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Off-Hours Consumer Delivery Systems May Unlock Sustainability at Scale

Image credit: Volvo

This article originally appeared on MeetingoftheMinds.org on October 22, 2018.

This month, Meeting of the Minds consultant and writer Kate O’Brien connected with José Holguín-Veras — the William J. Hart Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment; and Director of the Volvo Research and Educational Foundation Center of Excellence on Sustainable Urban Freight Systems at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. In the last few years, in his focus on efficiencies in assuring access to transportation systems in post-disaster recovery scenarios, Holguín-Veras has led groundbreaking research on the implementation and potential impacts associated with off-hours delivery transportation systems.

I gather your research has yielded some really promising data that points to game-changing strategies for increasing sustainability at scale. Specifically, you focus on transport systems that facilitate business-to-business (B2B) delivery and, heightening in recent years with Internet purchasing, business-to-consumer (B2C) delivery. Please give me some context for your work and why it’s important.

José Holguín-Veras: In my work, I try to help other people see that complex problems — like congestion and air pollution resulting from combustion engines — do not have simple solutions. Technology is no magic silver bullet. Artificial intelligence, big data, drone deliveries … there’s this prevailing belief that these technological innovations will solve all our problems. But we humans have been developing technology since the dawn of humanity, and rarely has technology been able to provide a complete solution to humanity’s problems. Technology is and has always been only one part of what needs to be a multi-faceted response to our complex challenges.

Let me give you an example. During the Industrial Revolution, we developed more efficient combustion engines. One might think that would have driven down the consumption of coal. But, in fact, consumption of coal during the Industrial Revolution increased. As demand for the new technology rose, the price of new engines came down, and a number of new inventions, innovations and uses drove even more demand for the combustion engine.

Here’s a more recent example: Between 1970 and 2014, the efficiency of diesel engines increased by about 1 percent each year. But at the same time, demand for and use of diesel engines increased by 3-5 percent each year. During that window of time, globalization and just-in-time (JIT) supply chain systems drove demand for transportation systems that relied more heavily on trucking and diesel engines.

In each of these examples, it is clear that new technology produced benefits. But we never paused to ask and answer a key question: How do we reduce consumption of non-renewable resources? My research has been informed by this very question. We need to think of the answer as a suite of holistic approaches that will help us achieve more sustainability. Most profound in this suite of solutions, I feel, includes behavior change.

In my research, I’ve been collecting and analyzing data from delivery transportation systems. We see that while rates of commercial delivery have remained steady, the rates of Internet purchasing have increased dramatically. In fact, Internet purchasing has tripled in the past eight years, and all freight activity — household and commercial — has doubled in that same time.

What do you suggest we do to mitigate that increase?

JHV: My research has shown that without changes in behavior — of the expectations, assumptions and consumption patterns among consumers — we won’t be able to reduce the environmental impact of those systems. We need to educate ourselves as individuals in a society, as taxpayers, about the consequences of convenience — the trade-offs, the negative impacts not fully accounted for. There are tough decisions we’ve long needed to make. We need to start cultivating a willingness to change. We need enlightened policy to push that along, otherwise we’ll just keep increasing our consumption of non-renewable resources in this new age.

Seems pretty daunting. What kinds of behavior changes are we talking about? Where do you see us gaining some traction?

JHV: Changing behaviors is easier once we change our values. I’ll give you a key example from my own work. We’ve been studying the benefits and efficiencies that happen when communities incentivize manufacturers to stagger employee start and end times, or freight companies to shift delivery schedules to off-hours. The data shows us that nudging stakeholders across delivery transportation systems to question their assumptions and expectations about how we all operate and why, can be a powerful enabler of behavior change.

You asked me what kind of behavior change I’m contemplating here. I’ll answer by asking you a question: Think about all the Internet purchases you’ve made in the past year. Of those purchases, how many of them were ones you truly needed delivered urgently? Most of us would probably admit that few of our online purchases are things we need delivered right away. But in the relatively short time Internet shopping has been around, a couple things have happened quite rapidly. For one thing, rather than planning ahead, online purchasing and the prospect of free, overnight delivery has helped us grow accustomed to speed, whether we truly need something quickly or not. At the same time, shipping companies and suppliers are marketing speed of delivery as a comparative and competitive advantage. We have come to value speed of delivery more than living in cities that are congestion-free or breathing clean air.

There are many problems with speed of delivery, but just to expound on one: Shipping speed is counterproductive to freight consolidation. By this I mean, consolidating shipments — a “one large truck trip to deliver 20 packages centrally versus 20 passenger vehicles making each of those 20 singular deliveries” consideration. Freight consolidation is a very straightforward way to reduce operating costs while also providing a host of externalities associated with reduced congestion and emissions. There are dozens of examples like this I could offer.

So, policy aimed at consolidating freight, and at staggering delivery times, could be pretty impactful.

JHV: Yes. Now, I’m not suggesting that a sweeping policy change like this is a magic silver bullet. It’s not. But my research shows that enlightened and strategic policy change can encourage more nuanced use of technology, thereby bringing more sustainability to our marketplace and our delivery systems. What we’re talking about here is reframing the objective of transport efficiency. Policymakers need to leverage where there are already interests in the marketplace; for instance, efficiency in delivery transportation is in the best financial interest of shipping companies. But get this — what the data also shows is that improved efficiency of delivery transport is also value-add for workers. Delivery drivers are happier making off-hours delivery runs because they are less vexing. Off-hours delivery drivers are not contending with the stress of double parking, or idling while waiting for curb space to load and unload, or sitting in traffic jams. This is a no-brainer. It’s an opportunity for a win-win-win, if you also count improvements to air quality and less traffic congestion.

Wow, I never really thought about the benefits to employees and their work places.

JHV: Exactly! And the dimensions and magnitude of positive impacts associated with off-hours delivery efficiency is jaw-dropping. We’ve been studying GPS data from delivery vehicles in several places — New York City, São Paulo, Stockholm, Bogotá and others. In Bogotá alone, shifting delivery start times from traditional business hours to a 6pm to 10pm window resulted in a 13 percent drop in emissions. In São Paulo, when deliveries were shifted from daytime to the overnight realm of 7pm – 6am, there was a 49-55 percent reduction in GHG emissions. The potential impacts are staggering!

Can you walk me through the factors that enable that emissions decrease? What’s actually happening when delivery times are shifted to off-hours?

JHV: It all hinges on increased efficiency. First, because nighttime traffic patterns are smoother, we see a reduction in rates of acceleration and deceleration. Less congestion means greater fuel efficiency, so fewer emissions. Second, delivery vehicles are able to travel faster at night than during daytime peak hours. Faster speeds are more efficient, so fewer emissions. Third, in congested conditions, we travel longer distances, use alternate routes that are far from optimal. Shorter trips mean less fuel consumed and fewer emissions.

Amazing that seemingly subtle shifts in delivery hours can produce such dramatic results. Where do you see a role for policy in encouraging more widespread implementation of these kinds of practices?

JHV: There are several parts of the web where change needs to happen, and enlightened policy has the potential to facilitate change across that web. Shifting delivery times seems straightforward and simple, but moving an entire community and its supply chains to greater sustainability requires multiple interventions happening in parallel — with consumer behavior, with infrastructure, and with use of technology.

With respect to behaviors, our ultimate challenge is convincing each receiver in the delivery transportation system — whether household consumer or commercial proprietor — to honestly understand and account for the environmental impacts of their operations and their consumer decisions, while at the same time questioning their assumptions.

If I’m an avid online shoe shopper, I’m questioning my perception of need for overnight shipping. Do I value my shoes arriving right away more than I value clean air and less traffic? If not, will the slight inconvenience of waiting a couple days for my shipment to be included in a larger truck making hundreds of package deliveries with one single, efficient trip be that detrimental to me? Is diminished air quality and more traffic congestion a price worth paying so my shoes are on my doorstep the morning after I click “buy”? Is it fair to force my neighbors to bear the burden of my choices? These are inconvenient but important questions we need to be asking ourselves.

If I’m a restaurant chef who needs fresh vegetables to cook, I’m questioning my assumption about whether a produce delivery actually needs to happen in the daytime hours simply because we’ve always had a staff member be in person to receive our shipments. In fact, our research shows that over a third of commercial vendors surveyed say they have no reason to not allow supply deliveries to be made overnight without staff supervision. Embracing this kind of behavior change, really questioning convention or a longstanding rationale, enables off-hours delivery to take hold bit by bit. “Foodie” cities have a real opportunity on their hands for encouraging reductions in congestion and emissions in this way.

If I’m EPA, and I’m truly committed to increasing efficiency and reducing emissions dramatically, I would provide incentives to communities that mandate local business embrace off-hours delivery — which has the potential to bring about a 55 percent increase in system-wide efficiency — rather than providing incentives to trucking companies that purchase replacement engines, which only increases efficiency of the delivery transportation system by just 5 percent. If I’m an elected official who wants to encourage climate action locally in the absence of federal mandates, I can foster programming that inspires willingness to lead local action.

If I’m a municipal planner, I’m looking at new development and redevelopment projects through the lens of infrastructure. I’m finding ways to address customers looking for parking and delivery truck drivers looking for curb space to load and unload pallets. I’m looking at requiring the commercial real estate developer to ensure ample curb space and loading docks for deliveries during the site plan review process rather than fining delivery truck drivers for double parking or idling because there isn’t sufficient infrastructure enabling their deliveries.

Behavior change is required all over our communities’ systems to take fullest advantage of convenience technologies while also improving our ecological footprint. I know there is much we can do at the personal, commercial and local government levels to affect global-scale change.


Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for the monthly Global Mobility Research blog series with Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on coaching, capacity building, and facilitation, Kate supports change agents and their transformative… [Read more about Kate O'Brien]


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