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UW joins businesses and SDOT in launching Urban Freight Lab

UW joins businesses and SDOT in launching Urban Freight Lab
UW joins businesses and SDOT in launching Urban Freight Lab
October 13, 2016   //   

By Lynn Porter

Anne Goodchild envisions a day when people are prohibited from parking their cars on downtown Seattle streets in order to make room for deliveries and pickups as e-commerce and the shared-economy grow. 

“I would suggest if you live in Belltown and you park on the street, your days are numbered,” said Goodchild. 

She heads the Urban Freight Lab, a new University of Washington research center that was announced yesterday. The lab will investigate high-impact, low-cost ways for businesses to deliver goods in urban settings, and try to help cities better manage the limited space along their streets. 

The lab will collaborate with the Seattle Department of Transportation and three founding business members — Costco, Nordstrom and UPS. The goal is to help get deliveries to urban customers quickly. 

More people in cities are getting things delivered — from consumer goods to restaurant meals — and the growth of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft is changing how people get around. 

The new lab will be part of the UW Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center, which Goodchild also heads. It will bring together transportation and urban planners with retailers, freight carriers, technology companies and real estate developers, UW said in a press release. Property managers and other tech firms are being encouraged to join. 

Initially, the lab will focus on the “final 50 feet” — or the last leg of a delivery. That leg starts when a delivery driver leaves a vehicle on a street or a loading bay, and ends when a package is dropped off in a residential lobby or commercial area. 

Students and researchers will map the existing freight infrastructure like private loading bays, because the city doesn’t have complete information about that, and document how deliveries now are managed in the real world. 

They’ll also test solutions — from strategies for managing curb space or alleys differently to centralized drop-off lockers — to see how they work in simulations and in real life. 

Eventually, the research team will develop an “Urban Freight Score” — similar to the Walk Score that rates walkability for pedestrians. It will measure the ability of trucks to access different locations around Seattle. 

Goodchild said tech will be part of the solution for cities in an increasingly urbanized America. 

In Seattle, you can buy an annual pass to park in commercial vehicle load zones, but this might not be the best way of pricing that valuable urban infrastructure, she said. Other approaches might be to charge more during busy times or make the zones available to a variety of uses, from transit to commercial vehicles. 

Sensors in the road or toll tags in commercial vehicles could help cities more efficiently value the space, she said. 

“As our cities grow, as congestion increases, the city wants to use the curb as efficiently as possible,” she said. “Coming up with that pricing scheme will not be easy.” 

A pilot program in New York City gave incentives to businesses that scheduled deliveries for off hours, she said, and other cities are exploring options. 

Goodchild has been researching freight transportation and logistics for 15 years. She is an Allan & Inger Osberg endowed associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. 

According to news reports, Seattle-based is planning to open at least one retail pick-up site in the city. Goodchild said such sites can be good for the retailer because they reduce their travel time and cut the number of failed deliveries. They can also be good for customers whose packages can’t be just left on a porch. 

But they are not necessarily better overall, she said, because they could increase congestion if customers drive to pick up packages. 

Other approaches, she said, might be a place where lots of companies deliver packages so customers can get goods from many sources, or sites that people can walk to easily. 

The boom in online deliveries is putting pressure on building owners to design loading and common areas that can handle more packages. 

Goodchild said developers of mixed-use and commercial buildings need to focus more on loading bays because some don’t have proper clearance for certain trucks or are difficult for trucks to enter. 

“You’d be surprised at how common it is to have a loading bay that is not used,” she said. 

In the press release, she said Seattle is a great location for the lab because it is both constrained and growing fast — and seeing profound changes in the way people buy what they need. The lab’s research also could apply to other cities around the country, UW said. 

In the release, Loren VandenBerghe, director of transportation at Nordstrom, said, “We have more than 300 Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack stores — many in dense urban settings with a range of delivery settings, including common docks and unique situations. We are always interested in ways to better support our stores so we can better serve our customers.” 

SDOT director Scott Kubly said in the release that “From the first mile to the last fifty feet, freight delivery is changing. For big trucks coming out of the Port of Seattle and small trucks delivering to people’s homes and businesses, this joint project will address the rapidly evolving world of freight movement.” 

The city contributed $285,000 to the lab.