Our cities risk being boxed in

Over the past six months, the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) has been working through a significant process of industry engagement associated with the continuing development of the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy.

Throughout this extensive process, one of the most consistent issues raised by those involved in freight delivery – especially through the use of heavy vehicles – has been the increasing difficulty of making deliveries in CBD areas.

To put it bluntly – Australia’s cities are not freight friendly, an inevitable consequence of planning systems that fail to properly account for freight movement.

Moreover, unless remedial action is taken, the problem is likely to grow. Australia is already one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world, and a significant proportion of the residential and employment growth projected to occur in the years ahead will be heavily concentrated in CBD areas.

It follows that the larger our cities grow, the larger the freight task gets. Accordingly, if we wish to grow our cities and ensure their continuing functionality and amenity, we must adopt policies that can support that increasing freight task.

Yet, the default instinct in many of our urban planning systems – not to mention many political representatives – is to adopt policies that impede urban freight delivery, especially in CBD areas, by limiting access for heavy vehicles.

A lack of adequate street-loading zones, as well as new residential and commercial buildings with poor (or non-existent) freight delivery facilities, are likewise making CBD delivery a more cumbersome and costly exercise.
Remarkably, large-scale sites have been developed around Australia over recent years that do not incorporate a loading dock. Many in the freight logistics industry have also expressed concern over a lack of consultation when loading zones are introduced, relocated or removed.

All too often, these decisions are presented as a fait accompli – and the freight logistics industry is expected to live with both the consequences, and the cost increases that result.

Perversely, the growing problems facing freight delivery in Australian cities are occurring during a period where growth in ecommerce is fuelling expectations among many consumers of faster delivery timeframes and lower shipping costs.

Although it sounds good in theory, delivering freight after hours, so as to use CBD roads when they are least congested, still has a multitude of challenges associated with it.

These include the continuing imposition of curfews or outright bans on vehicle movements in parts of our major cities. Freight delivery after hours also poses safety concerns for drivers, as there is less passive surveillance due to fewer cars on the road and fewer people on the footpath.

Of course, after-hours delivery also can’t satisfy growing consumer demand for same-day service, which will become an even bigger issue as new players in the freight logistics industry seek to disrupt the market.

Freight Doesn’t Vote – the ALC’s recent submission to the Discussion Paper on National Freight and Supply Chain Priorities – includes several suggestions from industry for dealing with the challenge of CBD freight delivery.
One of these was the suggestion that major cities adopt trials of urban consolidation centres – where freight is deposited at a central point, and then delivered to consumers via other modes, including bicycles, walkers and electronic vans.

The Federal Government could facilitate such trials through the provision of incentive payments to state, territory or even local governments that amend planning schemes to support the operation of such facilities.

Similarly, truck-only lanes (or some other form of freight-only infrastructure) must be considered by governments to improve freight delivery and decrease congestion and emissions in high-demand environments.
Another potential solution identified by industry was the idea of ‘reverse curfews’. These would provide freight vehicles with the right of access to parts of the road at non-peak times, in order to facilitate efficient deliveries.

The ALC’s submission further recommends that curfews and other regulations that prohibit or inhibit freight delivery should be reviewed. They may be an ‘easy’ political solution, but they do nothing to promote economic efficiency.

Although these matters fall within the ambit of state and local governments, the ALC believes there is scope for the Federal Government to provide incentive payments to local authorities in order to reward good regulatory practice in this regard.

The movement of freight is essential to the everyday functionality of Australia’s cities. Unless we make the right policy changes now to facilitate greater efficiency in freight delivery, our cities – and the people who live and work in them – risk being boxed in.

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