UW Today

October 12, 2016

As online retailing booms, new Urban Freight Lab to work with industry, SDOT on delivery challenges

News and Information

The new UW Urban Freight Lab will be a “living laboratory” comprised of retailers, technology companies, goods delivery firms, building owner/operators, and cities that need to manage limited urban street space for multiple uses.

The new UW Urban Freight Lab will be a “living laboratory” comprised of retailers, technology companies, goods delivery firms, building owners and cities that need to manage urban street space for multiple uses.Anna Bovbjerg, University of Washington

In the heart of Amazon’s online retail empire, Seattleites can get everything from toothpaste to Thai food to a last-minute birthday gift delivered within hours.

But as cities like Seattle add new residents with appetites for near-instant gratification, how can businesses operating in urban environments with aggravating traffic and competition for street space meet customer expectations for quick deliveries?

A new University of Washington research center announced Oct. 12 will collaborate with the Seattle Department of Transportation and three founding industry members — Costco, Nordstrom and UPS — to tackle that question and test new solutions in urban goods delivery.

The UW Urban Freight Lab will investigate high-impact, low-cost solutions for businesses delivering goods in urban settings and cities trying to manage limited curb and parking space where delivery trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and cars all need to coexist.

Register now to attend Anne Goodchild’s Nov. 2 lecture on “Delivering Sustainability: Transporting Goods in Urban Spaces” as part of the UW College of Engineering’s fall lecture series.

As part of the UW Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center, the “living lab” will bring transportation and urban planners who manage public spaces together with retailers, urban truck freight carriers, technology companies supporting transportation logistics and multifamily and commercial developers.

In Seattle’s growing number of apartment and condo buildings, for instance, the boom in online deliveries is also putting pressure on building owners to design loading and common areas that can handle the onslaught. With hundreds of residents now buying 10 or 20 percent of their goods online, a concierge who used to handle a flower delivery or two now may be running the equivalent of a package sort center in the building lobby.

“Some of the changes brought about by the rise in e-commerce have the potential to reduce costs and carbon dioxide and improve livability, but we need better planning and exchange to ensure these opportunities are harnessed,” said civil and environmental engineering associate professor Anne Goodchild, who directs the transportation & logistics center, known as SCTL.

“Seattle is a great location for this living laboratory because we have urban growth, geographic constraints and profound behavioral changes in the way people are buying things they need for daily life,” she said.

At the same time, the issues and solutions the Urban Freight Lab and its industry members will investigate are applicable to other cities around the country.

“We have more than 300 Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack stores — many in dense urban settings with a range of delivery settings, including common docks and unique situations,” said Loren VandenBerghe, director of transportation at Nordstrom. “We are always interested in ways to better support our stores so we can better serve our customers. The SCTL’s efforts will be beneficial for us to glean some new best practices and actively participate in creating solutions so we can continue to do so.”

In dense commercial neighborhoods with limited parking, large truck drivers may resort to parking in the center lane while they make deliveries

In dense commercial neighborhoods with limited parking, large truck drivers may resort to parking in the center lane while they make deliveries.Anna Bovbjerg, University of Washington

SDOT director Scott Kubly on Wednesday announced a $285,000, 3-year research collaboration with the Urban Freight Lab that may grow over time.

“From the first mile to the last fifty feet, freight delivery is changing,” Kubly said. “For big trucks coming out of the Port of Seattle and small trucks delivering to people’s homes and businesses, this joint project will address the rapidly evolving world of freight movement.”

As an initial research question, the UW engineers, SDOT and lab members will focus on the “final 50 feet” challenge, or the last leg of a delivery. It begins at the point where a delivery driver leaves a truck or vehicle on a street, alley or loading bay and extends through a privately owned building into a residential lobby or commercial area.

Students and researchers will first map existing freight infrastructure like private loading bays, as the city doesn’t have complete information about where those exist, and document how deliveries are being managed in the real world.

The center will initially focus on the “Final 50 feet” challenge in urban deliveries, or the last leg between delivery drivers finding a place to park and handing off a package in a private building.

The center will initially focus on the “Final 50 feet” challenge in urban deliveries, or the last leg between delivery drivers finding a place to park and handing off a package in a private building.Anna Bovbjerg, University of Washington

They’ll also test solutions — from strategies to manage curb space or alleys differently to centralized drop-off lockers — to see how they work both in simulations and in the real world. Off-hours deliveries, for instance, can alleviate traffic and parking headaches. But would that noise disturb residents, or add to failed deliveries?

Eventually, the research team will develop an “Urban Freight Score” — similar to Walk Score that rates walkability for pedestrians — to evaluate the ability of trucks to access different locations around Seattle.

The new lab will draw on student expertise and research capacity from associated faculty members, as well as the UW’s Online Master’s Degree in Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics, which combines business and engineering courses, exposes students to supply chain leaders at leading companies and allows students to work on a real-world operational issue.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with the UW since the inception of the Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Master’s program,” said John Thelan, Costco’s Senior Vice President, Depot and Traffic. “They are a well-educated and very focused group. It’s a pleasure to invest in the future of such-high caliber students by forming this strategic partnership with the program.”

Compared to other supply chain research programs around the country, the Urban Freight Lab is unique in bringing together stakeholders that manage both public and private aspects of urban deliveries, Goodchild said.

UPS and other freight carriers, for instance, can use sophisticated technologies to manage their own operations and run their own warehouses as profitably as possible, she said. But once a truck hits a city street, all bets are off.

“The problems where we can be of most value occur where a private company has to use public space or share public space – they can’t control that,” Goodchild said. “The ‘final 50 feet’ highlights the challenge of coordinating across numerous, diverse stakeholders. It’s a problem that isn’t going to solve itself and no one can solve independently.”

For more information, contact Goodchild at annegood@uw.edu or SCTL’s chief operating officer Barb Ivanov at ivanovb@uw.edu.

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