1.2 – The Urban Freight Landscape

Authors: Dr. Genevieve Giuliano and Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

The urban freight landscape is the spatial distribution of the factors generating and attracting freight within an area, including regulations, infrastructures, and mobility options.

a. Defining the Freight Landscape

City logistics involve a diversity of urban freight distribution systems with different purposes, modes of operation, and locational characteristics. The urban spatial structure remains a key element of city logistics since variations in this spatial structure will be associated with different city logistics contexts and strategies. City size and complexity are interrelated with large metropolitan areas having a complex spatial structure in terms of the range of socio-economic activities and their organization. The scale effect in city logistics remains prominent. The spatial structure of freight activities in urban areas thus has a significant imprint on urban land use in the form of terminals, distribution centers, and other major facilities supporting logistics. Freight related activities, locational behavior, and circulation remain relatively absent from the concerns of urban planning.

The freight landscape is representative of the spatial distribution of freight activity and intensity within metropolitan areas. It expresses the urban spatial structure and the socio-economic function of the city, considering the context in which urban freight distribution takes place with attributes such as the spatial distribution and the density of the demand for freight and the related freight flows.

It is a multidimensional concept composed of several interrelated landscapes:

  • Political Landscape. Urban areas are among the most complex and regulated areas where local and global interests interact. The array of jurisdictions and regulations impacting the locational and operational behavior of freight distribution. This can involve zoning and building codes, operating hours, tolls, licenses, parking, and delivery conditions and even restrictions concerning the use of vehicles and fuels.
  • Socioeconomic Landscape. The distribution and organization of land uses, mostly in terms of population and employment densities, reflecting the economic and social functions of the city. Cities are commonly organized around commercial, institutional, residential, manufacturing, and logistics districts. These are the main generators and attractors of freight flows.
  • Infrastructure Landscape. Transportation infrastructure is supporting urban freight flows, which is primarily contingent upon the structure and the capacity of the road transport system. Freight terminals, such as ports, rail yards, and airports, are also important components of this landscape, with many cities acting as commercial gateways to global trade. Less visible, but as important, telecommunication networks support the transactional intensiveness of logistics.
  • Mobility Landscape. Represents the dynamic aspect of city logistics in terms of freight flows and the means that carry freight, which includes a range of vehicles, technologies, routes, scheduling, pickups, and deliveries.

The freight landscape can help understand changes in the spatial distribution of urban freight activities, particularly in terms of the main drivers of these changes and their outcomes on the urban spatial structure.

b. Urban Density and Freight

A prevalent perspective concerning urban planning is that higher densities are preferable since they generate various economies. For instance, higher densities are more readily serviced by retail activities and by public transit. Achieving higher densities is perceived to be a suitable goal towards more sustainable cities. Arguments over the advantages of higher densities with regard to energy consumption and infrastructure provision are common. The concept of smart growth further expanded the density perspective into a more comprehensive planning framework. However, from a freight distribution perspective density is an important structural element of city logistics, but with several diseconomies associated with higher densities. As such the density perspective differs between the conventional planning discourse and city logistics.

High concentration levels generate conflicts between freight and passenger transportation, induce congestion, pollution, noise, and higher levels of energy consumption and risks of accidents. All of these are associated with higher delivery costs. The relationship between density and delivery costs is, however, a nonlinear one. In a low-density setting, such as in rural or low-density suburban areas, delivery costs per unit are higher due to the longer average delivery distances. The same number of deliveries requires longer distances, which is compounded from more separated pickup or delivery points.

In a medium-density suburban setting, delivery costs are lower as shorter distances are observed while very few constraints are still impacting mobility. There is limited congestion, and parking for deliveries is rarely an issue since space can readily be found. Additional opportunities for cargo consolidation are present as well. As density increases, however, a set of constraints becomes more prevalent, particularly as it relates to parking, which incites the use of specialized vehicles having less capacity in spite of a higher demand density; consolidating cargo becomes more challenging. The number of deliveries increases as well as its costs.

c. Convergence and Divergence

In metropolitan areas, there are usually large clusters of freight generators such as employment zones, logistics zones, and terminal facilities, which are usually the outcome of economies of agglomeration. A particular attention is placed upon the circumstances where population and employment densities either converge or diverge and how this is reflective of different freight landscapes. If these densities are plotted along two axis (population and employment), four specific quadrants can be identified, each characterized by a general level of convergence/divergence:

  • High-density convergence. Commercial and financial districts where retail and service activities are related to high employment densities. Further, the presence of apartment complexes is associated with high population densities, underlining the mix of population and employment in the same geographical unit which is characteristic of this form of convergence. The outcome of this convergence is a complex city logistics framework (even a patchwork) that includes courier services, retail logistics, food deliveries (restaurants and groceries) as well as home deliveries. The mix of these activities and the associated complexity in the freight demand has incited the setting of city logistics regulations, particularly in central areas since they are the most difficult to serve. The quadrant is thus the focus of most city logistics strategies.
  • Employment-based divergence. Manufacturing and warehousing districts with high employment densities, including transport terminals such as warehouse clusters, airports, ports, and rail yards. This divergence is in part driven by externalities (less appeal for housing), regulations, and planning (defined manufacturing and logistics districts). The dominant city logistics activity is freight distribution and the haulage (Full Truck Load, Less than Truck Load) flows it entails. The freight flows are further differentiated by if they concern upstream or downstream segments of supply chains.
  • Population-based divergence. Specialized residential districts (often planned) with lower employment levels, focusing on retail logistics and home deliveries. The growth of e-commerce has resulted in new forms of urban freight distribution in residential areas where parcel deliveries are becoming more dominant.
  • Low-density convergence. Various forms of peri-urban and suburban activities, which are usually a mix of low-density residential areas, malls, and some light manufacturing or distribution clusters. In this quadrant, there is no particular city logistics activity, but simply regular distribution which takes place unhindered. This is the realm of suburban logistics, large distribution and fulfillment centers, a growing feature of large metropolitan areas across the world.

An overview of the freight landscape in three major metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, and Paris) underline a diversity of contexts in which urban freight distribution takes place.