Why Goods Movement Matters

Strategies for Moving Goods in Metropolitan Areas

Cities cannot survive without an effective urban goods movement system. The health of the city’s economy is dependent on its ability to accommodate the movement and delivery of goods. Furthermore, the livability that most cities are striving for is directly affected by the congestion and environmental impacts of trucks, the backbone of urban freight system. To this end, cities can no longer afford to ignore freight and how it interacts with the built environment.

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Goods movement is critical to everyday life.

Take a moment to look around the room you are in right now. Whether it’s your home, place of work or favorite cafe, every item that you see was brought here from places around the corner or the globe by the goods movement system.

Goods are the meats and vegetables you cook for dinner, the clothes you buy in the store and order online, the pens you write with at your desk, the walls holding up the buildings around you, and the trash you generate. We live in a world built on trade where the goods movement sector connects people to these goods and goods to people on many levels, from local to global. Just as you must travel to get to your job or to visit a friend, all of the goods that you consume and support your daily life must also travel to their final destination.

The efficient delivery of products is critical to the satisfaction of the customer, the success of individual businesses and the urban and global economies. Yet in order to reach the final destination, goods distributors face significant challenges across urban and metropolitan environments: congested city streets, regional highways and rail networks, and bottlenecked ports and airports. The distribution of goods also contributes to this congestion, increasing emissions and noise on the streets.

Impeding the movement of goods impedes the economy. In the extreme situation where the supply chain comes to a standstill in a large metropolitan area, effects will be felt by locals and ripple out across the world. If action is not taken to remedy the situation fast, residents will lose access to basic life necessities. Hospitals would exhaust their critical supplies in just 24 hours, service stations would run out of fuel in 48 hours, and grocery stores would be out of perishables in 72 hours.1

Goods movement must be flexible and able to accommodate rapidly changing environments. Today there is an immense amount of pressure placed upon the goods movement industry. Online sales are growing three times faster than traditional retail sales2 and companies have shifted to just-in-time deliveries – receiving goods only as they are needed to reduce inventory cost – requiring more frequent and customized deliveries. Modern societal and technological trends, particularly the rise of consumerism and the service sector, impose even more demand on urban distribution systems that must operate within already dense, congested and strained networks.

The goods movement industry is the backbone of society; it cannot and will not disappear. No matter what, people need to receive goods to sustain their daily lifestyles. For decades, goods movement has existed in an ecosystem that has typically been openly hostile to it or given it a lower priority. Until recently urban freight had been overlooked by urban planners and the government.3 However, even though goods distribution trips are a part of an industry and system that are invisible to most people, goods movement is absolutely critical to people’s lives and must be addressed as a key component of the livability and efficiency of our cities today.

Where Goods Go, Metropolitan Areas

It is that last leg of the journey – the transportation and delivery of goods to businesses and residents in cities – that presents one of the major challenges for urban freight operators and city planners.

In 2010, for the first time ever, 50% of the world population was living in a metropolitan area; in the United States, Canada and Europe this figure was over 80%.4 More than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities, urban areas are becoming more attractive and the number of urban residents is expected to increase by 1.5 times by 2045.5 With more people come higher demand and the need for more deliveries of goods to these areas. It is estimated that close to almost all of global trade originates, traverses through or is destined for a metropolitan area.6

As a result, metropolitan areas are the main hubs in the global goods distribution network. They are home to intermodal terminals such as ports, airports and rail yards that serve as the interfaces between the global supply chain and the more local, national and urban supply chain. Goods are both produced and consumed in these places, with some metropolitan areas primarily serving as global manufacturing or trade centers while others mostly serve as consumers of finished products.

The metropolitan goods movement system operates on two scales: 1) goods travelling into and out of a metropolitan area, and 2) goods travelling within a metropolitan area. Once goods arrive at a major gateway – a port, air or rail terminal – they are typically transported to logistics facilities within a metropolitan area – such as warehouses and distribution centers – for processing and then are routed to their final destinations. These destinations may be local (within the same metro area), or regional (to other metro areas). At the same time, metro areas are producers of goods that are exported to other cities and regions. While the entire network is interdependent and must function cohesively, particular attention must be paid to the goods transported and delivered to the growing number of consumers located in complex urban environments.

The Challenges of Goods Movement in Cities

Livability and Streets

Many cities are taking actions today to make their streets more livable and to give space back to pedestrians. Such actions aim to create a more comprehensive transportation network for everyone, requiring the urban streetscape – roads, curbs and sidewalks –to serve automobiles, pedestrians, cyclists, surface transit and parked vehicles. Many of the interventions to make cities more livable are warranted and should be welcomed after decades of auto-centric policies.

The urban street network, including the curb, is critical to goods movement. However, the current emphasis on “livability” and its components – such as bike lanes, bus stops and bike docking stations – ignores this, creating many challenges for trucks as they attempt to deliver goods. Trucks must navigate through congested streets where they are generally given lower priority; they struggle to find access to the curb to unload their goods, encouraging them to continue to drive and cause even more congestion or forcing them to double-park.

Since more street space is allocated to pedestrians, cyclists and transit, city streets are often far narrower than the wider highways that connect them to and serve the surrounding metropolitan area. As a result, urban freight distribution in cities primarily relies on small trucks, consequently increasing the number of vehicles on urban streets and exacerbating the inefficiencies in deliveries. Making matters worse, many of these trucks, both large and small, are only partially loaded or, even worse, empty.

In London, 3.8 million parking and loading fines were issued in 2015 totaling to millions of pounds in fines each year.9,10


The movement of goods extends beyond the curb. Buildings are the origin and destination of almost every freight trip. The capacity of buildings to effectively accommodate freight has ripple effects on other aspects of urban goods movement. Much of what happens at the building line is physical – the size and number of loading docks, off-hour delivery space and vertical freight (elevator) capacity. Many cities are empowered to mandate specific physical requirements through zoning and building codes or provide other incentives for voluntary action.

The configuration of a building to handle freight – having sufficiently sized loading docks, freight elevators, secure off-hour holding areas and on-site storage – can significantly influence the number of trips, when trips occur, the durations of deliveries and their impact on the street network. Many older cities are saddled with buildings that are inadequate to serve the demands placed on them today. In the cases where a building has a loading dock, its facilities are often outmoded, not built to accommodate higher volumes and larger vehicles.

The impact of infill construction and reduction in square footage per employee are also challenging goods movement in older cities as they grow taller and even denser. Multi-tenanted buildings generate far more deliveries than single tenanted ones. In addition, multi-tenanted buildings such as offices and shopping centers often do not have shared internal logistics staff, increasing vehicle dwell time while the delivery takes place. This results in in on-street vehicle queueing for the loading bay, and related noise, pollution and safety impacts for local residents.

A large office development can have over 200 deliveries per day.

The Environment

Moving goods, similar to transporting passengers, can produce noxious emissions and noise. These environmental impacts are felt more acutely in cities with dense populations because residents directly experience the high volumes of goods that must be moved.

The freight industry produces approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the production of most of which is concentrated in urban areas. This figure is expected to increase fourfold by 2050.11 The relatively recent trend of e-commerce has exacerbated the problem by increasing the frequency of truck trips. While cities have made major strides in improving their environmental impacts over the past fifty years, operators and policy makers must consider innovative policies to reduce the number of freight trips and how to reduce emissions caused by outdated vehicles, inefficient sizes, slow speeds or congestion, and idling.

Modern cities are also embracing a more diverse mix of land uses, comingling manufacturing, commercial and residential districts/neighborhoods. These changes are making neighborhoods more sensitive to noise. Activities associated with moving goods – idling of diesel truck engines and the act of loading and off-loading goods – are typically major sources of noise. Because excessive noise can deteriorate the overall quality of life for city dwellers, noise impacts also limit goods movement strategies that attempt to shift deliveries to overnight periods.

Trucks are responsible for 47% of NOx emitted in Europe, and in Paris they emit 40 to 50% of the fine particulates -- a leading cause of upper-respiratory conditions like asthma.

People and Technology

The consumer’s growing expectation for on-demand deliveries as further exacerbated the constraints that our goods movement system has been experiencing for decades. Through e-commerce – the ability to purchase goods online via laptop, tablet or smartphone – consumers have radically changed how they interact with retailers. Consumers want their goods to arrive frequently and quickly and expect the ability to check for a nearby product’s availability. Consequently, cities are grappling with conflicting priorities: residents don’t want more trucks on the streets; don’t want to hear them; and don’t want to sit behind them in traffic. However, technology has enabled us to demand more goods and, at the same time, request increasingly more frequent deliveries.

Just-in-time deliveries are also the norm for many commercial establishments. Retailers, restaurants and hotels in urban centers typically are pressured by high rents and the desire to maximize the revenue generating square footage. This results in less space to store goods, which requires a need for more frequent deliveries.

Today, there are few incentives for residents or commercial establishments to reduce the number of deliveries they receive. And although technology has enabled more orders to be placed, it has not yet effectively streamlined the delivery system. Furthermore, residential deliveries are often not successfully delivered on the first attempt resulting in added congestion and costs for shippers. If e-commerce continues to rise and consumer expectations do not change, both congestion and unnecessary costs will continue to increase.

E-commerce accounted for 7.3% of global retail sales in 2015 and is expected to grow to 12.4% by 2019.12


The VREF Urban Freight Initiative has studied several areas where policy and/or physical interventions could be tailored to address some of the obstacles that impede urban goods movement. This research takes a significant step towards developing a comprehensive set of strategies that address the underlying challenges or goods movement in cities. These strategies are outlined below and are linked to relevant research conducted by the VREF Urban Freight Centers of Excellence.

  • L1Increase truck parking and loading areas by adapting existing street and loading zone design. A number of physical changes can be made, including widening sidewalks, eliminating vehicular parking, repurposing curb space for loading zones, using textured pavement to delineate and designate shared use for deliveries (San Francisco, USA), providing longer parking/loading spaces and/or multi-space meters (Washington D.C., USA), and increasing the size of loading zones to 100 feet (30 meters).
  • L2Rethink preferential treatments for transit. One strategy is to create a “floating bus lane” instead of a curbside bus lane; this design permits direct curb access for local deliveries (New York City, USA). New types of delivery bays, such as the “Lincoln” and “Half-Lincoln” used in Paris, allow commercial vehicles to park fully or partially on the sidewalk, which creates curbside access that does not interrupt bus traffic.
  • L3Introduce pedestrian and bicycle-friendly means of delivery. Non-motorized modes of delivery, such as cargo cycles, pose less of a risk for pedestrians and bicyclists than large trucks or delivery vans. Since they travel at slower speeds, produce fewer emissions and generate less noise, they foster a more livable urban environment.
  • L4Construct urban consolidation centers (UCCs). UCCs are collective receiving points strategically located near or en route to city centers where trucks drop off goods rather than going to each store in the city center. From the UCC, electric vans and cargo cycles can be used for the last mile delivery, thereby reducing congestion, emissions and noise, and improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. However, the high cost of urban land typically requires local subsidies and may result in a lack of profitability.
  • B1Implement an off-hour delivery program. Diverting truck trips to overnight hours, which requires receivers to change behavior and, in some cases, reconfigure their buildings to accept deliveries without staff. This program can be voluntary or mandatory required by a municipality.
  • B2Eliminate truck trips for municipal solid waste. Strategies to consolidate trips, reduce the volume of MSW and/or divert trips to other ways. One example is pneumatic tubes, which would be difficult to retrofit in existing buildings add significant cost to new developments.
  • B3Rethink the design of urban buildings to accommodate modern trucks and delivery volumes. Cities should include the private real estate sector (developers), public planning and economic development agencies in a process to develop enhanced building codes for off-street parking and loading facilities. Zoning and building codes can be used to incentivize consideration of freight demands in both new construction and redevelopment projects. This is a low-cost approach compared to retroactive upgrades to existing infrastructure.
  • B4Redesign insufficient or outdated loading docks to accommodate modern trucks. While it is not possible in many cases to retrofit buildings to accommodate changes in truck fleets, there have been instances where it is feasible. Cities should survey buildings with outmoded facilities and determine whether retrofitting is possible, including options for creating adequate setbacks from streets so trucks do not interfere with traffic flow when unloading. Financial incentives to encourage these retrofits are also an option, including property tax rebates, to help defer the costs of the improvements.
  • B5Implement joint procurement and common internal logistics operations in large and multi-tenanted buildings and Delivery and Servicing Plans. Joint procurement initiatives between tenants, as well as common logistics operations in the loading bay with shared staff able to receive goods on behalf of all tenants, have the potential to reduce the number of suppliers used and thus vehicle deliveries. A pilot project in Oslo, STRAIGHTSOL, demonstrated how automatic data collection and information sharing could enable more efficient shopping center management.13 Delivery and Servicing Plans designed to manage the entire building (an approach devised by Transport for London) can also reduce the negative effects of urban freight deliveries at specific buildings.
  • B6Require appointment-based systems for deliveries. Booking systems streamline deliveries to allow for efficient operations of loading docks. A successful example is MobileDOCK, which has been used widely in Sydney and Melbourne.14 Benefits include reductions in congestion and pollution, improved turnaround times, and transparency for all actors in the supply chain. Such systems are particularly important in dense urban areas, including shopping centers, markets, sports arenas, tourism/cultural sites, and residential towers.
  • B7Promote the accommodation of new types of "logistics hotels" in urban areas. Sogaris, a real estate development company owned by the municipality of Paris, is currently building a 35,000 sq m logistics multi story terminal within the city boundaries (opening planned for 2017). This building will also accommodate office activities and sport facilities. The new Paris zoning ordinance (2016) identifies land parcels that will be able to accommodate logistics activities in the future.
  • E1Adopt strict national (central government) emission and fuel efficiency standards. One of the most effective strategies for reducing truck emissions is national emissions and fuel efficiency standards. National standards impose the same costs on everyone, thus avoiding the potential negative competitive effects of local regulations such as LEZs.
  • E2Create low emission zones in dense urban centers. These geographically limited zones are located in the core of metropolitan areas where vehicles that produce a lot of pollution are either banned or required to pay a toll that varies based on ambient air quality to enter. Tougher restrictions on vehicular emissions have resulted in a reduction of truck trips, thereby reducing pollution and noise, improving the quality of urban life and decreasing traffic congestion.
  • E3Separate noxious freight activity from conflicting land uses whenever possible. Zoning could consider the impacts of some of these uses and create buffers between residential/commercial and industrial activities. For example, Chicago’s planned manufacturing districts prohibit residential development.
  • E4Transition to alternatively fueled vehicles. Electric vehicles could offer a promising means for improving the efficiency and performance of the urban freight system, especially in conjunction with urban consolidation centers. A successful example that has helped to replace and improve the emissions of older diesel trucks is the Hunts Point Clean Trucks Program in the South Bronx in New York City. This program offers rebate incentives for truck owners to use advanced transportation technologies and alternative fuels.15
  • E5Evaluate non-road modes for deliveries. Although marine and rail options won’t replace the last mile delivery, they bring goods closer to the urban core and could help to reduce longer-haul truck trips throughout the metropolitan area. Researchers are also exploring the potential role that urban railway hubs could play in last mile logistics in London and how much freight could be shifted from truck to rail Los Angeles.
  • E6Implement anti-idling programs. A number of programs have been implemented in the U.S. to reduce pollution produced by idling. These programs utilize a combination technologies, economic incentives, regulations, and education.
  • E7Require comprehensive environmental impact mitigation programs at major freight hubs. For example, the Clean Air Action Plan at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach included a requirement to phase in drayage trucks with the cleanest available technology. The turnover of the fleet was the major factor in reducing PM emissions by 75% in a period of four years.
  • T1Consolidate home deliveries by encouraging alternate residential delivery sites. Home deliveries are inefficient; small packages are delivered one-by-one to homes and apartments. Establishing neighborhood pickup points (PPs) or automated parcel systems (APS) – locker banks in public locations – can reduce truck trips by delivering to fewer destinations and avoiding missed deliveries.
  • T2Educate businesses on receiver-led delivery consolidation programs. Provide examples on how receiver-led delivery consolidation programs could be structured and the financial benefits that would accrue to their businesses. Shippers can combine their deliveries at the receiver’s request: one supplier delivers goods to another supplier who will make the final delivery.
  • T3Enact proactive Freight Demand Management (FDM) strategies. The receivers of deliveries directly influence when and how deliveries are made. FDM initiatives seek to change the behavior of goods recipients, modifying demand at commercial establishments and households by altering the frequency, timing and mode of deliveries. Strategies include off-hour delivery programs, staggered pick-up/deliver programs and receiver-led consolidation programs.
  • T4Facilitate the development of new tools to assist the consolidation of shipments and more efficient use of urban streets. By openly sharing data and holding application design competitions emerging applications have enabled on-demand requests for larger scale shipments. For instance, Cargomatic matches shippers to carriers with available space on a truck, improving truck load utilization factors and reducing extra miles travelled and empty trips.16
  • T5Encourage “on-demand” passenger for-hire-vehicle services to include goods movement. Many of these vehicles are already on the road and have idle cargo capacity that could be used to eliminate existing trips. UberRush and Zipments are examples of two services that have simplified the process of requesting these on-demand movements.17
  • T6Introduce a receiver charge for deliveries. This will encourage receivers to decrease the number of trips generated by goods movement and increase their store space to house larger inventories.19
  • T7Raise the profile of goods movement by engaging freight partnerships and networks. Long-term partnerships between representatives from the public and private sectors are invaluable to solving urban freight problems. Partnerships provide an opportunity for knowledge sharing and bringing together varying perspectives.

Key Stakeholders

The success of the urban freight strategies presented in this section requires the involvement of a range of key actors and stakeholders. While the public sector is traditionally required to enact a policy, the private sector has taken an increasingly active role in lobbying and implementing such strategies. Prior to implementation, it is also essential to engage and consult with a number of key stakeholders who will be affected by changes in policy, such as local communities and residents, property owners and managers, and commercial establishments. Although exactly who must be involved in what role may vary based on the strategy or political geography, each of the six identified stakeholders is likely to play an important role.

  • Government
  • Communities and Residents
  • Shippers and Truckers
  • Distribution and Warehouse Facilities
  • Property Owners and Managers
  • Commercial Establishments

About the VREF Urban Freight Initiative

The Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF) Initiative on Urban Freight is playing a key role in filling a critical knowledge gap in urban goods movement and leading efforts to raise the profile of goods movement in planning and policy arenas. Regional Plan Association, in close cooperation with VREF and three VREF supported research centers – MetroFreight, Sustainable Urban Freight Systems (SUFS), and the Urban Freight Platform (UFP) – has synthesized the key challenges and strategies of urban goods movement identified by the VREF initiative. The research and input from each of the research centers is incorporated throughout, with no division of authorship across sections, highlighting the coherent network supported by VREF.

The initiative originally began at a symposium held in 2012, Urban Freight for Livable Cities, and has since developed into a much broader effort. Following the symposium, VREF launched two international Centers of Excellence (CoEs) in 2013, MetroFreight led by the METRANS Transportation Center in Los Angeles, California and Sustainable Urban Freight Systems (SUFS) led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Albany, New York, as well as an additional research platform in 2014, the Urban Freight Platform (UFP) in Gothenburg, Sweden.


This site was made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundation (VREF). It was produced by Regional Plan Association, in close cooperation with VREF and three research centers who played an active role as members of the editorial committee.


For questions or comments, please contact:

Richard Barone, Vice President for Transportation, RPA


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  18. Holguin-Veras 2015. Presentation.