Mobility City Logistics How to Cut Back on Construction Traffic: The Challenge

How to Cut Back on Construction Traffic: The Challenge

Mathis Hampel

"If we've got more stuff than we can use, more food than we can eat, and thereby more money than we can spend, the problems we've got to solve first are conceptual-logistical ones."

European construction activities are predicted to grow by 3% per year. Housing, office and retail space need to be built and refurbished, roads must be repaired, resealed or dug up to renew pipes, or to build tramlines. Increasingly, sustainability considerations are taken on board. And still, any effort to construct ‘green’, ‘energy positive’ and even fully ‘circular’ risks being undermined by poor logistics. Much like the infamous circular toothbrush, made of recyclable materials but shipped to you from overseas, the processes behind sustainable constructions can be unbelievably wasteful.

Fragmentation of loads, leading to partially empty vehicles, is the prime source of urban transport inefficiency. To build one city flat, a single lorry must on average take 60 trips traveling 3,000km in total. A medium-sized city, building 5,000 flats every year – how many are built in your city? –, will see this oil guzzler make an equivalent of 20 return trips to the moon, many of them driving half-loaded or empty! 

The Costs

Up to 30% of tonnage carried within cities relates to construction sites. The economic, infrastructural, health and environmental costs of poor construction logistics are huge:

  • Economic: On average, transport accounts for 15-20 % of the construction costs. Five out of ten deliveries are late due to logistics deficiencies, disturbing workflow, escalating costs. There is little space for storage or logistic handling at urban construction sites, making the site itself the worst place to build.
  • Infrastructural: The delicate historic districts of our cities were not designed to accommodate vehicles of the size necessary for today’s urban renovation projects. Infrastructure is crumbling. One four-axle vehicle does the same amount of road damage as 30,000 cars. 
  • Health: Transport for London (TfL) data shows that 55% of cyclist fatalities in London involved heavy goods vehicles, which represent merely 4% of the road miles travelled in the UK capital. According to data from Sweden, half of all on-site accidents – slips, trips, falls from heights, etc. – are related to shortcomings in logistics and material handling. 
  • CO2 and pollutants: Lorries in Dutch cities are responsible for 20% of all motorized traffic CO2 emissions, and nearly 40% of NOx emissions. Small particulate matter (2.5 PM) from tire and road wear is a signifiant health threat. Cities across Europe show similar numbers.

Challenge 1: Someone Has to Die Before Action Is Taken

The advancement of logistics solutions to cut back on traffic depends on the urban freight regulations in place. More than anything else, these policies depend on the commitment of elected officials and local decision-makers. In London a great number of fatal cycling accidents involving heavy goods vehicles prompted local decision-makers to push for regulations taking lorries off the capital’s streets.

There’s little glory in prevention. Finding politicians courageous enough to push for strict regulations before it’s too late is therefore a significant challenge. 

Challenge 2: A Conservative and Rather Obscure Industry

With a few laudable exceptions the construction industry is hardly innovating. Developers and contractors employ subcontractors who themselves work with subcontractors, whose market position does not allow them to experiment with solutions that may have high costs front-end, such as low emission vehicles. Innovators are few and depend on early adopters to eventually break through.

There’s seemingly little to win in the short-term. Finding industry leaders pushing for solutions is therefore a significant challenge. 

Challenge 3: Construction Sites Constantly Move

The essence of the construction business: the sites constantly move, and the circumstances and actors vary, making it extremely difficult to find lasting logistics solutions. A solution working economically well for one site may prove a financial disaster elsewhere.

The storage and delivery of materials to spatially dispersed sites, while at the same time reducing the movements’ impact, is therefore a significant challenge.

The Way Forward…

While the full costs of urban construction are yet to be calculated, there’s no time to wait for construction traffic wreaking even more havoc in our cities. Meet CityChangers who neither wait for final numbers to take action nor get intimidated by the challenges ahead. See our article “Cutting back on traffic with construction consolidation centres” to find out how to get started.

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