Cycling & Micromobility

The Last Mile - Solutions for the final few feet

How does the package I ordered online get to my home as quickly, and sustainably, as possible? And how do I get from the train station to the office as efficiently as possible? We spoke with Professor Dr.-Ing. Payam Dehdari about the movement of goods and people in cities.

He is an expert in sustainable logistics at the Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences, advises (among others) the state capital, Stuttgart, empowers logisticians with the German Logistics Association and looks at logistics issues primarily from the perspective of CO2 emissions and a city worth living in.

Mr. Dehdari, the term "The Last Mile" often comes up in the mobility debate - what exactly does it mean?

First of all, it has to be said that this term "last mile" is very imprecise, and it is used for two different things. On the one hand, for transport logistics, which is where it originated. Here it refers to the last stage of a delivery of goods on their way to the recipient. In the case of parcel services, this means the route from the distribution centre outside the city to the recipient in the city - but this route is much longer than a mile. It is not unusual for the route from the parcel centre outside the city to the recipient to be 20 kilometres. That's why I prefer to call this last stage the "final distribution" stage. What you also have to know is that from the point of view of CO2, this last distribution stage is actually negligible; most of it is produced in the main leg of the journey, i.e. on the long transport routes where large quantities are moved.

Increasingly, however, the term "last mile" is also used to refer to the movement of people in the city.

That's right. But regardless of whether it's goods or people, it's never a matter of one mile, it always depends. For people, it's the distance from the train station to work, or from the apartment to the university, or from the bus stop to the supermarket.

However, our cityscape is currently changing significantly with the rationale of solving this last mile problem: E-scooters are ubiquitous, and you also see more and more rental bikes. What contribution do these new offers make to urban mobility?

I would say, controversially, that e-scooters solve a problem that never existed in the first place. Because most of the distances covered with an e-scooter can actually be walked. Sure, I also like to use one of these scooters to get to work. It's just convenient. A large part of this technology caters to our laziness. To be fair, though, it has to be said that or a short trip in the city, an e-scooter is faster and cheaper than the bus, or at least it is in my city, Stuttgart.

So, if these scooters don't solve any existing problems, what would be a contribution to improving mobility in cities?

The real problem in the cities is that there is an avalanche of cars rolling into our cities every day, and there are, on average, 1.3 people in each car. This is because the alternatives to the car are often poor. This is not a new insight, but there must be a first-rate public transport system, and people must be given the opportunity to get around the city by bicycle. Since Corona at the very latest, we all have bicycles, but we realise that it's no fun to cycle through the city. It's getting better, but it's not good yet. If there were reasonable options, if people had the choice, they would use them.

What would be such reasonable options?

A reasonable option would be, for example: "You can go to town by car if you want, but you can also cycle. If you cycle, you get to your destination faster. And it's cheaper." The Dutch have done this in some cities: there is a ring road around the city centre, via which it takes 18 minutes to get from A to B by car. By bike, you can cycle directly into the city, so it takes eight minutes. But everyone can decide for themselves. Of course, this example is very striking. But you simply have to implement things like this that have a direct effect if you want to achieve the goal we have all agreed on: The Paris Climate Agreement. It would also make the neighbourhoods more liveable.

We also see more cargo bikes, and cargo bikes from parcel services, in the cities - are these things that have a direct impact?

Cargo bikes are good if you have many stops in a small area, each with a small quantity. But, you need - depending on the area - about 20 cargo bikes to replace one CEP (courier, express and parcel service) vehicle. And these CEP vehicles are not the big problem at all: we have done a study that shows that these vehicles only make up a really low proportion of the total traffic in the city. You notice these vehicles a lot in the cityscape and in the traffic, they are often double-parked, you know yourself that you order more parcels, so you feel that CEP vehicles are flooding the city... but the figures don't confirm that. I think it's always good when a company does something, but a few cargo bikes don't bring much. They won't solve the problems of parcel logistics in the city centres.

What would be of use?

For example, if we reduce empty journeys - which currently account for 37.6 per cent of all journeys in Germany. Through intelligent planning, we could save a lot of journeys and thus a lot of CO2. Or if the parcel service did not drive an undeliverable parcel a few kilometres further to a pick-up point, but rather as close as possible to the recipient. This requires good, efficient planning on the part of the parcel service providers. And why do parcels have to be brought directly to the front door at all? How about a collection point, a hub in every neighbourhood, where you can pick up your parcels, combined with a multi-storey car park for the residents of the neighbourhood, where you can also rent all kinds of vehicles: cars, cargo bikes, e-scooters. That would be an offer that would noticeably improve the quality of life in the cities as a whole.

Why is something like this not implemented?

Because many parties would have to come together here. The city would have to make space available for this, everywhere in the city. Then all parcel service providers would have to give up their existing structures and use these hubs, and the whole thing would have to run economically. The implementation would take years, and all that without mentioning the legal concerns of market distortion. But we need quick solutions.

For example?

I think we need disruptive business models. Why do we always pay 5 euros for a parcel, regardless of whether it is sent from Hamburg to Munich or just from one part of town to another?

But there are already many new approaches: In Sweden, you can already have parcels delivered to the boot of your parked car, Amazon is testing drones in Canada, McKinsey talks in a study about robots that distribute parcels in cities or about tunnels through which parcels whizz around…

Sure, you can go into the air or underground, but in both cases it wouldn't do anything for the CO2 issue. A tunnel like this needs a lot of concrete, and that's not exactly climate-friendly. In fact we've just done a study on the underground transport of goods: for the CO2 caused by the construction of the tunnel alone, you could continue to drive for decades with the existing CEP vehicles. And when I hear “transport drone”, I get - as they say in the Ruhr area - a twitch in my pulse.  Both from a process point of view and from an environmental point of view: If something has to work against gravity, it needs more energy. Of course, with the drone you can say: "But it's electrical energy", but it's still energy. Flying can be a solution for high-value goods, for example in medicine, especially in mega-cities. But the transport drone or driverless transport systems that jet through tunnel systems do not solve our CO2 problems.

Speaking of mega-cities, are there developments worldwide that we can learn from?

We can learn that the more inhabitants a city has, the bigger the problems become. The levers for more efficient mobility are always the same. First of all, you have to calculate cleanly: What causes how much CO2, where can planning and efficiency be improved. These are the levers with which large savings could be achieved quite quickly if you implement it on a large scale, not just in projects with a few cargo bikes or a few e-transporters.

What would you like a city to look like in a few years?

My wish would be that you don't even notice the logistics in the city. Keyword: quiet logistics. For example, you could use the infrastructure of a city at night; there are huge capacities that you could simply use immediately. At the moment, we have nice wide streets, but 70 percent of them are reserved for moving- and parked cars. I'm not one to say all cars have to go, but they should get neighbourhood garages. And that's where the packing stations should be. This would simply eliminate the last kilometres, the "last mile" for the parcel service providers. The discussion about this reminds me of the ban on cigarettes in restaurants. At the beginning, no one could imagine it. Now we can't even imagine it without. Sometimes I think you just have to do it.