How E-Commerce Will Shape Our Cities

The movement of people and goods is major element that has been shaping our cities and major transport links for centuries – think of canals (Venice and cities in England), rivers, railways and roads. CAnd, commerce has been integral in the design of these over hundreds of years.

As commerce moves online further we will see major shifts in the way our cities and transport links are being designed, with automated vehicles (AVs) and drones inciting more consideration, according to Daniel Haufschild, Vice President of Urban Mobility, Transportation and Advisory at Canadian-based engineering firm, WSP. “Many automotive companies are already combining AVs with drones. Mercedes have developed an automated vehicle with drones that fly off the roof, so sort of like an aircraft carrier for delivery.”

With this advance in technology, Haufschild says the e-commerce industry is pursuing automated vehicles and drones to drive delivery and cost efficiencies. The executive was recently in Melbourne for an event, which explored how our road systems in Australia (and indeed around the world) would evolve, with e-commerce noted as one of the major influences.

“In urban areas we are still trying to understand how this (drones and automated vehicles) will impact our cities. In an optimist scenario, the use of automated vehicles and drones, with smaller vehicles, can optimise routing and delivery and make more efficient use of your road space, with less area required for travel and curb space. More likely, is that efficiencies will drive more demand and multiple fleets may be competing for same road space,” explains Haufschild.

Changes in e-commerce and how goods are delivered can lead to changing the allocation of road space among different uses, and also in design, according to Haufschild, who says that smaller vehicles can lead to more livable spaces.

“Our street right of ways widths are mostly fixed, which means we need to allocate space between urban realm and events, walking, cycling, vehicles, transit, loading, and utilities.”

For example, he says that in many communities, at intersections, the turning radius of large trucks and design-speed drive the curve of the sidewalk and the road. “If there is a move to smaller vehicles, we can tighten up these curves, which reduce crossing distances for pedestrian and creates a more livable space. The same applies to the cross-section of the road – smaller vehicles can allow for smaller lanes, and this space can be reallocated to walking and cycling or urban canopy, for example. By the same token, we could have the problem of higher demand, so while lanes for travel might be narrower, we could need more of them.”

And, as the technology for automated vehicles and drones matures and companies push for the commercial reality of these in relation to e-commerce, Haufschild says the key question lies in government regulation, with customer acceptance being the other even bigger element.

“For automated vehicles and for passenger use, the bigger question is customer acceptance and business models, so to some extent automation is likely to happen faster in commerce. The business case for automated vehicle delivery on fixed routes, particularly in suburban areas, is likely to happen earliest. Central areas, I think will be more challenging particularly for drones, as I think government policy around drones is lagging the focus on automated vehicles.”

As far as Australia goes, Haufschild says the focus has been on technology, but to him, again, the key issues are the underlying business models and economic case, and government regulation as well.

He says that the major opportunity for automated vehicles, and drone delivery in particular, is Australia’s larger non-urban areas, with an electric charging infrastructure likely being part of any future plans around reconsidering transport links. “Automated vehicles, drones and electrification are likely to go hand in hand, so also a shift to electric charging infrastructure.”

Haufschild says that with retail having a strong experiential component, there is the question on the extent e-commerce will influence physical stores, and the extent to which traditional bricks-and-mortar will move to delivery following in-store shopping, and the implications on demand, and how and where retail occurs in our cities.

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