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Can Common Carrier Locker Systems Solve Urban Freight Challenges?

Can Common Carrier Locker Systems Solve Urban Freight Challenges?
Can Common Carrier Locker Systems Solve Urban Freight Challenges?
October 25, 2018   //   

By Alexander Laska

With the growth of e-commerce, U.S. cities are seeing more truck traffic than ever. As more of these trucks crowd city streets and compete with one another and with on-demand mobility services for parking space, cities are looking for solutions to reduce freight-caused congestion and boost turnover at commercial load/unload zones. Among many possible solutions, one—common carrier locker systems—seems poised to emerge as a tested and proven favorite.

Earlier this month, the Department of Energy awarded a $1.5 million grant to Seattle-based Urban Freight Lab (UFL), a project of the University of Washington’s Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center, to pilot test three innovations that could reduce congestion caused by commercial vehicles and make commercial load/unload zones more productive. One of the three involves placing common carrier locker systems (CCLS) near commercial load/unload zones and transit stops.

The idea behind CCLS is to create density that will allow carriers to leave packages in one secure, accessible area. With a locker system, deliverer and recipient do not need to be at the same place at the same time, thereby reducing the number of failed deliveries (and resulting repeat trips). And because the truck driver can leave every package in one place rather than having to go “floor to floor, door to door,” time spent inside the building decreases dramatically, thereby boosting turnover at the load/unload zone.

Indeed, a 2015 study in Poland found that installing lockers in prime locations decreased total truck miles traveled by more than half and increased the number of parcels delivered ten-fold.

But CCLS is still very new in the U.S. Companies like Amazon and UPS have their own branded locker systems, and Amazon introduced common carrier system Amazon Hub in 2017, but there was concern that a branded CCLS would give the host access to personal or proprietary data. To date, there is no CCLS on public property in the U.S.

The Urban Freight Lab is looking to change that. This Spring they piloted a CCLS at the Seattle Municipal Tower, the first demonstration of a CCLS in a public space in the country. The pilot was limited—UFL collected data on deliveries in the building for 10 days before installing the lockers, then for 10 days after, and the pilot only had 36 participants—but their “demonstration of concept” found that the lockers reduced the time truck drivers spent in the tower by 78 percent, from 27 minutes down to 5.6 minutes, and reduced failed deliveries to zero.

(UFL presented these findings as part of a larger discussion about urban freight challenges on an Eno webinar this August; watch the recording here.)

UFL is eyeing a longer pilot at the Tower to collect data on seasonal usage patterns, recruit more participants, and site lockers next to the commercial load/unload zone to further reduce delivery time. They also recommend these programs ensure enough space for expansion (more participants will, of course, require more locker space), establish a time limit for keeping packages in the lockers before they are returned to sender, and integrate the locker system into carriers’ logistics platforms.

In addition, UFL has identified five potential sites at three Link light rail stations to place CCLS so that people can pick up their packages on their way home. At the time that they announced that research, they had no plans to pursue locker systems there due to lack of funding; the DOE grant likely changes that.

Limitations of CCLS

While the pilot found that CCLS can achieve UFL’s twin goals of reducing the number of truck trips caused by the rapid growth of e-commerce and making urban truck parking space more productive, it also identified some potential limitations. For example, five of the seven failed deliveries they identified before the lockers were installed were packages sent to the wrong address, which a locker would not solve (and indeed, a package left in a locker for someone not expecting a package there could linger and take up space indefinitely unless time limits are implemented).

In addition, 60 percent of the parcels delivered after the lockers were installed were oversized (such as pallets of water cooler refill bottles), so many of them would not have fit in the locker.

Moreover, 82 percent of the trucks found in the Tower loading bay over the 20-day data collection period were not there for parcel pick-ups or deliveries, but rather for construction, furniture delivery, repair services, etc. UFL’s interest in boosting turnover at commercial load/unload zones will only go so far if they only target parcel delivery trucks.

Lastly, UFL found that advance marketing is needed, both to make potential participants aware of the opportunity and also to ensure they participate right: in the case of the Tower, the building assigned the lockers a special suite number, and so participants need to make sure they put the right address in at checkout.

Still, there is reason to believe that, if made aware of the opportunity, people would want to give it a try: UFL surveyed Link riders and found that 67 percent would use a common carrier locker at the University of Washington station, and 40 percent would use them at the Capitol Hill and Westlake stations. Of those who would, the vast majority at each said they would do so for security, rather than for convenience or reliability. (A 2016 survey found that 75 percent of Americans are concerned about porch piracy, and 45 percent reported having had a package stolen or know someone who has.)

Other Possible Solutions Abound

While the CCLS showed promise, there are many other solutions cities can consider to reduce truck trips. Also in UFL’s grant award is money to install occupancy sensors in load/unload spaces in a portion of City Center. This will be accompanied by a prototype app to inform truck dispatchers and drivers if a specific space near their destination is available, and if not when the occupied space might become available. UFL found when it GIS mapped every load/unload space in Seattle’s City Center (both privately-owned docks and bays, and public alleys) that over 90 percent of Center City alleys are only one-lane wide, which means only one or two vehicles can use it at a time.

This app could potentially help drivers arrive at their destinations when space is available to them, reducing the need to park in an unauthorized location—as currently over 40 percent of commercial vehicles do.

There are other logistical solutions as well, including incentivizing trucking companies and businesses to shift deliveries to overnight or off-peak hours. That could similarly reduce the number of trucks vying for parking space at once.

And then there are solutions that eliminate the truck entirely. Some carriers, particularly in Europe, are piloting the use of e-cargobikes, which they have found reduce both transit time between destinations and load/unload time at the destination. (Back in Seattle, UPS announced Thursday it will pilot-test using e-bikes for deliveries in downtown Seattle for one year.) However, they have also found resistance to them, particularly among cyclists with whom they must share the bike infrastructure. There are also startups looking toward delivery robots and drones as the next big thing in last-mile delivery.

Common carrier locker systems like the one piloted at Seattle Municipal Tower have shown promise in their ability to reduce both the amount of time a delivery truck spends in a parking space and the amount of repeat trips it must make. Potential users also seem interested in making use of them when made aware of the opportunity. However, more extensive piloting could provide clarity on how successful these systems are over a longer period of time and with more users.