Over the past few years, the explosion of e-commerce and food delivery apps has upheld old shopping habits and profoundly transformed society. Many of those changes are prompting cities to step in and take on a leading role in steering this metamorphosis.
In Paris, for example, preliminary data highlights a shift in delivery transport modes: some 25% of goods are distributed by bike, scooter or on foot, instead of vans and trucks. It’s not just food delivery platforms driving this trend, but also other sectors. Postal services, for example, are increasingly relying on cargo bikes for last-mile deliveries.
Food delivery applications, free-floating scooters and other shared mobility systems can offer local authorities vital information to understand changes in the way goods are delivered in cities. At the same time, this data can help European municipalities to plan and implement their sustainable mobility transition.
What type of information will cities need and what data-harvesting tools can they apply? These are some of the questions that emerged at FastTrack’s Capacity Building Week, held online from 29 to 31 March.
At the event, hosted by Stockholm, cities swapped notes about effective data management strategies. The discussion focussed on how public authorities, citizens and other subjects may obtain access to online data and gain insights that can guide decisions and plans.
The city as referee and enabler
The appropriate use of data is a critical step on the road to deploying innovative mobility measures. But what role should public authorities play?
“We need to be a referee and the enabler,” suggests Sami Sahale from Forum Virium, Helsinki’s innovation company. “Municipalities should create the conditions for data exchange between private operators and local authorities,” he remarked, “at the same time, they should lay out a clear framework with the conditions under which this data will be used.” Two different scenarios open up, for example, depending on whether cities are using their own data, or are receiving them from third parties.
Living labs – a real-life testing of a research or an idea – are another way of exploring data-sharing. Josep Salanova, from the Hellenic Institute of Transport, highlighted that the most important aspect of a living lab is that all project participants – from logistic operators to citizens, shop owners and consumers – need to be involved and be able to share their own data. In addition, citizens’ participation would be key, Salanova remarked.
While cities are already engaging and communicating with different mobility operators and road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians, there seems to be little exchange with urban logistics operators, and municipalities are yet to define their role.
In Rotterdam, the city set up an Agreement for Zero Emission City Logistics together with 57 logistics operators. Aside from defining common goals to achieve sustainable urban logistics – such as a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 49% in 2030, compared to 1990 levels – the agreement also sets the conditions under which data should be shared and used amongst the signatories.
Initiatives like Rotterdam’s are important first steps, but further thinking will be needed to understand what incentives local authorities may use to encourage private operators to provide their own data. Laetitia Dablanc, a professor at Paris’ University Gustave Eiffel, suggested that in some cases asking for indicators can help to overcome barriers and further convince private operators to share their information.
Cities should also specify why they need data and what they will do with it. For example, how information about the age and type of a certain logistics fleet would be crucial for a carbon footprint assessment.
Explore multiple data sources
Dialogue is a prerequisite for any improvement in the use and sharing of data, as cities can’t solely rely on data collection via digital means, FastTrack Capacity Building Week participants concluded.
Meanwhile, emerging data collection methods can be explored to further bridge the knowledge gaps. The city of Barcelona, for example, is currently using an application that asks logistics drivers to record all their deliveries.
Drivers must register that information, including plate registration number, on a smartphone app, AreaDUM. Once they arrive on an (un)loading zone, they need to confirm their location. At that point, a 30-minute parking window opens to allow deliveries. The idea is to provide real-time information to the municipality about deliveries occurring in the urban area.
Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems, on the other hand, work with city cameras to enforce low-emission zones in the UK, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and a number of Scandinavian cities. However, while ANPR grants access to real-time data on vehicle movements, it also raises privacy concerns.
In addition, within the framework of the ASAP project, Stockholm set up a cooperation with truck company Scania, which holds almost 40% of the delivery market share in Sweden.
Scania provides Stockholm city authorities with data coming from its connected vehicles, including information about their approximate weight, position, stops or timestamps.
Big data challenges
In recent years, big data collection by telecommunication companies allows to calculate a variety of mobility indicators such as travel time and speed.
At the same time, new challenges are emerging, including the need to concentrate on the most meaningful data, how mobility data allows to know how transport means are used, or the number of people riding on a vehicle. An additional challenge is to find connections and synergies between ‘old fashioned’ data, such as surveys, and ‘innovative’ data, such as mobile data.
After an intense week of discussions and learning, some open questions remain: are all big data sources reliable? How do cities build trust and preserve anonymity? And finally, do administrations need to learn how to analyse big data or is it enough to rely on providers’ competence?
What these questions reveal is that no data source is ideal, that they all bring their own set of challenges and as such require more time and reflection.
Don’t forget about citizen data
A final lesson from the event concerns citizens. While many of these latest data collection trends require serious consideration of privacy and thus to comply with GDPR rules, a sustainable and future-oriented mobility data governance has to go further.
Ensuring transparency about the use of citizens’ information will be crucial. Citizens need to be considered as subjects with knowledge and expertise who can offer their own contribution.
The Wecount project is an example that provides a framework on how to set up such a co-creation process. Transparency and the willingness to be challenged are pre-conditions for a successful data collection process.