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Smart technologies in last-mile delivery: Data-driven loading zone management

Over the past decades, we have witnessed tremendous growth in online shopping and e-commerce, a trend that has been further accelerated by the 2020 pandemic. According to data from the Hungarian Central Statistical Office (KSH), in 2006, only 4.7% of respondents reported making purchases online within three months, a figure that has now risen to 59%. Projections for 2030 suggest a global increase in demand for home-delivered packages by as much as 78%.

The proportion of online purchases according to the date of the last purchase [within 3 months] Source: KSH
The proportion of online purchases according to the date of the last purchase [within 3 months] Source: KSH
The changing consumer demands and habits are fundamentally reshaping the delivery and logistics industry, placing a significant burden on the so-called last-mile delivery. Last-mile delivery refers to the final step in the delivery process, from logistics centers, warehouses, or stores to the customer’s doorstep or parcel lockers. Consumers expect fast, accurate, and affordable delivery. But how can this be ensured sustainably in the future, and what are the current major challenges facing the industry?

Smart solutions for urban logistic challenges

With the proliferation of online shopping and e-commerce, the logistics industry requires innovative solutions for sustainable development. Smart technologies such as data-driven route optimization, delivery drones, and autonomous vehicles have the potential to revolutionize last-mile delivery. For example, Amazon is testing delivery drones capable of delivering orders to customers within one hour of the order being placed. Many of these solutions are revolutionary and futuristic: it is difficult to imagine drones delivering goods in the air over the streets of Budapest’s city center to impatient consumers. However, there are already technologies available that assist in the optimal utilization of existing resources, which Budapest may more easily adapt shortly. But before jumping straight to solutions, let’s briefly discuss the challenges of last-mile delivery.

Járókelő.hu deals with the management of public space issues. We often encounter reports related to loading zone problems. Source: Járókelő.hu
Járókelő.hu deals with the management of public space issues. We often encounter reports related to loading zone problems. Source: Járókelő.hu

One of the biggest problems is the lack of infrastructure, or more precisely, its congestion. In many urban areas, there is a limited number of loading zones available, leading to traffic jams and delays. If designated loading zones are unavailable or occupied, couriers often have to stop on the road or sidewalk illegally. This not only impedes traffic flow but also poses a safety hazard, as it can obstruct traffic signs or force other vehicles into overtaking maneuvers – moreover, the search for parking spaces results in increased CO2 emissions.

Innovative loading zone management across Europe

Loading zone management is not a Budapest-specific problem; most major European cities struggle with it. As mentioned, the answer comes in the form of innovative smart solutions. In Stuttgart, for example, they piloted technology that allows couriers to check in real-time which loading zones are available through a mobile app. The app uses a Bluetooth connection to register occupancy status. This data is valuable not only for shipping companies but also for city authorities to understand the precise utilization of loading zones, aiding in infrastructure planning.

An even more forward-thinking initiative is SmaLa, the smart loading zone system operating in Hamburg, which also allows for booking loading spaces. This makes routes fully plannable, reducing delivery times and, consequently, unnecessary emissions.

Budapest’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan, known as BMT 2030, also includes goals for sustainable freight transport:

“To track the changing public space usage needs, Budapest will create dynamically changing public spaces (e.g., a given area can serve as a parking lot, loading zone, taxi stand, and short-term stopping area tailored to the needs of couriers and parcel delivery services), allowing for better utilization of public spaces, dynamic servicing of logistic needs, and promoting legal stopping and loading.”

In short, the goal is to dynamically change the function of a given area based on demand. Examples from Stuttgart and Hamburg show that the technology already exists to achieve this. Moreover, in the city of Utrecht, they tested the concept for three months: when the digitalized area did not serve as a loading zone, they operated a “pick-your-own” garden where residents could harvest fresh herbs, enjoy music, and each other’s company.

If all this becomes a reality in our capital city, it will not only benefit players in the logistics industry but also residents and the environment, fostering a more efficient and sustainable future. However, it is important to note that alongside technology, control, and regulation are essential for such an ecosystem to be truly viable. Technology provides us with immense opportunities, but it must be accompanied by appropriate infrastructure and regulatory frameworks to ensure that the development is usable and effective. Therefore, the responsibility of city management is not only to adapt the technology but also to create and enforce the necessary rules. Without this, “smartification” is merely a futile attempt.

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