Just as there has been a push for more climate-friendly passenger travel in recent years, that same push is building for freight travel. At the same time ecommerce is booming and goods delivery in cities is rising, sustainability has become a policy focus for city governments and a corporate priority for companies.
Why? Cities report being motivated to be responsive to residents, businesses, and the goals of elected leaders. Companies report being motivated by cost reduction, efficiency, branding and customer loyalty, and corporate responsibility.
For its part, Amazon in 2019 pledged to become a net-zero carbon business by 2040. In the wake of that pledge, Amazon financially supported this Urban Freight Lab research examining two key questions:
- What is the current state of sustainable urban freight planning in the United States?
- What are the challenges to achieving a sustainable urban freight system in the United States and Canada?
Because the research literature reveals that denser, more populous cities are the areas most impacted by climate change, we focused our analysis on the 58 cities representing the largest, densest, and fastest-growing cities in the U.S. found within the nation’s 25 largest, densest, and fastest-growing metro areas. Our population, growth, and density focus resulted in heavy concentration in California, Texas, and Florida and light representation in the Midwest.
Within those 58 cities, we reviewed 243 city planning documents related to transportation and conducted 25 interviews with public and private stakeholders. We intentionally sought out both the public and private sectors because actors in each are setting carbon-reduction goals and drafting plans and taking actions to address climate change in the urban freight space.
In our research, we found that:
- The overwhelming majority of cities currently have no plans to support sustainable urban freight. As of today, ten percent of the cities considered in this research have taken meaningful steps towards decarbonizing the sector.
- Supply chains are complex and the focus on urban supply chain sustainability is relatively new. This reality helps explain the myriad challenges to moving toward a sustainable urban freight system.
- For city governments, those challenges include a need to adapt existing tools and policy levers or create new ones, as well as a lack of resources and leadership to make an impact in the industry.
- For companies, those challenges include concerns about the time, cost, technology, and labor complexity such moves could require.
“Sustainability” can mean many things. In this research, we define sustainable urban freight as that which reduces carbon dioxide emissions, with their elimination—which we refer to as decarbonization—as the ultimate end goal. This definition represents just one environmental impact of urban freight and does not include, for example, noise pollution, NOx or SOx emissions, black carbon, or particulate matter.
We define urban freight as last-mile delivery within cities, including parcel deliveries made by companies like Amazon and UPS and wholesale deliveries made by companies like Costco and Pepsi. We do not include regional or drayage/port freight as those merely transit through cities and face distinct sustainability barriers.
Urban Freight Lab (2022). Mapping the Challenges to Sustainable Urban Freight.