Freight in the City: Are Beer Boats the way forward?

On Wednesday 1st March Kirsty Whittaker and Ciara Szyman attended the Freight in the City Spring Summit at Edgbaston Cricket Ground. The conference brought together representatives from local and national government along with some key private sector players.

The freight and logistics industry contributes £100bn each year to the UK economy. While the industry is crucial to our economy it doesn’t come without its problems. The urban delivery conundrum is one facing many local councils, including that of Birmingham where the conference was held. Martin Reeves, Chief Executive of the West Midlands Combined Authority & Coventry City Council highlighted how in the West Midlands alone, motorway congestion causes approximately £2billion a year in lost time. Local authorities and businesses are striving to find better ways of dealing with their logistical footprints and this Freight in the City conference presented several ideas on how, in the future, deliveries could be transformed.

Rob Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, opened the conference with a keynote speech and it definitely provided food for thought for the 350 people in attendance. Rob discussed how diesel should not necessarily be demonised and how bus and cycle lanes can in fact make it harder for normal vehicles to move through cities, in turn increasing emissions and congestion. Rob also raised the point that HS2 is not scheduled to carry a single load of freight.

The day’s main focus however concerned new technologies and ideas for last mile deliveries. By improving the way last mile deliveries are made, air quality is improved and complementary spaces for the general public can be generated.

Some interesting case studies were put forward from both UPS and Geodis, including the idea of consolidation centres or hubs. Peter Harris, Director of Sustainability for Europe at UPS, explained how in Hamburg the company takes containers to four pre-agreed locations in the city. Electric tricycles and on-foot couriers then operate from these containers to complete the last mile of delivery. Similarly, in Paris, Geodis have managed to take 20% of their vehicles off the road by using what they call “Blue Bases”, last mile deliveries are then completed by electric vehicles and bikes.

Perhaps the most exciting example of last mile deliveries though was the case described by Jonathan Bray, Director of the Urban Transport Group, who explained how riverside bars in the city of Utrecht in The Netherlands receive their beer deliveries by boat. The zero emissions electric boats are owned and run by the city and run four days a week supplying more than 60 catering businesses along the local canal network.

By contrast, in central Manhattan we were told by Laetitia Dablanc, Director of Research at the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, how Amazon have a 50,000 square-foot warehouse just across the road from the Empire State Building. Created to coincide with demand for Amazon’s Prime Now service, the warehouse offers deliveries to customers within two hours. It is projects such as this that could have the unintended consequence of more congestion as opposed to decreasing it if companies do not seriously think about their last mile delivery options.

Over the coming months and years, UK cities will have to think long and hard about their freight and logistical plans as they aim to adhere with strict Clean Air Zone requirements. While funding may be used to trial some of the ingenious delivery ideas already running in both the UK and Europe it will be interesting to see how the debate continues and whether the West Midlands as Martin Reeves stated can “shine as a beacon for best practice” when it comes to freight.