The future of urban delivery

The way people move in cities is rapidly changing, and so too, will the way that freight moves. I was in Austin, Texas last month for the American Trucking Associations Management Conference & Exhibition and was taken aback by the popularity of motorized scooters, which were available for use all throughout the downtown core.

These scooters weren’t just being used by skaters and hipsters. Businesspeople from the conference used them to scoot to and from their hotel, and I was soon convinced to give it a try. The scooters can be signed out by using an app to scan the QR code, and must be returned to approved locations.

You can zip along dedicated bike lanes or on the street at 20 mph and get where you’re going without breaking a sweat. I was just getting used to Uber, and now the next big urban people-moving trend had emerged. In fact, Uber earlier this year acquired Jump Bikes, and plans to offer bikes and scooters through its app.

Ryan Rzepecki, founder and chief executive officer of Jump, told Bloomberg Businessweek, “There’s going to be a lot of innovation in terms of what types of electric vehicles are out there. It’s clear that to go a couple miles, you don’t need a 2,000-lb lump of steel.”

It begs the question: Does freight really need to travel downtown within 53-ft van trailers? Innovation in so-called last mile deliveries has been slower to come to the freight industry than in the people-moving business. But it’s coming.

UPS has been testing a custom-made cargo bike in Toronto and other cities. The pedal-powered bikes are 2.8 meters long and 1.2 meters wide, weighing 477 lbs unladen with a payload capacity of 897 lbs. It can carry up to 50 parcels. Solar panels power the headlights, tail lights, and turn signals.

“The current pedal-powered model is the first step toward what we hope will become a viable model for urban deliveries,” Aylin Lusi, vice-president of public affairs with UPS Canada said when the bike was first announced. “Our goal is to test deliveries with e-assist bicycles; however, provincial regulations limit the ability to do so today.”

Manoella Wilbaut, head of sustainability with DHL, is also bringing fresh thinking to the concept of urban goods movements. One initiative is the development of urban micro-depots – small, centrally-located distribution points – which will be shared with competitors.

DHL is also experimenting with the City Hub concept, and Cubicycles for downtown deliveries. Containers a cubic meter in dimension can be delivered to the city and installed on Cubicycles or Cubivans for the final mile.

How effective will these concepts be and to what extent will they disrupt the traditional urban delivery models? Will they spell the end of the 53-ft van trailer in busy urban centers?

Only time will tell. But the way goods are moved in cities is about to undergo a transformation. This will create both challenges and opportunities for traditional freight haulers.

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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