11.–12.06.2025 #polismobility

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Where to put it?

Goods and freight logistics in the mobility transition

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Are people becoming commodities or are commodities becoming people? In the modern city, both happen simultaneously and side by side. Together with Prof. Michael Lorth, we consider whether and how the ideas of mobility fit together with those of goods transportation.

Graphic of a city in two areas connected by a tunnel. In the periphery, a building labeled "Urban Hub", which is supplied by trucks. In the city center, many buildings, one labeled "City Hub" and connected to the tunnel. In the city, cargo bikes and delivery robots ride along the streets.

© Michael Lorth (TH Köln) / Nina Lockemann

The city

With a few exceptions, Germany's major cities are hundreds, some thousands of years old. After so many years, it is often forgotten that these cities often developed where goods were exchanged and traded. This exchange made the city an attractive place to settle. Marketplaces were often the nuclei of cities and the basis for our current social order. Fifty years ago, the transport economist Fritz Voigt wrote in his standard work Verkehr (Transport) that "transport services make the phenomenon we call 'market' possible in the first place", referring to both markets in the literal and figurative sense.

In the modern city, open-air markets lead a niche existence. Their task of supplying everyday goods is now being taken over by supermarkets, and increasingly by online retailers. The goods come, whether via a detour to the supermarket or directly by doorstep delivery, from logistics centers with no history in the industrial estates outside the city. The old transshipment and trading centers, freight stations, city ports and warehouses have also become obsolete and are being turned into new living space. "We are converting the cities like a house in which the kitchen, bathroom and cellar are given away for five living rooms. Anyone who is hungry has to leave the house," says Prof. Michael Lorth, describing the situation. He holds the Chair of Logistics Consulting at Cologne University of Applied Sciences. "Today, urban supply is largely dependent on the periphery. The 'last mile' in the important general cargo sector is on average 30 kilometers long, which causes an enormous amount of traffic. And now we are trying to reduce truck traffic again, which we ourselves have contributed to by displacing urban logistics infrastructures."

Graphic of a city in two areas connected by a tunnel. In the periphery, a building labeled "Urban Hub", which is supplied by trucks. In the city center, many buildings, one labeled "City Hub" and connected to the tunnel. In the city, cargo bikes and delivery robots ride along the streets.

© Michael Lorth (TH Köln) / Nina Lockemann

The logistics

A literally obvious solution could be transshipment and storage areas in the city that can be served from outside with efficient and low-emission means of transportation. Such inner-city "hubs" would then be starting and destination points for the bundling of goods and fine distribution with much smaller and more urban space-compatible vehicles in the city. However, there is often not only a lack of space for this, but also a lack of understanding and commitment to logistics on the part of local authorities. A publication by Agora Verkehrswende shows how cities and municipalities can contribute to the sustainable management of freight transport.

Unlike us humans, goods are not inherently mobile. They are only transported at all because they are produced and used in other places. Their distribution is organized by freight forwarders, recipients and shippers without others knowing much about it. In addition, urban supply falls into different logistics segments - each supermarket chain has its own logistics network that is closely linked to the respective companies, while the retail sector is traditionally supplied by general cargo forwarders, who often cooperate with each other in general cargo networks in order to be competitive. Local authorities often leave the logistics sector to its own devices and rely on it to organize itself efficiently. However, they mainly consider their own network, whereas a municipality should focus on efficiency for everyone. The Agora Verkehrswende study points out that a lot can be saved in terms of traffic and emissions if there are incentives for greater bundling and cooperation, for example. The logistics sector responds very well to pricing instruments and public sector requirements, but also needs planning security and responsiveness. Ultimately, however, it is not the city that has to conform to the long outdated ideal of a traffic and logistics-optimized city, but rather logistics that enables a good life in the city, says Prof. Lorth.

City logistics

One approach to this is known as city logistics. The word alone exudes the charm of the 1990s. Back then, the main aim was for logistics companies to operate more efficiently in conurbations by cooperating and transferring deliveries to smaller vehicles outside the city gates. Positive effects for the environment were rather secondary. At the turn of the millennium, numerous subsidies expired and many projects were discontinued. What remained were mainly the freight transport centers and the now ubiquitous buzzword "multimodal", which actually means service by road, rail or ship. Today, it is mainly used in passenger transport when it comes to mobile stations and transfer hubs.

"City logistics stands for more than just the transportation of goods in a city," says Prof. Laetitia Dablanc from the University Gustave Eiffel in an attempt at a definition. It is about enabling urban supply according to the highest ecological, social and economic standards. It is therefore a question of what logistics actually has to achieve in the city.

Längsschnitt eines Mehrzweckgebäudes, unterirdisch mit zwei Ebenen. Oben eine Verladung mit Straßenfahrzeugen, unten mit Lagereinrichtung und Anbindung an ein Untergrundtransportsystem.

© Michael Lorth (TH Köln) / Nina Lockemann

"You can actually see that in the area of mobility," says Prof. Lorth. "Train stations in the city center, perhaps a subway and numerous bus lines on top of that - bundled traffic flows that lead as close as possible to the starting and destination points. In logistics, we simply drive into the city from the outside without even coming close to exploiting the potential of more bundled transportation. We are therefore proposing a rethink in planning in order to build an efficient, intelligent and sustainable logistics infrastructure for supply and disposal that enables batch size transformation and a temporal decoupling of logistics processes close to the inner-city sources and sinks." In his opinion, the infrastructure in central locations could and should also be underground so as not to put additional strain on the scarce urban space above ground and to enable multiple land uses. "Nobody wants to see above-ground logistics centers in city centers." But would that be realistic? Lorth draws parallels between the handling of freight traffic and the mobility of people: Large and bundled structures in the city are normal and accepted in passenger transportation, he says. "We only do things very differently when it comes to logistics. We should change that if we want to enable more sustainable living in attractive, liveable and climate-resilient cities. This will not come for free, but we will regain a significant part of people's quality of life."

He also points out how closely passenger and freight transport are linked. Many journeys are made to go shopping or to transport private goods. A recent study commissioned by the Federal Environment Agency examined, among other things, whether online retail is already replacing shopping trips. As in other countries, this could not be determined in Germany. At the same time, however, there is an opportunity to reduce shopping trips as the proportion of online shopping increases.