0 dB City — Towards Integrated Urban Transportation System 2.0

Dark Matter
12 min readFeb 27, 2023

This blog post aims to start a thought process on how to integrate urban mobility and logistical systems with management and stewardship of common urban assets as a means to unlocking greater quality of urban life.

The provocation takes transportation-induced noise as a measurable proxy from which other outcomes are extrapolated: road safety, speed, pollution, congestion, dwell time and therefore use of public areas. The aim is to provide an institutional, data and infrastructural mechanism for mutual dependencies.

We would like to invite municipal governments, groups working with neighborhood transition, actors from the urban logistics sector, smart city innovators, landowners, urban planners, activists and all other interested parties to collaborate on the new approach to managing urban logistics — everything connected to how goods, people and ideas get to travel across urban space and their relationship with our quality of life.

Introduction

  • How can urban liveability be improved in times of increased demand for mobility and e-commerce deliveries?
  • What is the total cost of mobility and logistics at a city level if we take into account things like citizens’ physical health, mental well-being, or road safety?
  • Can an in-delivery birthday present interact with the urban environment sponsoring its improvement?

The Covid-19 pandemic, urbanization, growing online markets, new digital business models and availability of online goods combined with the demand for shorter delivery times put significant pressures on the logistical system and in return on the tangible and intangible features of the urban environments (e.g. road quality, noise), their citizens (well-being, health, behaviour in urban space) and fellow species.

In the context of the increased urban pressures for reduced delivery times and its costs, the emergence of new approaches such as 1) containerised urban last-mile delivery 2) marketplaces for city logistics 3) platforms for the integrated management of delivery times and space 4) city hubs: shared use of small-scale distribution centres or 5) transport vehicle capacity sharing emerge and will gradually reshape how urban logistics is performed.

While both the old and stagnated as well as the transitioning urban logistics systems greatly affect urban environments, liveability and health of the urban population via transport-related externalities, multiple key performance indicators (KPIs) are being recognized to frame sustainable urban logistics systems’ performance assessments (see: [1]). These include societal and organizational KPIs such as road safety, air pollution, noise, accessibility, land use, dwell time, lifecycle emissions or infrastructural expenditures etc.

However, little research has been done on the systemic, cost and incentive analysis of these KPIs on a city level, including private public and civic actors’ interests and liabilities. Hence, the suggested approach aims to explore, analyse, and develop a framework for their accounting and contracting. This has a chance to combine the city level transport related externalities with logistical system actors’ pathways to increased levels of system efficiency and sustainability.

Optimizing for Commons

Towards shared assets logistical systems — beyond time, costs and the whole city approach.

As in some cities, both the public and private sectors have engaged with various local initiatives to address the pressures, urban logistics today pretty much functions in the same way it did decades ago. It is mostly optimized to serve two purposes — to reduce the delivery time and its costs.

Partially inspired by real-life business success cases of interconnected logistical ecosystems through platforms (such as Amazon), there have been multiple proposals for central IT platforms where multiple market participants record their delivery capacities, share data, and further; physical infrastructures.

Although companies such as Amazon have built up an infrastructure that forecasts logistics demand and monitors its entire supply chain capacity in real-time such an integrated system, is still optimized for mostly cost and delivery time from the perspectives of individual enterprise and has a danger of creating monopolies and imbalance of interests between private, public, and civic actors.

To address the future challenges that freight and delivery face, we need to think about logistics as a whole city problem. For this purpose, system-level change, harmonized regulatory, infrastructural and data-sharing frameworks have not yet been established.

Transitioning the logistical system means not only the necessity to pool the innovation capacity of the niche innovations and major logistics system players but also urban citizens as well as common urban assets such as urban green, tranquillity, species contributing to urban biodiversity or good quality public space for all.

A city-wide, common civic assets optimization has a chance to unlock the full potential of just, sustainable, and healthy urban logistics systems. Therefore, the project proposes a whole city data infrastructure and financing framework for common, shared civic assets.

Civic Asset Trust

Remaking local transportation rules and use of urban space through new institutional infrastructure for commons.

Living by a noisy street can reduce your lifespan. Studies reveal that adults living in areas with traffic noise higher than 60 dB were more likely to have a stroke than those who lived in quieter areas [1] [2].

Tranquillity is treated here as a common asset — an asset having value which no single person or entity can take credit for creating. Examples include natural assets, safety, air quality, land values (yes! — see here) or little noise in urban spaces.

Let us walk through a little case study.

The city of Stockholm, Berlin, Lisbon, or Montreal owns and manages streets and public areas. Residents are interested in boosting the quality of life through good quality of urban surfaces, unlocked room for events, community space, pedestrian, bike flows, reduced noise etc.

They establish a Common Asset Trust (CAT) which aims to manage intangible assets such as tranquility, good air quality, greenery and recreation spaces on a city, district, or neighborhood level. The area defines where the common assets are protected by the rules and mechanisms established by all inhabitants i.e. members of the CAT.

The Common Asset Trust becomes an integral actor in the logistical system. It serves as an institution that ensures that the system not only serves the producer, delivery company and the client but also that its benefits, costs, and liabilities to society are adequately rebalanced.

The CAT establishes new rules for the usage of common spaces such as streets. For example, the trustees can decide that noisy and heavy delivery vans (or private cars) should be charged a premium for usage of the space in between the buildings. They occupy space to stop and deliver a package, drive through or park on the street which could be used otherwise for leisure activities or greenery, damage road surface and contribute to poor mental health.

Through liability and benefit rebalancing mechanism the CAT finances e.g. road and sidewalk repairs, noise-reducing green infrastructure or invests in optimization of parking & dwell time e.g. designated areas or data based meters which calculate the parking price per vehicle length, and noise that it generates.

The CAT also manages the long-term benefits of the scheme focused on mobility such as appreciation in land value in the area, increased footfall, improved well-being, or greater social cohesion through more accessible public space. A percentage of the spill-over value only visible at a municipal and/or federal level can be recaptured through e.g. smart contracts.

Fig. 1. Transportation system level indicators and societal level indicators — value and liability rebalancing mechanism [ *KPIs repurposed from: Andruetto, C., et al. Indicators for Sustainability Assessment in City Logistics: Perspectives of Society and Logistic Service Providers. 2023 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4034714 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4034714 ]

Further design components the system could include the following:

Delivery companies share data, staff and physical infrastructure (e.g. DHL, Hermes etc.)

  1. Shared logistical data, especially on last-mile delivery allows for vehicle sharing, and more efficient route planning for all deliveries in the area rather than deliveries by one delivery company at a specific time.
  2. Shared physical infrastructure incl. vehicles for delivery, which reduces the amount of vehicles needed for delivery in the area, the burden on public space and costs to the delivery companies.

Civic infrastructure ensures the coupling of the logistical system with urban liveability and health

  1. Civic City hub is established through a public-private partnership or Common Asset Trust scheme. The goods are delivered and redistributed there for last-mile delivery. Packages are bundled together and put into common, shared vehicles as well as smaller vehicles, e-bikes etc.
  2. Civic data infrastructure forms a whole-city model including logistics and civic infrastructure. This means, in practice that every delivery leaves a data mark in city space including data on vehicles’ speed, weight, size, engine noise, emissions (based on vehicle model), dwell time in space, time of the day. The delivery data is then juxtaposed against data on noise regulation for specific streets and neighbourhoods. For example, a delivery by a heavy, noisy van going through a quiet neighborhood street will be charged more. The cost of the delivery increases or decreases based on these coupled variables. The cost of delivery is distributed between the client (based on size and weight of the package), the producer, and the delivery company.
  3. Civic financing — street repairs, sidewalk improvements, green infrastructure are financed through the rebalancing mechanism unlocked through the civic data infrastructure. The mechanism also incentivises logistical companies to invest or co-invest in quiet, low-emission vehicles, skip side streets as shortcuts, find strategies to reduce dwell time
  4. Civic choice — new digital ordering infrastructure is established to provide choice to the clients who wish to get their goods delivered fast (noisy) and expensive or quiet, with longer-delivery time.
Fig. 2. 0dB City & Integrated Urban Logistics 2.0 — rebalancing civic assets values and liabilities

Total cost of logistics

Towards inclusion of shared assets in the whole-city logistical systems value and liability calculation

Current approaches to total costs of logistics include an array of methodologies for measuring the supply chain performance which combine direct costs of trade with all the indirect costs mostly on an enterprise level. However, most of the existing quantitative studies have been conducted to measure how various elements of the supply chain and decisions are affected when only a limited number of costs are considered. Little research has been performed on the total cost of logistics to crystallize its definition, define challenges, as well as outcomes. Additionally, as the logistic system contributes to multiple unaccounted externalities and their associated costs to public and civic assets, such as noise, pollution, road safety and their health hazards, road damage and repair, or unlocking of space in the city for alternative uses and their option value.

The total cost of logistics on a whole city level could include and enmesh private, public and civic interests, and brings forward multiple fundamental questions such as:

  • What variables should be included in the total cost calculation?
  • Is minimizing the total cost of logistics helping logistics system actors such as companies, citizens, cities to perform, or live better?
  • What are the cost, supply, demand and time interdependencies between logistics system elements, their externalities and urban liveability for all?
Fig. 3. Delivery vans, heavy trucks, demolition & renovation related objects, logistical leftover occupying common public space in the city — Berlin (photos by the author)
Fig. 4. “Gehweg-schäden” and “Straßen-schäden” — the most popular signs describing the quality of public space in Berlin; damaged pedestrian sidewalks, space occupied primarily by car parking and traffic, pedestrian zebra crossing and more — Berlin (photos by the author)

Systems perspective

With increasing comprehension of complex systems and the emergence of technological tools for effective system-scale organization, the time is ripe to look at the future of logistics through a systems lens.

This reveals the possibility of shifting logistics and transportation from an economy concerned with mere optimization for time and costs towards an outcome-oriented service economy, operating at a societal and system level.

Leveraging the deep interdependence of logistics and other domains of social and economic activity unlocks opportunities for the creation of direct, indirect, and synthetic value and the mitigation of future liabilities (like noise, air pollution, city congestion, road safety, long-term unemployment, and energy dependence). Taking the next step from integrated conveyance networks to an integrated system financing model can move us closer to a future of truly sustainable urban logistics systems.

Fig. 5. Drafting further infrastructure for Multi-stakeholder value transportation system — TBC

New spatial finance instruments for logistical systems

Urban form, and therefore urban behavior, green infrastructure, or quality of public life and space are determined by transportation systems because proximity and the consequently reduced transportation costs for people, goods, and ideas are the raison d’être of cities.

Every vehicle delivering goods to the client leaves a mark in space contributing to the shaping of the urban environment which it penetrates. How space becomes and not how space is, or might be, should be the focus of the new spatial planning efforts in order to efficiently, justly and sustainably couple together logistical systems and the quality of civic life. Strategies such as route optimization, traffic avoidance or dwell times in space, all leave seemingly intangible and tangible marks that in the long-term, contribute to the perceived quality of spaces, it’s further planning, repurposing, widening or narrowing of streets, establishment of new public spaces or green pocket parks.

  • What if the tracked, geo-located good in motion (package, meal) and its carrier (truck, van, cargo bike) — understood as a mark in space- a data point engaged in an array of autonomous transactions with civic infrastructure which they pass?

Urban trees, contributing to reduced CO2 and noise sequestration, flexible street and flex-parking spaces which open and close for freight depending on the need of civic events, restaurants or delivery demands, whole city blocks during children walking to the nearby school or waiting time at a traffic light are all quantifiable, tangible functions of urban life which positive values up until now are decoupled from the logistical systems which define their amounts (trees or free from traffic public space), scale, distribution and quality (safety).

For example, in Sweden, new vehicles such as slow-moving electric trailers are a great evolution toward silent and low-emission transportation. As their increased popularity is definitely a positive phenomenon, the optimization for urban space which they unlock compared to large vehicles, the noise which they emit or help to minimize or emission targets which they help to reduce are still unaccounted for.

At the same time, taking a step further, considering increased future population growth, densities and delivery demands, urban governance and spatial strategies need to expand their scope from narrow considerations of land use to take into account all bodies inhabiting the urban. Spatial planning and governing systems are not fit for purpose for the current time of climate, environmental, biodiversity, or mental health crisis where recognition of further, more fine-grained interdependencies is necessary.

Therefore, we need new data and new maps to redefine the relation between space — efficiency — noise — delivery time and costs — environmental gain, damage & value. Extracting and supporting the more tangible, non-monetary value of the urban environment shaped largely via logistical systems is the true challenge.

New mode of financing for the civic infrastructure through vehicles, citizens, goods and services in movement is necessary to address the urban logistics in transition. However, the true value of the new scheme cannot be achieved if it is not coupled with local community development and already existing city spatial planning agendas.

Plans such as for example the Stockholm Freight plan aim to address some of the issues around citizens’ well-being, quality of the urban environment and freight delivery. The institutional infrastructure around it aims to deal with the complexity of the problem.

In this context, we posit that new instruments of measuring and accounting for logistical system actors’ liabilities to society, ranging from carbon emissions, biointegrity loss, noise and up to community impacts and individual mental well-being are necessary to create a basis for transforming logistical systems and its accounting models in line with the scale of the crises.

The potential project aims to experiment with instruments which allow reallocation of capital towards long term common urban assets, seeing them as crucial to the civic approach to achieving SDGs at an urban level.

Pilot project proposal

We would love to collaborate with potential partners on a project structured around the exemplary draft work packages (open for discussion). These include e.g.:

  • WP1: Developing a comprehensive understanding, analysis and mapping of the total cost of logistics on a whole city level incl. exemplary 3 mapping scenarios:
    1. Electrification 2. Micro Logistics 3. Automation
  • WP2: Conceptual design of common asset trust to manage multi incentive systems
  • WP3: Modelling — Framework for agent based modeling based on WP2 (Common Asset Trust Principles),
  • WP4: Design of the multi-agent contractual space

In the coming projects, we will continue exploring the questions and ideas raised in this blog. We invite you to reach out if you would like to collaborate or contribute as this needs to be a multi-actor endeavor —
Aleksander Nowak aleks@darkmatterlabs.org

This provocation is written by Aleksander Nowak with contributions from Indy Johar, Axel Nilsson, Eunji Kang, and would not have been possible without the ongoing work of the whole Dark Matter Labs team across all DM missions.

With thanks to all those we spoke to in writing this blog for their time, insight, and care.

Ready to explore?

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Dark Matter

Designing 21st Century Dark Matter for a Decentralised, Distributed & Democratic tomorrow; part of @infostructure00