How the Urban Freight Lab seeks to fix the last 50 feet of shipping

How the Urban Freight Lab seeks to fix the last 50 feet of shipping

Delivery person with boxes on a dolly
The last step of shipping is usually literally done on foot.

The very last step of shipping packages in a city ⁠— not the end mile but the "final 50 feet" ⁠— bedevils delivery drivers. Every day, they face the task of driving and parking safely and legally in urban environments not built for the brick-and-asphalt end journeys of e-commerce.

For these workers every hour is rush hour, and unavailable parking, jammed traffic and tight alleys are just a few hurdles. Once they reach an office or apartment tower, they may have to sprint through loading docks, security desks, elevators, stairs and hallways before reaching the destination doorstep. As a result, labor, time and fuel are wasted, driving up costs for fleets.

But of course, none of that deters online shopping, which rose by 16 percent last year in the United States alone, ultimately clogging more avenues and curbsides. And online sales will account for two-thirds of retail growth by 2023, up from half of retail growth today.

Trucks in general are carrying more tonnage and driving more miles than a decade ago. As more city-dwellers demand quick shipping from their digital shopping carts, and retailers house more goods in exurban warehouses, deliveries of less than 50 miles are rising by 25 percent annually, according to PwC research. 

The final 50 feet of delivery is where the macro trends of rising urbanization and e-commerce converge. "You can make the argument that it is the transportation challenge of our time and one that is accelerating," Michelin North America's VP of Marketing Adam Murphy says. "For us as a company that serves both consumers and business customers we very clearly see the challenge it poses."

Public-private collaboration

Seeking to help address these challenges, Michelin in August became the latest member of the Urban Freight Lab (UFL), a Seattle working group that brings together interconnected players in transportation and logistics. That includes automotive and shipping giants, tech startups, retailers and property owners, all putting aside any competing interests in the spirit of bringing creative solutions to the public (and maybe eventually the marketplace, too).

Members include the giants Ford Motor, General Motors, Kroger, Nordstrom and PepsiCo alongside UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. They're joined by Terreno Realty as well as startups CurbFlow and USPack, and Boeing's venture arm HorizonX.

Operating out of the University of Washington's Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center, the lab is collecting data, brainstorming, and testing new approaches to urban shipping, offering a glimpse at more intelligent flows of goods in an increasingly urbanized future. 

"Everybody is operating beyond whatever their core product or service might be," Murphy says, citing a high level of engagement. "We’re going to learn in the lab of Seattle or Bellevue, but with an eye toward how can we apply this to other urban environments in which we all operate in North America and around the world."

The public-private partnership in its first two years focused on filling in huge gaps of data in urban infrastructure, according to Anne Goodchild, the center’s founding director and a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

A better picture

"Cities don’t have good geospatial, accurate, publicly available data about freight infrastructure," Goodchild says. Instead, urban planners historically focused on residential travel and personal behavior, failing to integrate the movement of goods into their planning. But planning better requires a detailed, granular picture of some forgotten corners of a city, one that has lived mostly in the brains of delivery drivers.

"We’ve mapped alleyways, we’ve mapped off-street freight facilities," in the interest of helping carriers to do safer, more affordable, less energy-intensive planning, she says. Last year UFL secured $1.5 million from the Department of Energy for three years of testing new ways of helping delivery trucks find parking downtown. 

Lately, UFL has been measuring how freight drivers operate in a city. Who’s going in and out of town, and when? Where do they park and for how long? What roads do they use? If they circle, idle or park illegally, that’s a sign of poor parking infrastructure. 

"Our carrier partners are able to let us ride along, show us what they have to do in terms of trying to be cost-effective when they deliver stuff," Goodchild says. "Imagine running a route — your job is to deliver 20 things today — and not knowing when or where you’ll be able to stop the truck. Of course you can’t be optimally efficient."

Although a fleet manager may collect metrics around the number of stops each vehicle makes and how long they stop on average, on the street the driver has to make the split-second decisions and take risks in that last stretch of the delivery. The lab's cooperative, multiplayer format is meant to allow its various stakeholders to share viewpoints, empathize and ultimately address the interconnected challenges they face as individual workers and organizations.

"It’s truly a roll-up-your-sleeves, workshop format," Murphy of Michelin says, and it uses Seattle as a living laboratory. For example, at a quarterly meeting earlier this year, participants walked around Seattle observing traffic and parking patterns. They witnessed the typical fuel-wasting, trial-and-error approach involved by a truck driver looking for parking to make a downtown delivery.

The urban laboratory

The UFL is exploring ways of improving that common scenario, such as uploading data from the street as well as from sensors embedded in a vehicle’s tires or onboard GPS system. Artificial intelligence then would analyze patterns and predict the next best available parking space. The lab is also identifying where and how multi-retailer delivery lockers downtown could help to focus and reduce drop-off sites. Other research projects include a pilot test of e-bikes for deliveries and creating a freight and transit-only lane on Seattle streets.

"We’re uncovering just a portfolio of things we could do that we want to help inform and generate solutions, but there are so many of them," Goodchild says. "We want to make sure those ideas are well-vetted by experts and also test them on the ground."

UFL is working on a battery of research projects beyond the Final 50 Feet, in addition to pro-bono work with community groups. As more vehicles electrify, she sees further challenges to buildings, utilities and city streets that create additional competition for shared curb space. That could involve tests that would set up "micro nodes" for package pickups and deliveries closer to customers, as well as deploying smaller, electrified vehicles including scooters and e-bikes.

More broadly speaking, while such types of testing may occur within private companies, they don’t tend to get shared. Yet the risk-averse public sector, on the other hand, may not test at all.

"A lot of what people will call 'solutions' are just ideas, and it’s good to have ideas but our work as researchers is to test and evaluate those ideas before we broadly recommend them" and they become part of public policy, Goodchild continues.

What's in it for them?

Beyond the public good, there are other key motivating factors for UFL's 15 members, who pay $15,000 each to join.

Sustainable mobility is a core focus for the Michelin Group, which is in the middle of a "back to the future" strategy, Murphy says. Michelin has been involved with the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) for a decade,  and the company jumped at the chance to participate in UFL’s complementary work to advance mobility in cities. As a result, Murphy imagines that Michelin could find implications for its tire products and evolving digital services and solutions.

For retailers, the motivation appears to be more urgent. Goodchild sees an "adapt or die" ultimatum driving their closer look at delivery logistics: Although retailers' corporate history and expertise is in retail operations rather than logistics, the delivery component will make or break them as online shoppers come to expect near-instant deliveries.

Of course there’s another Seattle-based elephant in the room, which recently announced plans to purchase 100,000 delivery EVs, which once again would reshape urban freight flows. Goodchild says Amazon politely declined an invitation to join UFL, perhaps an indication of the retailer's tendency to build capacity and test technologies internally. 

But it could be distracting for Amazon to be at the table anyway, she adds. After all, Amazon accounts for a whopping 38 percent of all U.S. online sales. "Everyone else is where they are strategically" because of how the retailer has disrupted markets and urban landscapes, Goodchild says.