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Seeking Equity and Justice in Urban Freight: Where to Look?

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Publication: Transport Reviews
Publication Date: 2023

What do equity and social justice mean for urban freight planning and management? New Urban Freight Lab paper reviews transportation and mobility justice theory and finds that urban freight issues are absent from these discussions, which primarily concern passenger and personal mobility. When urban freight is considered, authors usually discuss topics such as emissions, pollution, congestion, noise, and collisions. This paper looks more in-depth at urban freight justice, including access to essential goods, community governance, employment opportunities and barriers, and regional and global perspectives.

Urban freight systems embed and reflect spatial inequities in cities and imbalanced power structures within transport decision-making. These concerns are principal domains of “transportation justice” (TJ) and “mobility justice” (MJ) scholarship that have emerged in the past decade. However, little research exists situating urban freight within these prevailing frameworks, which leaves urban freight research on socio-environmental equity and justice ill-defined, especially compared to passenger or personal mobility discussions. Through the lens that derives from TJ and MJ’s critical dialogue, this study synthesizes urban freight literature’s engagement with equity and justice.

Namely, the review evaluates:

  • How do researchers identify equitable distributions of urban freight’s costs and benefits?
  • At what scale do researchers evaluate urban freight inequities?
  • And who does research consider entitled to urban freight equity and how are they involved in urban freight governance?

The findings help inform researchers who seek to reimagine urban freight management strategies within broader equity and justice discourse.

Decades-long growth in urbanization and the more recent surge in e-commerce have spurred concerns around the uneven impacts of freight’s swelling urban footprint. Transport scholars note increasing conflicts between freight vehicles and vulnerable road users, like bicyclists and pedestrians in dense urban areas. Meanwhile, environmental justice (EJ) scholars have long measured unequal exposure to freight traffic pollution along socio-economic and ethnic lines.

However, relatively few urban freight studies engage with social equity. Those that do usually avoid critical discussions contained in justice-oriented theory, instead portraying the movement of goods as an “apolitical science of circulation”. In the U.S., for instance, politicizing urban freight overlooks a history of city industrial zoning practices, infrastructure construction, exclusionary decision-making, and consequent path dependency that placed key logistics facilities including highways, manufacturing plants, warehouses and distribution centers disproportionately near low-income households and non-white, populations of color. The longitudinal effects of these institutional decisions are still largely visible today.

Transportation research also inconsistently defines and measures equity. In a review of equity in transportation literature, Lewis et al. describe equity as an empty conceptual space that “authors then fill … either explicitly with clearly defined arguments or implicitly with whatever idea of justice intuitively comes to mind” (p. 2). Arbitrarily engaging with equity concepts, the authors argue, creates confusion that is both normative (e.g. what does an equitable urban freight system look like?) and positive (e.g. what measurable thresholds determine whether an urban freight outcome is inequitable?). Consequently, most equity research measure unequal distributions of burdens and/or benefits but spend less time identifying when and why unequal distributions are unjust.

Therefore, this paper synthesizes prevailing discourse around equity and, by extension, justice in transportation research and urban freight literature.

Authors: Travis FriedDr. Anne Goodchild, Ivan Sanchez Diaz (Chalmers University), Michael Browne (Gothenburg University)
Recommended Citation:
Travis Fried, Anne Goodchild, Michael Browne & Ivan Sanchez-Diaz (2023). Seeking Equity and Justice in Urban Freight: Where to Look? Transport Reviews, DOI: