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Our Digital Life Part 1: Sustainable Delivery

Our Digital Life Part 1: Sustainable Delivery
Our Digital Life Part 1: Sustainable Delivery
October 14, 2022   //   

By Michael Bartz

Michael Bartz speaks with Dr. Anne Goodchild all about making urban freight more sustainable. Dr. Goodchild describes the journey your package takes from ordering to arriving, and what items are typically moving around a city. She stresses the importance of consolidated delivery, and what might erode this. Dr. Goodchild discusses some of her sustainable pilot projects focusing on the final 50 feet, including a locker program, and e-cargo bikes. She also shares some of her findings on drone delivery research. Anne talks about ways to make online ordering more sustainable, including delivery fees and slowing our consumption. Lastly, she offers advice on what you can do to have an impact.



Welcome to In Over My Head. I’m Michael Bartz. My guest today is Dr. Anne Goodchild. Dr. Goodchild leads the University of Washington’s academic and research efforts in the area of supply chain logistics and freight transportation and is the founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. She is an expert in international border and port operations and has worked at the forefront of GPS data applications. Dr. Goodchild is the author or co-author of more than a hundred research publications and has served as associate editor for the peer-reviewed scientific journal transportation letters. She has won several teaching and research awards and her work has contributed significantly to transportation engineering in the US and abroad. Welcome to in Over my head Dr. Goodchild.


It’s a pleasure to be here.


So when talking about our digital life, I started thinking about online shopping. The ability to have anything delivered to our door with a few clicks is an amazing achievement in modernity. I think we take for granted the complex network that’s involved in getting these items to us in a timely manner, like anything else that has an environmental impact. But I’m curious how this compares to a brick-and-mortar store and if efficiency improvements in urban freight could possibly make our online system more environmentally friendly than the alternative. I’m also wondering about how much reducing the impact comes down to personal spending habits. I think perhaps we can start with a very brief overview of the journey my package takes from the warehouse to my door. This probably depends on where it’s coming from, but on average, what does this look like?


Yeah, definitely depends on what you are buying and I would say primarily if that’s like a general consumable or consumer goods versus food. So a lot of what is delivered is food and that’s just a lot of what moves around is food because we consume it every day. And if you think about you know, just the sort of mass or volume of things that you consume, most of it is food. So food is pretty different. It tends to be more locally sourced than it generally has to be refrigerated, setting aside food from kind of packages, non-perishable items, which is the other main thing that people order and have delivered most of that material. So most, you know, retail consumer goods are coming from quite far away at just on average if we say the typical package. So it probably comes, you know, to your continent.


If you’re North America it’s probably come on a container ship, so on a big vessel and it’s unloaded at the port and then it probably hits three or four different distribution centers or warehouses before it’s on its sort of final journey to your home. And if you, you know, if you’ve ever looked at like the FedEx or UPS you know, tracking information historically or up until more recently, you know what you would see is it hitting each of those fixed locations. So it maybe arrives at a port, it goes to a distribution center near the port, it goes to another distribution center that’s probably serving your region or your mega-region and then it’s coming on another trip maybe to a local sorting station or local distribution center where it’s basically staged for final delivery. So it’s taking at least five legs but sometimes more than that from fixed locations to fix locations along this supply chain.


Okay, great. And I guess that’s a good point about food versus other items. I hadn’t thought about that And so I dunno if you know numbers offhand, but what sort of percentage is food versus other items that we’re shipping?


It depends a lot on the denominator. Like are you thinking of miles traveled or are you thinking hours in a vehicle or massive things moving? But if you look at a city about a third of the stuff moving around any day is food. So it’s not the majority but it’s a very significant portion. And then another third is typically construction. So I think people often overlook the significance of those movements in cities it’s fixing buildings as well as construction from nothing but services and construction is probably another third. And then sort of the remainder is general goods distribution.


Okay, that’s interesting. So two-thirds is not really to do with consumer spending habits but more things, well I guess food is that, but you said it was sourced more locally so maybe it’s less of an environmental impact.


Yeah and if you think about how we shop for food now in North America, it’s not particularly sustainable or efficient. Generally speaking, people get in their very large vehicle, two or 3000 pounds and they drive it to a store which might be three or four miles away. They buy a couple of bags of groceries and they drive home again. So the way we do it now isn’t particularly efficient from a CO2 or miles traveled perspective, but it’s the way we do it so we sort of take for granted that it’s normal.


Yeah and obviously during the pandemic people were ordering more food online and having it delivered to their house potentially. Would that be a more environmentally efficient way to go about it because we’re not driving to the store?


The answer to whether it is more environmentally sustainable or not is fuzzy. It really depends on your habits. Before you shopped online, did you ride your bike to the store? Did you walk to the store, did you drive, how far did you go? What kind of vehicle did you drive? And also how it’s delivered to you. So are you asking for one-hour delivery? Are you asking for 15 minute delivery of prepared food or are you getting a package that’s being delivered on a route where someone is making 50 or 60 other stops with that same vehicle? So it’s a little bit like transit I would say. So if the online purchase is delivered in a consolidated way, which is the sort of transit idea, if there’s a truck with many packages on it and someone’s planned that out pretty well, they’re trying to be efficient, that’s generally better for the environment than you taking yourself to the store.


But that isn’t the only way that goods are delivered online and increasingly it’s a smaller percentage of goods that are purchased online are delivered in that consolidated model cuz we’ve really moved towards very fast delivery, you know, one or two-hour or next day. And the more time pressure there is, the harder it is for the delivery company to sort of consolidate and plan and make really efficient route. And when we started looking at online shopping 15 years ago now the predominant delivery model was consolidated delivery. A carrier like ups, this business is making efficient routes. They have really high customer density so they’re able to make one tour of your neighborhood and deliver 50 or 60 things. So a very kind of consolidated, pretty efficient model. But increasingly, you know, and over the last 15 years, there’s really been a growth in much less consolidated delivery.


So sometimes it’s individual people, if you’re asking for a two-hour delivery that’s not coming to you in a truck, typically that’s a person waiting for a trip somewhere driving to go get your stuff, picking it up for you and driving it to your house. It’s not more efficient than you making the trip yourself. And in some ways it’s probably less efficient cuz there’s a third point where they were waiting so they’re making kind of a triangle. You would’ve made an out and back. Also sometimes instead of doing the trip yourself, people go and make other trips at the same time. So they’re getting their groceries delivered and they’re not staying home waiting for those deliveries. They’re maybe out doing another trip. Or maybe if typically if I’m doing my shopping, I’m pairing that with some other activity, I’m stopping at the store on the way home from somewhere else and a delivery driver isn’t being linked with any other trip.


There’s a lot of reasons we might erode that benefit. That sort of original idea of consolidated delivery is definitely a good thing for sustainability. But there’s a lot of models and a lot of growing models that aren’t following that model and so are less sustainable and adding trips and adding miles of travel to the network, it’s really all about consolidation And like by that it’s the same idea why we think a bus full of people. Okay, the individual bus is quite big and heavy and if nobody’s riding in it, it’s not helpful. But a full bus is a more sustainable mode than you know, one person in a car. You know you can find corner cases. Okay where that’s not true and maybe, you know, there’s some, there’s a range of benefit that you get depending on where the bus is going and who’s riding it.


As a principle, we’ve accepted that a relatively full bus is a sustainable travel option and you could defend that. So the same is true with goods, right? You have to be packing a bunch of stuff into a vehicle for it to be to gain efficiencies. If you’re delivering one package per car, it’s like a single occupancy vehicle trip, it’s not better. And if we’re adding those loads to the system, yeah we’re creating more CO2 and more miles traveled. And so if we want to use online shopping to improve sustainability, which I think we can, we do it already with things like garbage collection. So instead of each of us driving to the dump causing lots of extra trips and lots of extra co2, we all have our garbage collected by one truck and it’s a lot less traffic and it’s more cost-effective and it’s more CO2 efficient.


It is a solution that we can use to especially make city living more sustainable if it means that people don’t need to have cars if they can rely on delivery service, but it has to be consolidated. And so the things that erode that are many, many players in one market and people have commented, right? If the DHL guy comes down your street and the UPS guy and the FedEx guy like you know there’s this duplication that’s not great and then just this demand to do things very quickly erodes that benefit. So we should be thinking about how we influence that delivery system so that we get the upside, we get the sustainability benefit and we don’t just see a proliferation of trips and increasing carbon impact of that transport system.


And so talking about duplication and efficiencies, so you’ve done some research on how to improve these things. So tell me about some of the pilot projects you’ve been part of.


Yeah, so I would say our pilots have really focused on the very last piece of the supply chain. So you can look for efficiencies all the way from the last step, which is me getting my food or me getting my package up to the extraction of natural materials. But we’ve been focused on the very last piece, often called the last mile, but we have also coined the term the final 50 feet, even this part outside of the vehicle. How does a driver get your package from his truck into your apartment? So some of our pilots are very micro-scale or even outside of the vehicle movement. So we’ve been trying to create delivery density, just the same idea of consolidation but on the delivery side. So if a driver can deliver five packages to one place instead of five separate places, he can drive less far, spend less time, and produce less co2.


So delivery density is a good thing. And we’ve been testing lockers. So instead of going to five different homes, he delivers five packages to a locker. And that exists right to some extent in our communities already some modern neighborhoods, they don’t get postal delivery to their house, they have these boxes where they’re consolidated. That’s a cost-saving measure but also a CO2-saving measure from the post office. You know, Amazon has lockers that they’ve installed at some convenience stores, places that people might go so that they’d be in a convenient location. We tested a locker that was publicly accessible so near a transit station and serviceable by all carriers. So it wasn’t just an Amazon facility or a UPS facility or a FedEx facility, you could have anything delivered to that because we felt like that was an important convenience. You know, sometimes when you buy something online you don’t know who’s gonna deliver it to you so you wouldn’t know where the locker was and if that was convenient for you.


So with this one, you know, anyone can deliver it to it. So if you knew where it was and it was convenient for you, it would be a good option. The reason we wanted to try that was to measure customer acceptance for customers like that. Do they find it convenient? And also on the operations of the delivery company, does it take less time? Does it take more time and are there CO2 savings from the use of this block? So we were really doing a pilot, you know an empirical experiment. People have tried to estimate the theoretical benefit, but we did the first study that actually measured that out in the field. The results are very positive. There is a CO2 benefit from consolidation, there’s just a, you know, a resource benefit, right? Less truck time, less driver time, less co2. And some people find that convenient.


It’s not a solution that we’re suggesting everybody has to use, but for people that do find it useful, it’s a solution that if we could install them in cities, we would be able to reduce the CO2 footprint from last-mile delivery. We’ve also done some cargo bikes looking at whether we can we shift deliveries to less CO2-intensive modes. You know a delivery truck in a downtown won’t travel more than a few miles in the day they’re not using the truck cuz it can travel fast and it can go far. They’re using a truck cuz it’s mobile inventory and they sort of move it slowly from place to place. So we could do that differently, right? We could dump the inventory in a parking lot or in a building and then do small delivery from there. Walking even or using a cargo bike. The challenge typically is that the delivery company doesn’t have space to put that inventory out of the vehicle somewhere. So we’ve been looking at cities supporting that kind of activity, providing space where they could unload a truck, they would bring a truck in the morning, unload and then have walking or biking deliveries from there. We did that in Seattle last summer and evaluated benefits in terms of travel vehicles on the road and co2. So that’s another solution that we’ve been looking at for that very last mile.


Well, those are both really interesting solutions for sure. I guess we can kind of touch on both of them. Yeah, let’s start with the neighborhood hubs. Did you get any feedback from people who were using that system in the pilot project and their experience?


Yeah, we talked to people who used it and they were very positive, something like more than 85% but they were the people that were using it. I mean it’s good you could still have a negative impression from people that were using it but we weren’t talking to people that didn’t choose to use it. You know, our intent is not to say everyone has to do this. I think to provide a really accessible transport system. By that I mean a system that works for people, they feel like it’s convenient and cost-effective. We have to provide options for people because sometimes you have a baby that you need to take with you and that means that one option is hugely more convenient than another but maybe you’re young and you enjoy getting some exercise and so for you a more active mode is possible. So we need a lot of solutions and what the marketplace in our research and the market in general right now is trying to seek the right solutions for the right place or the right community.


Not everybody will use a locker. Some people are perfectly happy with door delivery but some people are not happy with the current options that they have and so they’re looking for other ways to collect goods that are more convenient, that are safer, that are more CO2 efficient. So there’s definitely a place for locker systems, there’s a lot of interest and a significant portion of consumers want to use it and it provides a CO2 benefit and a traffic benefit. So I think it’s definitely one of the solutions that you wanna incent, you wanna allow, you wanna encourage in a city just as part of a portfolio of things that you’re probably doing to try to improve sustainability.


Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to have those options for people who want to be able to go to the lockers or if they can’t, if they have mobility issues or something, and have it delivered. I’m curious about the e-cargo bikes as well. Did you find in that pilot project that it increased the efficiency and therefore the environmental impact?


This was a pilot, right? So we are comparing a brand new thing delivery by cargo bike to a well-oiled machine delivery by truck or van. So it’s not exactly a fair fight but even given that we found that we reduced CO2 emissions by a third. Cause you still have some because you still have to get, we’re trying to you know, use the same scope. So we’re still counting the emissions of the truck from the regional warehouse that gets it to the hub. So we’re not just counting from the hub. So we’re still able to reduce CO2 emissions, we reduce the number of vehicles on the road, which is kind of surprising cuz I think one of the ideas people have is, well if I’m replacing a truck with a bunch of bikes, there’s just gonna be a swarm of bikes needed to do the work that that one truck was doing, not the case.


You can replace one for one a bike and a truck, which is also very positive. So we’re not adding to traffic loads. Even if you were comparing trucks and bikes as the same thing, which they’re not really. And then yeah, we also had equivalence in terms of delivery time. So one of the things that the carriers are really concerned about is speed because customers want speed and it reflects their other resources, right? The faster you make a delivery, the less driver time, and the less vehicle time you need. So it’s cheaper to do something faster. And so in our pilot, the cargo bike was just as fast as the truck, which again, you know, I think that’s a very positive result. The expectation from some is that it’s gonna be slower. I would say the expectation maybe from the layperson is that it’s gonna be slower.


Our partners in this experiment were actually a little disappointed. They were expecting the bike to be faster and you know, I think it reflected the fact that we were doing a new pilot. There were some kinks that weren’t fully worked out. We were locking the bike every time. So there were ways, you know, that over time we would’ve improved the speed of delivery by bike. But it also does reflect local conditions. So the idea of why is a bike faster, a bike is faster because it can park more easily and in general the bike actually gets closer to the front door. So those depend on local traffic conditions. Is it a very congested place and if it’s not, there’s gonna be less benefit for the bike. Is there a benefit to getting closer to the door, sort of, you know, what the sidewalks or the access points look like?


So that’s also what we’re really trying to figure out right now or what the industry’s trying to figure out is like where are the places that using an electric cargo bike is gonna be an advantage. It’s not everywhere and like the locker, we don’t expect everything will be delivered from the manufacturing facility to your home by bike. But what are the right goods? What are the right conditions? And there are places where it’s absolutely an advantage. It will be less co2, less costly, faster, it’s a more appropriate mode for some places generally dense, you know, busy places.


Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to have those different options and I’m glad that you are doing that research and trying to get those options that are better both for the environment and for efficiency. One thing I was curious about, talking about options was one of your research papers was on drones delivering packages. What were your findings there?


So I was, I, I’ll tell you the whole story. The whole story is that I was kind of annoyed by people always asking me about drones because I try to be problem-driven in our research and not technology driven. I’m an engineer so I’ll take responsibility for the engineers. I think sometimes we come up with something like a, you know a really efficient battery and a really small little aircraft and then we’re like hey, who wants my cool thing? Where can I fit this into some system? Even though the system isn’t saying, hey, I’d really like a flying object to do this work for me. But people kept asking me about it and I also had this idea that flight is very energy intensive. If you look at traditional aviation, it takes a huge amount of energy to put something in the sky. So I was very skeptical about drones.


So we did some research and I was very surprised. I have to say that drones are actually really energy efficient and really can compete in certain parts of our transport system. They really can provide actually a quite cost-effective and energy-efficient delivery model that’s not in cities. But what you see is that drones are being used, they’re being adopted already in industries where it makes sense. I think many people have heard about the drones, they used to plant trees in terrain. That’s very hard to cover, right? It’s very slow and cumbersome to cover that terrain. It’s a huge advantage to be able to fly in a cost-effective way. And also I think people’s images always go to these very small drones but larger drones which we often associate with military activity, right? We do have larger drones that we’ve had for some time that technology can also be used for goods movement.


And one of the examples that I’ve thought of there is island communities for whom access to goods is quite slow and cumbersome. Now a truck drives onto a ferry, it waits for a ferry, you know, it comes twice a week and it goes back. It’s cost-effective and energy effective to say deliver a pallet of goods to that community twice a week. There are some places that are hard to get to, and are difficult to travel across where I think drone delivery actually does make sense. But the things that are like get your pizza delivered by drone or your burrito, that’s just attention seeking.


No, that’s a good point. And now I feel bad about asking you about the drones cause everyone kept asking you about it but…


But it’s a good story.


Yeah, no, no and it makes a lot of sense that again, using the right thing for the appropriate area, total sense drones would be part of that. Yeah. So this is really all super interesting. I’m wondering again on that personal side cuz this show is about empowering systems to take action on the climate crisis. So what can individuals do to make sure that we have these more environmentally sustainable options available for our online shopping?


Yeah, I mean first you have to say do you need to buy it? I think one of the things that really easy online shopping does is it encourages purchasing. You don’t have to go anywhere. It’s convenient. So I think it’s not just the way it’s delivered when it’s online, the barrier to purchasing is really low and people should be cognizant of that. Set some boundaries about when you do online shopping, don’t do it late at night and just still try to remember the sort of reduction, can you reuse something? Can you go without in terms of delivery, A delivery fee while not particularly appealing is actually something that as a policy would put downward pressure on people choosing delivery. We don’t pay the real cost of delivery now, especially with like Amazon who uses a subscription model and then offers you free delivery. You really, you know, you don’t feel the cost of each individual delivery.


And so that I think encourages the use of delivery and your kind of casual approach to getting something delivered. So I think actually paying for it is something and paying a fee or a tax is something that would reduce the amount of delivery and that would actually be an important step. Maybe it’s hard to ask yourself to pay for things, but it does have a big effect on demand. Other than that, I think it’s trying to go slow. So realizing that although it, you know, we can have one or two-hour delivery, it is more environmentally costly and if you can wait, you are helping by waiting.


Yeah, it’s an interesting point about free shipping versus paying. So when I order several items and they say that the shipping is free, is that the example that you’re talking about?


Well, the system still doesn’t work very well. Even when like with Amazon, when you ask the packages be consolidated, you might notice that they’re still not all the time. So you know, it’s an idea but doesn’t really happen in practice and none of these deliveries are free, right? You’re paying for that. They’re not losing money. It’s not free. It’s not free in any way. And we somehow have accepted that label, but none of these companies do this work at a loss. I mean they’re not paying for it for you, you’re just paying for it in a different way. But the way it’s presented and the way it affects your decision-making. And so if it looks like it doesn’t cost extra and you can’t opt out of this subscription fee, you’ve already paid that, then it affects consumer behavior. And so it’s not a positive thing in terms of the proliferation of delivery vehicles on the road and the amount of co2.


It’s a choice that the industry is making because they wanna encourage purchasing and it puts people in a position where they have to be more active about trying to reduce the amount of delivery that’s coming to them, which I don’t think we should rely on. And I mean people of course should think about the decisions that they make, but I think we also should be managing those costs with policy as well. And I think we’ll need to do all of those things in order to move in the right direction in terms of CO2 production and the climate.


Yeah, and that’s a good point cuz it’s sometimes difficult to limit your spending in certain ways. So I think that a larger idea is a valuable one. So who would they talk to to get those changes made at the institutional level or the business level? Is that a government policy or how does that happen?


Yeah, well I think that right now it’s from the political side and that’s policy making at the municipal level, state level, it’s pretty politically unpopular to add delivery fees. There is some discussion about it. There has been discussion of that in the city of Seattle currently the state of Colorado has implemented a delivery fee that retailers have to pay. And it’s maybe related to congestion, pricing, congestion, pricing’s different because the carrier is paying or the entity that’s traveling the Colorado laws actually charges the retailer, the person selling the goods. So I think where you live trying to listen to those conversations and express your own opinion about how this should be managed. I would say in general, online delivery has happened so quickly that at least the cities and even states or provinces are really kind of behind in terms of recognizing what’s happening and putting forward plans to try to influence or manage it.


It’s really largely happening at the city level because cities are having to deal with the direct effects of traffic and this activity in communities. So some cities are working to try to manage that. Montreal has been supporting bike delivery in a number of ways. The city of New York has some new programs to try to move delivery in a sustainable direction. Those are very new things. And so I think in general, managing create wasn’t something that we did a lot of on the policy side. So there’s a lack of data, there’s sort of a lack of understanding and that’s why there’s a need for research right now is we’re really trying to help make sure that there is good data, that people aren’t working on anecdotes and to support policy making. There are things happening in communities and I would encourage people to think about what that looks like in their community, to learn about it, to ask at the political level about what policies and programs might be being considered. I was in Edmonton some years ago talking about freight and someone said, Well, we just don’t get calls. Nobody calls the city to complain about freight or goods movement. They definitely call and complain, you know, about parking or about traffic. And so I think it makes a difference. Engaging yourself in that political process does make a difference and it’s the right time to do that.


Great. Yeah, this has been so educational, Dr. Goodchild, thanks so much for coming on the show.


It was a pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.


Well, that was my conversation with Dr. Goodchild. I learned so much about urban freight and how that system works. What stuck with me was having environmentally friendly options that work for people and then having that conversation that this is something we need to address and talk about it. Well, that’s all for me. I’m Michael Bartz. Here’s the feeling a little less even over our heads when it comes to saving the planet. We’ll see you again soon.