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Extreme urbanization could force changes in delivery networks

By Ben Ames | September 09, 2015 | 11:23 AM | Categories: Transportation

Last-mile parcel delivery can be the toughest leg of e-commerce fulfillment, and that task may become even tougher as many cities struggle with a trend of “extreme urbanization” that will stress their infrastructure, according to urban planners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The move will trigger consequences like urban sprawl and steep population growth that could make traditional traffic flow difficult or unwieldy, warned Kent Larson, director of the Changing Places Group at the MIT Media Lab and Co-director of the lab’s City Science Initiative.

Urban planners are already designing creative systems to help avoid these bottlenecks, such as “responsive cities” that use networks of sensors to guide traffic and support more efficient public transportation networks, Larson said in a talk at Innovation Enterprise’s Internet of Things Summit, held in Boston September 9.

One of the heaviest examples of swift growth will occur in China, where an estimated 300 million rural inhabitants will move to urban areas over the next 15 years, requiring the country to build an entire new infrastructure in just a few decades.

To avoid spiraling costs and wasted resources, officials are making creative plans. One project in the European country of Andorra calls for incoming traffic to park on city edges and support commutes to destinations in the city center through shared transportation, Larson said.

Autonomous vehicles could also help to alleviate road crowding by allowing more efficient traffic patterns, but many countries face hurdles such as cost and liability that could discourage this approach.

These new traffic flow patterns could also challenge business patterns for carriers and delivery trucks if they fail to adapt their logistics networks to the fast-changing urban landscape.

However, other new urban planning designs could make life easier for office and residential delivery. Urban leaders in Chattanooga, Tenn., are laying the foundation for building a less car-centered community that would allow residents to live nearer to their jobs, schools, and stores instead of logging long commutes on highways, said Larson.

Likewise, planners in Atlanta, Ga., are hoping to build “micro-cities” that are designed to avoid unmanageable urban sprawl by creating zoning laws that support self-contained, decentralized regions. These small cities would allow residents to access most of their needs at local spots, while relying on high-bandwidth connectivity to share the data and business resources people need for work, health, education, and entertainment.

Transportation and delivery systems in these micro-cities would likely follow the private business model lead by the Uber car hiring service, he said.

For more information on MIT’s urban planning research, see cities.media.mit.edu.

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