Street-Level Views of Megacity Logistics

City limits. The MIT Megacity Logistics Lab has built a free map of delivery vehicle flows in major cities
City freightscape. The MIT Megacity Logistics Lab has built a free map of delivery vehicle flows in megacities. This screen shot shows deliveries to various stores in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s difficult to picture the challenges of delivering freight in densely populated megacities without firsthand experience of navigating these population centers. MIT researchers are providing the next best thing: analyses of megacity goods flows based on real-world observations of delivery vehicle movements.

In one project sponsored by the Itaú Fund for Research on Sustainability in Latin America, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of São Paulo (USP) tracked goods vehicles in the Brazilian city of São Paulo.

The 20 million or so inhabitants of São Paulo are packed into an area of almost 8,000 km² that covers 39 municipalities. The city’s central municipality alone qualifies as a megacity with some 11 million citizens (megacities have a population of at least 10 million people).

More than 4.5 million buses, cars, and trucks cause monumental traffic jams in the city, and congestion issues are getting worse. In the last five years, some 1.3 million new vehicles were registered in the municipality of São Paulo, a 21% increase in the size of the fleet.

Delivery vehicles serve the needs of about 200,000 commercial establishments in the São Paulo municipality. Traffic congestion causes delays and generates huge volumes of carbon. A 2010 local government report estimates that 12% of the 257,000 tons of air pollutants emitted by motor vehicles in the city come from delivery vehicles.

Since 1982, São Paulo’s local government has been implementing and modifying various public policies to control the movement of freight traffic in targeted areas within the city.

One approach has been to encourage the use of small goods vehicles that can easily navigate São Paulo’s crowded streets, which has resulted in the proliferation of so-called urban freight vehicles (VUCs). Regulations specify where and at what times these small trucks can operate within city limits.

A larger vehicle, called a TOCO, is also used to deliver freight in the city. They have twice the capacity of the VUC model, and also face heavy operational restrictions.

Researchers from MIT and USP collected data on the movement of these vehicles in two ways. In “city exploration” exercises, small groups of researchers observed specific aspects of delivery operations such as street configurations and the number of destinations in specific urban areas. Secondly, “route shadowing” activities focused on companies’ last mile operations by following trucks and observing key features such as arrival/departure times, and the number of deliveries completed.

Based on their observations, the researchers recommended ways to improve freight traffic flows, particularly in relation to the way goods vehicles are regulated in São Paulo.

One suggestion is to implement a delivery time window policy in conjunction with more parking spaces in congested areas. Another recommendation is to use a tailored approach to policy making, that takes neighborhood characteristics into account to minimize the unintended environmental consequences of regulatory codes.

Another project collected similar data this summer in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, Santiago, São Paulo, Kuala Lumpur, and Madrid. Researchers at the MIT Megacity Logistics Lab teamed up with local students to gather the data.

The teams documented the types of vehicles that carry goods including trucks, carts, and even bicycles, and recorded details of parking patterns and congestion problems. This data was uploaded remotely and posted on virtual maps in real time. The results can be seen on an open-access, free website called Last Mile. There are plans to keep adding to the data.

As the database grows, it will help megacity planners to find better solutions to the management of freight traffic, believes Dr. Edgar Blanco, Director of the MIT Megacity Logistics Lab. Currently, a lack of information and expertise on the unique challenges of megacity logistics is a major issue as these population centers continue to expand.

For more information on the project see this recent article in MIT News.

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