Developing e-delivery hubs in an historic city centre

By Dr. Susana Val, ZLC Director and Dr. Alicia Martinez de Yuso, Research Office Technician at ZLC.

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The historic centre of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is of global significance: described as ‘one of the largest, least altered and best preserved’ city centres in the Americas, it was, along with Kracow in Poland, the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site back in 1978.

But like many historic cities, it is not designed to accommodate the ever-increasing levels of road traffic generated by a population of 2 million and rising. Besides Carbon emissions, air pollution is an acute problem in the thin atmosphere (Quito is almost 3,000 m up in the Andes) while congestion threatens the historic fabric and spoils the visitor experience.

Quito is a partner in the SOLUTIONSplus project to develop sustainable urban e-mobility. While Quito’s municipal and Ecuador’s national authorities have invested significantly over many years in innovative and more environmentally friendly solutions for passenger transport, from integrated zero-emission bus routes and a new Metro line to bicycle-sharing schemes, the problems posed by goods and freight deliveries in the city centre are more intractable.

ZLC is helping the authorities to develop policies, strategies and legislation that will lead to practical and affordable solutions and advance the goal of becoming a zero emission city centre.

Besides its residential population, the historic centre is home to a large number of retailers and, in particular, bars and restaurants serving visitors and tourists. Typically, these are small, family-owned enterprises with little free capital to invest in new transport solutions even if these would be both more efficient and an improvement to the businesses’ environment (tourists don’t want to eat and drink just metres from the tailpipe of a truck). But classic Low Emission Zone strategies such as pedestrianisation or bans on certain vehicle types may themselves make it difficult or impossible for these businesses to operate.

Provisions for bars and restaurants are typically sourced, daily or more often, and in small quantities, from the wholesale markets located on the outskirts of the city centre, often collected by the proprietors or their staff in their own (not always particularly eco-friendly) vehicles. Although activity peaks in the early morning when the markets open, deliveries continue throughout the day as owners visit multiple markets, or perhaps only start operations later in the day. The result is a large number of journeys, often only very lightly loaded, creating gridlock and generating emissions.

The scheme ZLC is working on will involve a fleet of electric vehicles – 20 e-cargo bikes, 2 e-delivery 3-wheelers and 10 4-wheelers – operated by an appropriate logistics service provider through micro-hubs/ transhipment points to provide last-mile deliveries into the city centre. To co-ordinate and optimise utilisation of this fleet, ZLC is developing a Logistics Plan reflecting the characteristics of the city and its businesses.

The strategy being developed will have to cover the organisational network (‘orgware’); the optimisation of micro-hub locations and delivery routing (creation of suitable software); and the physical design both of the hubs and of the e-bikes and vehicles – hardware issues. Additionally, the city’s overall policy framework (including necessary legislation and regulations) will have to be revisited.

On the hardware side, e-cargo bike designs will have to correspond to market needs in terms of weights and volumes, and perhaps with the potential for customisation of cargo boxes to meet specific needs (cold chain transport, for example). They will need to meet driver requirements for manouverability (turning radius, overtaking, cornering, parking), and have acceptable operational range and battery charging time – which leads on to the need to ensure adequate charging infrastructure.

Hub design, size and location will depend on volumes and timings of traffic flows, which itself will depend on the project’s success in co-ordinating and consolidating commercial requirements. If these can be captured accurately, the problems of identifying optimal transhipment node locations and vehicle routings (which may vary according to time of day, load, delivery window criteria) have well-understood mathematical solutions.

But to find these software and hardware solutions, successful development of the ‘orgware’ will be vital. This requires the willing, even enthusiastic, participation of a wide range of stakeholders. There are the supply chain actors – the market vendors, the bar owners, shippers and transport companies. There are infrastructure stakeholders – the owners of land and facilities such as charging points, the designers and manufacturers of the vehicles and ancillary equipment – and other stakeholders or their representatives including public authorities, residents, visitors and tourists. Bringing (and keeping) all these parties together will require a collaborative business and governance model.

Ideally, the commonality of interest between the different stakeholders would be so great that implementation of the strategy has its own momentum. In reality that is unlikely, so there will be public policy issues to consider: both ‘sticks’ such as regulations limiting or forbidding access to certain vehicle types and ‘carrots’ such as financial incentives for the acquisition of e-bikes, the promotion and underwriting of experimental approaches or for local manufacture or customisation of e-bikes, or subsidising the cost of land for logistics service providers to create micro-hubs. There will also be an important co-ordination role for the municipal authorities in bringing together supply and demand related actors.

If successful it should be possible to concentrate freight deliveries into the early morning (when the markets open) meaning that by say 11am the streets are largely clear of freight traffic, enabling greater passenger mobility. The service customers (restaurateurs, bar owners) will be able to use an app to plan and schedule deliveries (which will also generate data that the authorities can use to assess the benefits of the scheme’s operation).

Those benefits will also need to be actively ‘sold’ to users. Although bar and restaurant owners see the problems of pollution and congestion (right outside their doors) they are as resistant to change as the rest of us. A mental or cultural shift will be needed along with political backing. At the same time the proposed solutions need to be aligned with the rhythms of the user companies (if a bar has been open until three in the morning, asking the owner to take deliveries at 6 am may not be realistic).

But by consolidating deliveries through a single operator and ensuring the maximum utilisation of vehicles (and drivers), there is a likelihood that costs to small businesses will actually be reduced, while making life easier and more controllable (predictable and reliable delivery times, for example) for proprietors and their workers, helping Quito achieve its zero emission city centre goal.


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