Freight in the City Regions: A Sustainable Vision for 2030

In this special guest post, Chris Rowland, Director at MDS Transmodal (MDST), outlines some of the key findings of MDST’s recent report for pteg, ‘Freight in the City Regions’. You can read the report, and find out more about freight in the city regions on our Freight Hub.

Freight containers being lifted

‘Sustainable distribution’ seeks a balance between economic efficiency and environmental sustainability. Picture: iStock Photo

The need for “sustainable distribution” in the City Regions

The freight and logistics industry is an essential feature of any economy as it allows manufacturers to receive their raw materials and components and to distribute their products to customers, while it also ensures that a wide range of goods are available in the shops. The industry is also a major employer, accounting for 9% of the country’s GDP and 7% of its total employment. At the same time, however, freight transport movements are a source of greenhouse gas emissions, contribute to congestion and generate noise; at a local level the diesel engines that power most road freight vehicles emit particulates that are damaging to human health.

For these reasons, local authorities and PTEs in the English City Regions have a growing interest in freight and are generally focusing on the policy objective of “sustainable distribution”, where a balance is found between economic efficiency and environmental sustainability. The needs and expectations of the freight industry and its customers (which are mainly commercial and economic) have to be balanced with those of City Regions’ residents and visitors through public sector intervention in the market. In economic terms, where the costs of private activities are not fully reflected in the user costs of the freight industry and their customers, there is market failure; the public sector therefore has a role in seeking to balance the needs of the private operators with the wider needs of society.

Through work it carried out for pteg in 2012-13, MDS Transmodal has produced a policy vision for freight and logistics in the English City Regions, along with a “policy toolkit” of practical measures that could be adopted by individual City Regions to move towards achieving this vision. Any initiatives by the City Regions would be addressing a relatively blank canvas. Central Government has made few positive initiatives in the freight sector, having generally been encouraged by the freight industry to leave matters to the market.

Policy vision for freight in the City Regions: the “last mile”

Person loading a box onto a lorry

Consolidation of orders could help reduce the need for freight movements. Picture: iStock Photo

So what, realistically, should the City Regions be seeking to achieve by (say) 2030?

In the context of freight transport and its environmental impacts, the European Environment Agency talks about the need to “shift”, “avoid” and “improve” freight transport and this can be applied to urban freight transport and logistics.

For economic and very practical operational reasons it is difficult for “last mile” deliveries between Regional Distribution Centres (RDCs) and city centre retail outlets to shift from road to non-road modes of transport, so the emphasis is likely to be on “avoiding” and “improving” freight transport in urban areas. The vision for “last mile” deliveries in the City Regions that we have proposed in a report for pteg focused on:

  • Consolidation of orders by receivers of goods and consolidation of road deliveries by freight transport operators, thereby reducing the number of freight movements required (“avoiding” freight transport);
  • Use of low emission vehicles for last mile deliveries and collections in urban areas (“improving”);
  • E-commerce deliveries to local collection and drop-off points (“improving” and “avoiding”);
  • Quiet night-time deliveries (“improving” and “avoiding”).

Policy vision for freight in the City Regions: the wider picture

However, “last mile” deliveries to city centres should also be seen as part of longer distance distribution chains that link goods passing through RDCs with National Distribution Centres and ports and our vision therefore includes the development of a network of “Urban Distribution Centres” (UDCs) in the City Regions that provide the opportunity to transfer medium- to long-distance flows transported by rail and waterborne transport to low emission vehicles for the “last mile” deliveries into city centres.

To secure the maximum potential for the use of sustainable distribution services over medium to long distances, these UDCs need to co-locate intermodal terminals with RDCs (i.e. warehouses) and they need to be located within the range of low emission vehicles for city centre deliveries. These UDCs would be similar to Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges, but would often need to be closer to major urban areas, could also be located on major freight waterways (such as the Thames and the Manchester Ship Canal) and would need to have facilities specifically for low emission vehicles and to facilitate the consolidation of loads.

City Region “freight policy toolkit”

Given that the freight and logistics industry is owned and controlled by the private sector, how can the City Regions achieve this vision?

One thing is clear. This vision can only be achieved by the private sector freight and logistics industry operating in an environment that allows it to behave in a “virtuous” way so that more sustainable distribution can be secured, while also allowing it to compete on a level playing field, invest for the future and generate employment.

Multi-modal freight

There is an opportunity for the City Regions to redefine realistic objectives for the movement of freight that address both sustainability and efficiency. Picture: iStock Photo

The City Regions need to develop integrated and evidence-based freight strategies within the existing Local Transport Plan (LTP) and land use planning framework and in consultation with relevant stakeholders through Freight Quality Partnerships (FQPs), with tailored packages of policy measures that influence the behaviour of the freight industry to adopt sustainable distribution practices.

A non-harmonised, inconsistent regulatory regime that is not based on evidence of impacts and without consulting the freight and logistics industry could actually do more harm than good to both the local economy and environment, as well as unnecessarily disrupting freight transport and logistics activities. While the freight and logistics industry is concerned about ill-informed and uncoordinated public sector intervention, it is equally clear that the industry adapts rapidly and efficiently to new opportunities dictated by different land use policies or the re-emergence of the rail freight sector. In other European countries, road pricing for freight has been absorbed by the industry despite initial objections. It follows that there is an opportunity for the English City Regions to redefine realistic objectives for the movement of freight that address both sustainability and efficiency.

While road pricing for freight would make a considerable contribution to achieving more sustainable distribution, this is a policy that would need to be pursued by government at a national level. At a City Region level, the key instruments for PTEs and local authorities to achieve the objective of sustainable distribution are likely to be:

  • Defining suitable locations for new Urban Distribution Centres (UDCs) in and around the City Regions.
  • Providing indirect subsidies to favour certain vehicle types and delivery timings on the basis of nationally determined principles. These might include exemptions for low emission vehicles from time windows in city centres, allowing LEVs to use priority lanes and make quiet night-time deliveries.
  • Requiring major city centre developments to adopt Delivery Service Plans and promoting their use by other businesses based in city centre offices.
  • Requiring major city centre developments to plan for off-street loading and unloading bays and planning for a network of on-street bays (possibly provided on a user pays basis).
  • Working with Network Rail and other stakeholders to define future rail infrastructure requirements for freight in the City Regions (e.g. re-opening of freight lines and connections for UDCs).
  • Developing a network of pick up and drop off points for e-commerce parcels that are integrated with City Region public transport networks.
  • Working with major ‘industrial’ stakeholders such as ports and manufacturers to develop shared visions in those sectors (e.g. port centric distribution and UDCs) where the City Regions can play a supporting role in economic regeneration through freight and logistics activity.
  • Providing information on regulations and routing for freight through signing, freight maps, information portals and, in the medium to long term, Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS).

The absence of nationally defined strategies for freight transport provides the opportunity for the City Regions to establish their own, using an evidenced-based and consultative approach that is already available via the LTP processes and working with existing FQPs.

Chris Rowland

Director – MDS Transmodal

Public transport projects in the Development Pool need your support

Up to the 14th October, the Department for Transport is asking for comments on ‘Development Pool’ transport projects. In this special guest blog post, Sian Berry from Campaign for Better Transport sets out why public transport projects in the pool need our support –  and how you can get involved.

Traffic tail lights

Some £897m of road spending is proposed across the pool

My work at Campaign for Better Transport is currently focused on the 45 ‘Development Pool’ transport projects that are bidding for Department for Transport funding.

We have analysed the final bids that were revealed in September and have produced a briefing which shows that, despite the benefits of sustainable transport, more than half of the schemes proposed by local councils are road-based, with a total of £897 million of road spending proposed across the pool.

The most expensive road schemes in the pool are the ‘zombie’ bypasses that have been dominating local councils’ transport strategies for decades, re-emerging every few years to grab at any potential funding, and crowding out cheaper sustainable transport proposals. Our analysis showed that the new roads in the pool cost more on average than other ideas, and have seen a greater increase in what councils are prepared to risk in ‘local contributions’ since the process of competing for the shrunken DfT pot was launched last year.

Journalist George Monbiot wrote about the plans in his Guardian blog last week and said that they “…should provoke equal outrage among those who oppose the cuts, those who want to protect the environment and those who are still waiting for the rational, integrated transport system we were promised 15 years ago.”

But there are some good ideas hidden amongst the ‘link roads’ and ‘distributor routes’ in the Development Pool: if you look carefully, you can find some really exciting public transport projects that will improve access to transport – and quality of life – for everyone in the local areas concerned.

Leeds NGT trolleybus

Leeds is the largest European city without a tram or metro - a trolley bus could fill the gap

The Leeds New Generation Transport project stands out as the most ambitious. Leeds remains the largest European city without a tram or metro network, and their innovative trolley bus proposal seeks to fill that gap.

The Manchester Cross City Bus project would add three new high quality bus routes to the north of the city, including bus-only sections of route, while the South Yorkshire Bus Rapid Transit northern route would create much-needed new transport links between Rotherham and Sheffield, complete with purpose-built stops and real-time information. Rochdale aims to rebuild and relocate its bus station closer to other links, with comfortable modern facilities and better information for passengers.

Some rail and tram projects also feature in the proposals. In the West Midlands, the first stage of the ‘NUCKLE’ network would begin with upgrading the line between Coventry and Nuneaton, including two new stations. In the South East, Transport for London and Hertfordshire County Council are bidding to move the terminus of the Metropolitan tube line to Watford Junction, properly integrating under- and over-ground services in the area at last. Metro in Leeds is also proposing to build two new railway stations at Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge, while Sheffield is bidding for new Supertram vehicles to improve service frequencies.

Sheffield Supertram

Sheffield is proposing to invest in the Supertram network to improve frequencies

These public transport schemes all show ‘high’ or ‘very high’ value for money, and the services provided will be available for everyone in these towns and cities to enjoy, not just people in cars. Public transport also has a much lower environmental impact – in both landscape and carbon terms – than roads through green fields that will only encourage sprawl and worsen car-dependency.

It’s no accident that the most ambitious public transport projects in the pool are proposed by TfL or one of the PTEs. As our briefing also points out, investing or borrowing on the basis of future fare income is far less risky than the road-promoting councils’ reliance on payments from out-of-town housing and business parks that may never materialise. PTEs, with their track record of delivering public transport schemes and long-term strategies based on continued investment, are in a strong position to make realistic plans – not gamble an area’s future on a few miles of tarmac.

Up to 14 October, the DfT is asking the public to submit comments on schemes they support (or oppose) in the Development Pool, and these comments will influence on ministers’ decisions in December.

You can help by using our interactive map to take a few minutes find and comment on the schemes in your area. Visit:

Sian Berry, Campaign for Better Transport

Buses – a young person’s view

People waiting at a bus stop

Where is that bus?

Over the summer holidays, pteg, as part of the cross-sector ‘Taking forward travel and transport for children and young people’ group, brought together young people, transport operators, local transport authorities, central government and voluntary sector organisations to discuss bus travel.

We were really impressed by the young people who took part and were inspired to offer a ‘guest blogger’ post to a member of the UK Youth Parliament. In response, the UKYP selected this no-holds-barred post by Helen Rendle, Member of Youth Parliament for Fylde. Well, we did ask for it… 

Stood at the bus stop with a sign that says goes both ways waiting for the bus

Bus should be here and the rain is getting worse…I really wish there was a shelter

Bus is really late it’s a Sunday and the bus only comes once an hour…I wish my mum had taken me

I’m going to be really late and am getting really wet…I wonder if the bus was really early? It was last week and I got a warning at work for being so late, how else am I meant to get to work it’s too far to walk.

Bus finally arrived and just paid £5.90 for a return that only takes 20 minutes because I’m an adult according to the bus driver but technically I’m still a child until I’m 18, why should I pay for an adult when I’m not allowed in pubs, or to vote and not allowed my own phone contract yet I’m allowed to travel on a bus for an adult? I’m a student to get to work it costs me 2 hours of my wages to get to work. And it’s just as bad when you’re under 16; my friend who is 15 got told she needed proof of ID but she goes to school what’s she meant to do? Carry her passport with her every time she wants to get a bus? The driver was so rude it was like I wasn’t a real person yet I’m paying for an adult it’s not even like I’m trying to pretend I’m 15 or 16. He snatched my money and set off before I’d even got to my seat which sent me flying into an older woman who tutted and muttered yob. I am not playing music loudly, smoking, drinking or intimidating anyone unlike those men sat at the back are and they clearly aren’t young people.

Finally arrived: late. The driver missed my stop not realising it was a stop so had to walk back…late again.

Young people face this sort of treatment regularly on their bus journeys, is this a fair system?

Young people want:

  • Childs fares while they are still classed as children.
  • Bus drivers to trust them and treat them like any other person who gets on the bus; we are paying customers too
  • Buses to run more reliably
  • The bus stops to be more than just a pole- they at least need a timetable and shelters.

Helen Rendle, MYP for Fylde