Solving That Last Mile Problem

How online retail has created an emissions-heavy delivery headache

The last mile often feels like the longest. The path gets more crowded, the hurdles higher and more frequent.

It’s true for marathon runners and it’s true for businesses and cities, too. In transportation, the so-called ‘last mile problem’ has long been disproportionately tricky. Getting people or goods from central hub to central hub is relatively simple and efficient. Sending them off to their ultimate, individual destinations tends to be a little trickier.

Those that arrived together now have to complete various shorter journeys, contributing to congestion and, for business owners, costing more money. Online shopping and demand for faster deliveries are only exacerbating the problem.

From commuters travelling the short distance to and from train stations to e-commerce stores getting products to their customers’ doors, we take a look at the last mile problem—and how it can become a sprint rather than a slog.

The impact of the last mile

According to TFL, half of the value of household expenditure—around £79 billion per year—relies on road freight. Logistics firms contribute significantly to our economy, however they also contribute to congestion and poor air quality. And the popularity of e-commerce means there are more of them making deliveries, with the number of journeys up 20 per cent since 2010.

Our increasingly on-demand culture is only making matters worse: customers want, and expect, their goods fast. This creates high expectations that small businesses—lacking the resources and sheer scale of giants like Amazon—may struggle to meet.

If your company operates and/or delivers in London, there’s also the new Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) charge to consider. So how do you keep costs down without compromising on customer service? 

Creative solutions to the last mile problem

Cycle hubs and e-bikes can help people complete their last (and first) miles while cutting out unnecessary car trips. Many cities are focusing on Mobility as a Service, or MaaS, to facilitate smoother, joined-up journeys, which can be especially tricky for people in commuter towns with less advanced infrastructure. Vehicle-sharing schemes like Zipcar are part of this effort to keep people moving by reducing the number of cars driving and parking .

The same principle of pooling and sharing resources can be applied to businesses and deliveries. One simple step is switching to a virtual car pool like Zipcar for Business. Only paying for trips you make can significantly reduce costs. It’s also future-proof: the fleets are constantly updated with sustainability, efficiency and legislation changes in mind.

Local authorities and delivery businesses of all sizes are adopting new approaches to completing the last mile. For example, parcel lockers and click-and-collect services at local shops—which effectively become smaller, satellite hubs—help reduce the number of journeys and stops needed.

Even Amazon, whose centralised warehouse model allows it to speedily fulfil and deliver orders via its network of drivers and courier partnerships, is branching into alternative solutions, from dedicated parcel hubs in office and apartment blocks to franchised delivery businesses.

How small businesses are driving change

A handful of innovators is devising brilliantly simple ways to tackle the first/last mile problem. Green Link’s Last Mile Fulfillment service, in York, Darlington and Luton, is completed by bicycle, electric vehicles, load-carrying tricycles and trailers.

Finland’s Cargo Bike Borrowing Shop offers free use of e-bikes, including those with trailers and rickshaws, for personal and business/delivery use. While in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, e-commerce market place Aha makes its deliveries via electric car and even drones.

Striving for an emission-free last mile

In London, DPD launched an all-electric delivery depot in Westminster last October, and plans to roll more out across the capital. The company’s CEO, Dwain McDonald, believes infrastructure must be improved to truly achieve an emission-free last mile.

“We have 1,800 vans in London and 90% of those are run by owner-driver franchisees,” he told the Motor Transport blog. “I can’t charge all of those overnight at my depots, but if the drivers live in high-rise apartments, they can’t charge them at home either.”

He added: “Online retail is growing at 20 per cent a year in London and there are still significant property, changing and vehicle challenges to be overcome to support an all-electric fleet on the scale we need, across the whole of central London.” 

Transport for London has pledged to make land available for last-mile fulfilment companies that comply with ULEZ. The Mayor’s Freight and Servicing Action plan, published in March, also includes more click-and-collect points at Tube stations, increasing journeys via water and rail, and working with boroughs to coordinate freight activity.

Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “Freight is essential for London's economy, but for our future health and prosperity we need to be smarter about how we manage the millions of van and lorry journeys each week. By creating a pan-London network of micro-distribution centres and rolling out innovative click and collect points at more Tube stations, we will enable more commuters to collect packages near their home—helping reduce congestion across our city.”

With coordination and cooperation between the government, local authorities and business owners, and by paying attention to start-ups trialling innovative delivery services, that last mile may not be such a problem in future.

Katie Spillane
Katie manages Zipcar for Business' marketing communications and ensuring we let businesses know how we can help them. A LinkedIn whizz she is always on the hunt to find out how to optimise and improve herself and help businesses work smarter. Outside of work you can find her exploring the newest London hotspots, searching for the best bargain (a self-confessed shopaholic) or obsessing over the latest true crime documentary - full of the best facts you never knew you needed to know.

Date published: 28 May 2019

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