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Movin’On Interview with Anne Goodchild of the Urban Freight Lab

Movin’On Interview with Anne Goodchild of the Urban Freight Lab
Movin’On Interview with Anne Goodchild of the Urban Freight Lab
October 16, 2020   //   

October 16, 2020 — Ahead of her appearance at the Movin’On Summit, Anne Goodchild – Civil & Environmental Engineering Professor, Director of the Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center at the University of Washington, and founder of the Urban Freight Lab – discussed freight logistics with our editorial team.

Please introduce the Urban Freight Lab, and the reason behind its inception.

“The Urban Freight Lab is a workgroup of key stakeholders in the urban freight transportation system. I developed the group to solve urban freight transportation challenges because I saw a need for partnerships and real collaboration that, as a researcher, I couldn’t access before. I saw a lot of research going on that was quite disconnected from practice and cities. That — not engaging early enough with partners to realize what the real obstacles to those implementations were — looked to me like wasted energy.”

Why are you now referring to the “final 50 feet” rather than the “last-mile” challenges? What is specific about that critical interval in transportation?

“Before we developed the Urban Freight Lab, the last mile was focused on vehicles. Great tools have been built to optimize routes and minimize travel time, but it’s been always vehicle-focused, and I saw the need to address the out-of-vehicle elements of urban delivery. In a lot of cases, the majority of the time and cost is spent outside of the vehicle. That is an understudied area, and a challenging one because you have competing uses of the infrastructure: this confluence of public space, private space, carriers and retailers. That is why we developed the community of the Urban Freight Lab, because you need many partners to really start to tackle the challenges in that final 50 feet.”

What are some imperatives to sustainably navigate the shift in customer behaviour to a dominantly online model?

“There are lots of examples where we take ideas and then start to call them solutions when they’re really just ideas. Because this change is happening so quickly, you see a lot of people jumping to solutions without data or empirical evidence. In order to build sustainable solutions, we need to make sure that we understand consumer behaviour, travel choice, and the supply chain decision-maker. Only when we do that can we develop robust solutions, and not grab onto concepts that only sound sustainable but lead to making mistakes.

“At the Urban Freight Lab, we are very data-driven. We use an industrial engineering approach, data collection, analysis and pilot tests of solutions. We are also very focused on collectively defining what the shared challenges are: agreeing to metrics together and participating in these pilots of solutions as a group.”

Your lab’s methodology, much like ours at the Movin’On LAB, implies an ecosystemic approach to problem-solving. How do you frame the mutually beneficial relationships you are trying to create with the different actors you are involving?

“The idea of engagement is present in most research. You have to build trust, which comes from long-term rather than project-specific engagement, so we aim to build partners that would persist beyond individual projects. We also want to have the right people around the table. Sometimes, when asking for a partner, you get government relations or policy staff. What we focus on is detailed transport behaviour, so we need engineers and operators in the room who understand that operation, and who also are senior enough in their organization to be decision-makers. We also don’t want to be only sharing information and discussing ideas. We want to do actual work together, so we meet quarterly and use these meetings to make decisions and move forward on data collection, review results from research, and define ongoing projects.”

What is the scope of action of the Urban Freight Lab?

“It’s challenging to have different stakeholders with their own cultures and values in the room, so one way that’s helped a lot with our ability to be actionable and concrete has been focusing on specifics. We identified two measurable goals which benefit everybody in our community: reducing dwell time and failed first deliveries.

“Dwell time is the amount of time that a vehicle sits idle. It implies poorly utilizing the vehicle and the city infrastructure, as well as the driver taking a lot of time to do the task needed. If we can reduce that, we see benefits for carriers, city dwellers and the city itself. Failed deliveries, on the other hand, are just waste — a trip taken with no result. They are frustrating for receivers of goods, costly for carriers, using public infrastructure and ultimately not achieving the goal.”

What blind spot or opportunity with digital applications have you identified that could help moving forward? 

“There are a lot of good ideas, and there seems to be some appetite for investing and working to develop them. A great challenge is the city’s role in all of it, and how they seem under-resourced in responding to the many offers they get to conduct free trials. We have been serving as something of an interface in that space. Every year, we run something called Tech Day, where we select and vet some tech firms that we think have some promising solutions and prepare an environment where those can be presented to the city in a fair way. We also bring in venture capital and topic experts.”

If an urban area is trying to solve a freight logistics problem, where should they start? What should they look at?

“It doesn’t have to be a tremendous effort. We have shared methodologies that are very cost-effective and focused. There has to be some investment in understanding local freight demand to make sure cities understand its dynamics before they decide to implement solutions. Consider occupancy studies, making sure you know who’s coming in and out of the city and how they behave, so that when you modify infrastructure or build policies, you make it sustainable. I see people making mistakes like just banning trucks, but there are approaches that would have more positive impacts. In a lot of ways, trucks are the most energy-efficient way, because the larger the vehicle, the lower the per-package energy cost.”

What are some of the most scalable solutions that other urban areas could apply?

“Solutions like common lockers, off-hours delivery and alternative modes like cargo bikes in dense urban areas could be an important part of a package of scalable approaches a city can use. Most solutions have to do with creating density. Energy-wise, it’s best to bring in a big truck at 4 am, drop it at a micro-hub, and get the truck back out of the city. Then, have a low-impact mode — maybe walking if it’s a very dense environment, or a bicycle if you have a little bit of a farther distance — to deliver locally. A city could provide a mobility hub that would be used by multiple carriers as that transfer point.”

What is inspiring you in mobility today?

“I have been excited about the idea of a transition away from parking gaining traction at a practical, on-the-ground level. There are a lot of cities where we see a lot of pressure to retain parking, but I feel like that’s changing. Maybe the idea has been present enough, maybe people are excited about automation and shared mobility, or maybe people see that we just don’t really have an alternative. There’s so much space that we could do so much with! We could really change the economics of cities in a positive direction if we didn’t have to store cars on such expensive real estate.”

What does human-centered mobility mean to you? And what does it look like?

“Often, when people think about freight, they don’t connect it to people. They think that freight is just moving stuff for businesses, but that’s not it at all. Freight is about letting people live in cities. The closer people get to becoming less car-dependant and walk, bike and use transit in more convenient and pleasurable ways, the more we need to serve them their stuff. Think about how important your coffee is in your day, or having a nice evening meal. They are part of what makes people’s days enjoyable. In order to provide people with convenient, high-quality produce, and to make cities a place where people can access those kinds of needs and desires, we need to do a better job at thinking about freight movement, and at integrating that into walkable human-scale neighborhoods. Getting these ideas of goods movement into city planning, urban planning, and in the heads of people building buildings, designing communities and building streets — that is where I want to play a role.”