Car-free city centres are great, but what about freight?

Ghent, Oslo, Copenhagen and Madrid are cities that have made a concerted effort to make their centres car-free. In the UK, the city of Brighton & Hove could soon follow. But with no cars allowed, how does freight reach its destination?

What are Low Traffic Neighbourhoods?

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN) are areas in which motor vehicle through traffic is restricted using physical barriers or ANPR cameras. Each vehicle can still access streets inside the LTN but can’t pass through. Without through traffic, LTN internal roads become quieter, offering a more attractive environment to encourage a mode shift to walking and cycling. London has been installing LTNs since the 1970s. Approximately 95 new LTNs have been installed as part of TfL’s Streetspace programme, which was launched during the COVID pandemic. Car-free city centres are essentially more ambitious LTNs, with the city centre as one or several Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

LTNs and car-free city centres are controversial, one of the key concerns is how freight could be delivered to businesses in these areas. In Ghent, Belgium, one city which has implemented LTNs, essential transport such as emergency services and public transport retain access to the city centre, whereas freight is delivered using a combination of:

1. Re-timing

2. Consolidation; and

3. Switching from vans and lorries to cargo bikes and electric vehicles

Let’s look at how freight works in the car-free city centre of Ghent, Belgium.

Car-free city centre in Ghent, Belgium

Ghent’s Circulation Plan, introduced in April 2017, splits the city into seven Low Traffic Neighbourhoods with the centre having the tightest restrictions, albeit not entirely car-free.

Despite the Circulation Plan being seen with scepticism by national media before its implementation, the scheme has been a resounding success. In fact, a year after the plan’s introduction, Filip Watteeuw, Deputy Mayor, received his highest electoral score and was re-elected. The Circulation Plan has created a 40 per cent reduction in car use on key routes, a 25 per cent increase in bike use, and an 18 per cent reduction in inner city air pollution (Ref: Streetfilms).  

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So how does freight work in Ghent?

Buses, taxis and emergency services are allowed access to the city centre, while all delivery vans must leave the area by 11am. Since the circulation plan was introduced, the city has seen a 20 per cent increase in new businesses in the hotel and restaurant industry with 7 per cent fewer bankruptcies, proving the initiative to not only be environmentally friendly, but a boost economically.

As businesses adapted their approach to freight deliveries, new cargo bike operators have emerged in the city. DHL now consolidate deliveries outside the city’s ring road, completing the last mile by bike. The city’s maintenance teams have also adopted cargo bikes for street cleaning and the management of green spaces. Even through the pandemic, courier Cargo Velo, have seen a surge in business to customer deliveries in the city centre. Multi-national supermarket, Carrefour, have made the move to using cargo bikes in Ghent through ShipTo. Cargo bikes, along with time-restricted van deliveries are helping Ghent’s businesses flourish.  

Combining electric vans, consolidation and cargo bikes, Ghent University and the City Council have begun ‘LOOP Ghent’. University deliveries are consolidated at a central hub, with the last mile completed by a single carrier using electric vehicles and cargo bikes. By consolidating deliveries into zero-emission vehicles, there are fewer delivery vehicles on the streets, with each vehicle producing fewer emissions, and each runs more fully-loaded. Ghent has proven that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods can be implemented without restricting the flow of goods to businesses.  

How a UK city is championing cleaner freight in its approach to become Carbon Neutral by 2030

In the UK, the city of Brighton & Hove is exploring the possibility of a ‘liveable city centre’ and are currently developing a pilot Low Traffic Neighbourhood in Hanover, as well as trialling five school streets closures, prohibiting motor vehicles from accessing some roads during school drop off and pick up times. Further  car-free measures could be introduced as early as 2023 as part of the council’s strategy to become a carbon neutral city by 2030 and in line with the findings of the resident-led and innovative Climate Assembly. If the changes go ahead, Brighton & Hove could employ similar measures as Ghent to keep their freight moving. 

In Brighton & Hove, transport is one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions, accounting for a third of the city’s carbon emissions. Like other cities, it has seen a significant increase in the number of freight and delivery vehicles in recent years, with the growth in online shopping and takeaway orders; this has grown further in the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Since September 2020, MP Smarter Travel has been working with Brighton & Hove City Council to deliver the eCargo Bike Accelerator project to replace petrol and diesel vehicles with clean and efficient cargo bikes. In its first phase, the project has demonstrated that even without car-free measures, there is strong demand for zero emission deliveries across the city. 

Brighton & Hove businesses are showing that cargo bikes represent a feasible solution for many urban freight trips. Trade businesses Mittens Plumbing and Mid-Sussex Electrical recently joined the eCargo Bike Accelerator project and now complete the majority of their city-centre home visits by cargo bike, drastically reducing their emissions and saving each business £350 a month on fuel, insurance and parking.

eCargo-bike-brighton

Image courtesy of Brighton & Hove City Council, eCargo Bike Accelerator project

Brighton and Hove City Council are well-placed to consider complimentary transport adaptations, including access for emergency vehicles, public transport and freight as part of a potential liveable city centre. Freight movements could be re-timed to happen outside of peak commuting hours, with deliveries consolidated in micro-hubs on the city’s outskirts. As has been shown in our recent work, there is strong business demand for switching to cargo bikes. Once introduced, Brighton & Hove could be a leading example of this new approach to freight working in a car-free city centre.