environment for inspiration, cities like Amsterdam have geographic layouts that don’t bode well for the big UPS truck and so they have had to come up with alternatives to solve for this. Amsterdam has a consolidation center outside the city where all the delivery services have to bring their parcels together for consolidation before a specialist delivers them in the city center, an excellent indicator that aggregation – having multiple vendors meet at consolidation centers and hand off to more nimble urban solutions – relieves the pressures and anxiety, negative NPS scores, and employee frustration of inner-city deliveries.

Another key solution for parcel mobility is collaboration across multiple modalities. In Cambridge you have to use a bike – you cannot travel through certain parts of the city with a combustion vehicle and so specialized businesses utilizing cargo bikes have taken up the slack. This solution moves beyond offering multiple yet discrete modes of delivery (many companies have vans that do this and bikes that do that). In this new system, digital services connect a variety of modes within a singular, collaborative journey – cohesively linking vans with cyclists and walking couriers, to get parcels more nimbly through congested city streets.

Lets ladder these solutions up.

Awakening to a multi-modal future

Imagine van vehicles going from a consolidation center to node points within the city and those node points offloading to more nimble, city appropriate delivery modes, such as couriers on foot or cargo bikes. Not surprisingly, this end-to-end multi-modality approach could also apply in rural areas, where transport companies, including Amazon are experimenting with integrating drones into the delivery choice.

In London, we’ve already seen this modeling work in a digital simulation format. We’ve also spoken to van drivers and cycle couriers who see great benefits to this approach, namely, you let people/employees do what they enjoy doing most. Van drivers enjoy a better driving experience, alleviating their biggest headaches of hunting for parking followed by long stretches of walking from the van and back. They don’t want to be professional parkers – they want to move the goods from A to B.

On the other end of the equation, professional bike couriers love cycling – they would keep going even if you didn’t put on box on the back. This is part of their passion. What they don’t like doing is having to constantly pull over to figure out where every parcel is they have to pick up. By having them meet up with a van-driver, who can hand off a bundle of parcels at a time to be delivered, you are enabling them to do what they actually love about their job, which is navigating the city on two wheels.

What we’ve also found in our simulations is that a van can now do four times as many parcels in one shift, because it can now go back to the warehouse multiple times in one shift, after offloading its cargo to the cyclists to do the nimble work. Increased productivity, reduced congestion, worker satisfaction and reduced inner city emissions. We’re excited to see that some nimble startups as well as some of the major retailers – including Amazon – are starting to awaken to this multi-modal solution.

Addressing the consequence of convenience

Unfortunately, much of this congestion is a result of these innovative conveniences. It’s going to take a more considered approach than we’ve seen so far to design future mobility services that allow our cities to flourish and grow without becoming gridlocked by all the cabs, cars and vans delivering the instant gratification of “smart” mobility services.

It’s clear that the next-generation approach to mobility will have to take into consideration an additional variable beyond personal convenience – city health – to achieve both micro- and macro-level success. For our cities to flourish, we’ll need to design thoughtfully to avoid becoming gridlocked by all the vehicles delivering the instant gratification of “smart” mobility services. Matched with parcel mobility, we also need to meaningfully craft solutions that solve our personal mobility (moving people on-demand). 

To explore how we propose tackling this dilemma, read part one in our next-generation urban mobility series: moving people.