Old transport networks embrace green technology in modern city logistics

Cities across Europe are focusing their attention on using bike paths and waterways for greener, smarter and more efficient urban logistics.

December 18, 2019

With Europe’s cities facing the twin challenges of quicker and more sustainable goods deliveries, Amsterdam is leading the charge on inventive uses of its existing infrastructure.

The Dutch city’s unique layout, along with its reputation for innovation, are enabling greener delivery methods, ranging from e-bikes to DHL’s last-mile electric StreetScooters, to meet ambitious local sustainability targets.

Its rings of canals offer a centuries old mode of transporting goods – but with a modern twist to help cater for the boom in e-commerce. The city’s rule that whatever goes on the canal must be zero-emission by 2025 has given rise to emission-free electric delivery boats, Canal Cruisers.

Smart technology is also on the rise; a five-year research programme into self-driving boats known as Roboats aims to take waterway goods transport to the next level, with new tech meaning they can learn strategies to calculate the optimal route.

“We’re seeing some quite innovative solutions emerge,” says Naomi Geerink, industrial and logistics research analyst at JLL. “While the idea of autonomous boats is highly captivating, other methods are not actually that new. The canals have always been here; the Amstel river has long been the main entrance route for cargo and construction materials.”

New developments are nevertheless enhancing their modern-day potential. The planned Amsterdam Logistic Cityhub, a waterside ultra-efficient warehouse, will act as a central point to distribute goods across the city, including via the waterways.

“Sustainability is a key challenge for the logistics sector to address; emission-free last mile distribution needs to become the norm in Europe,” says Jordy Verhoeven, head of agency industrial and logistics at JLL Netherlands. “Integrated logistics hubs are part of the solution. Similar initiatives could help to make city logistics more sustainable in both in the Netherlands and beyond.”

Lowering emissions

Amsterdam’s well-used bike routes are also in focus. Despite efforts to reduce congestion in the centre, the city’s roads remain clogged, with traffic up 20 percent last year.

The solution lies in replacing four wheeled delivery vehicles with more bikes and carts if Amsterdam is to achieve its target of zero carbon emission across the city by 2030, Geerink says.

“Just like its canals, the city’s existing bicycle network is part of Amsterdam’s infrastructure. That makes it easier to adjust to the growing presence of delivery bikes,” she explains.

Equally, the phasing in of emission-free zones around the city will impact delivery patterns; from 2025, goods and delivery vehicles can only enter the city centre if they have zero-emission engines.

“Major logistics firms are rethinking their delivery methods, whether they’re last-mile consumer-focused or getting stock suppliers to retailers,” says Geerink. Some delivery operations are already ahead of the curve; take Picnic, an online supermarket which delivers goods to consumers’ doors using small electric cars which runs set routes in the city.

Furthermore, the timing of goods delivery could also change. More than 20 years ago, the Dutch government introduced noise guidance for deliveries set a 60-decibel level on vehicles. The PIEK-standard, which has since been adopted in the UK, France, Germany and Belgium, correlates with the emergence of more evening-friendly and less disruptive delivery vehicles, says Geerink.

“Electric vehicles are certainly well below the set decibel threshold – and that could shake up the delivery schedules for city centre businesses,” she says. “It’s quite feasible that off-peak deliveries can be increased if vehicles can easily keep the noise down.”

Such a move could ease day-time congestion in the coming years.

Beyond Amsterdam

Greener delivery practices are catching on in other Dutch and European cities. Dutch e-commerce firm Coolblue, which uses cargo bikes for deliveries, last year began in Eindhoven and The Hague and is launching in other Dutch cities, as well as Antwerp.

In Groningen, the Dutch postal service, PostNL joined forces with startup Dropper to use similar methods to transport packages more efficiently and sustainably in the city centre.

Other European cities can learn from Amsterdam’s efforts, says Geerink, and customise them accordingly.

Indeed, the number of electric delivery vans are steadily on the rise in the UK and Germany. Deutsche Post has around 12,000 e-bikes and trikes. Retailers are also following suit. In 2019, supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, for example, piloted a zero-emissions van following on from previous trials of electric cargo bikes.

Cities are equally making greater use of their waterways in last mile delivery. In Paris, IKEA is one of a growing number of retailers running barges along the Seine to inland ports where cargo bikes then take packages directly to customers’ doorsteps.

“Be it on water or land, there are some exciting solutions coming through,” says Geerink.  “We’ll see much more innovation from the Netherlands – and Amsterdam in particular given the strength of its tech scene. That should go some way to meeting zero carbon agreements a decade from now.”