Editorial: Winning the Last Mile

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 42 – Number 4


Long-distance transport of passengers and freight is often efficient, but once in the city all forms of transport face what is known as the ‘last-mile problem’, which in reality is both a last-mile and a first-mile problem. In this issue, contributors examine a wide range of strategies to solve or, at least, reduce this problem.

Inter-city, long-distance transport of passengers and freight is often efficient – the long-distance, non-stop nature of such trips coupled with the potential to ‘assemble’ together large volumes of demand translates into higher speed, load factor and conversely lower cost, energy consumption and environmental impact (per seat or ton-km). But once at the ‘city’ it is no longer possible to benefit from these advantages due to different and multiple destinations each passenger or product needs to reach. This challenge of integrating long-distance inter-city transport with short-distance urban transport is known as the ‘last-mile problem’. Although mainly used and researched in logistics, it applies equally to passenger transport. In both cases, the car (truck or van for freight) emerges as having the upper hand over the alternatives, at least from the individual (firm or passenger) perspective. The car is the mode that can provide door-to-door travel without the need for transfer, between networks (air, rail and road) or vehicles. However, this solution, of adopting the car, has many recognized flaws from a social perspective which are also increasingly recognized from an individual perspective, mainly due to congestion.

    Transport policy has changed over the last decade with ‘sustainability’, or low carbon mobility (Givoni and Banister, 2013) being used as a guiding principle. There is recognition that simply providing more infrastructure to accommodate demand is not the way forward (Banister, 2008) and, at the same time, there is recognition of the advantages offered by alternatives to the private car and freight trucks. In parallel, technological developments never stop and continue to shape the transport system. Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) allow us to know when the next bus will come or when our delivery will be at our door; allow us to use time while travelling, but also to better navigate through the city’s congested roads. Electric motors are increasingly used, for bicycle, cars and trucks, and on the horizon Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) can be seen as a real possibility. But all these developments do not mean the last-mile problem will soon disappear – indeed current trajectories suggest this is unlikely. The focus in transport research is shifting to other challenges, but as the ‘last-mile’ problem remains a central obstacle to a better and more sustainable transport system, we must not abandon it. Especially not when the developments mentioned above provide us with an opportunity to re-examine the problem and offer a way forward.

    Addressing and refocusing attention on the so-called last-mile problem or challenge requires also its redefinition. It might be that some of the problem stems from a narrow definition of the last-mile and its separation from ‘other’ miles. In this context, the aim of this special issue is to offer a broader definition for the last-mile problem and use it to re-examine urban transport and in the hope of advancing a more sustainable transport system as well as cities.

The First, Last and Only (One) Mile Problem

With the increase in the world’s urban population and increasing urbanization rates, mobility and transport research increasingly focus on this part of the network – the urban network. What is often not considered is that increasing urbanization rates will also increase the rates of interactions between cities and, as a direct result, the demand for inter-city transport services.

    As manufacturing and other economic activities spread across different (national and global) cities, more goods will need to be carried in and out of cities as well as within cities. The traditional view of freight transport being in one direction from the location of natural resources outside cities into the factory (outskirts of cities) and the then the inner cities, which led to coining the problem as the last mile, is no longer valid. Freight transport is increasingly in ‘all’ directions’ and there are therefore many last miles in the production process, or supply chain (Rodrigue, 2006).

    The economy of scale characteristic of inter-city travel exists also in passenger transport, as far as public transport is concerned. The parallel to freight transport is, however, different in that long-distance passenger transport usually faces the ‘last-mile’ problem already at the start of the journey. As with freight transport, most passengers’ destinations are within the city’s boundaries, but in passenger transport this is also where most trips’ origin is. Thus, the last-mile problem in freight transport becomes also a first-mile problem in passenger transport.

    Regardless of a city’s size, many trips are made entirely within its boundaries. As cities and their populations grow so too does the demand for transport within cities, and accommodating this demand by utilizing economies of scale in transport provision (freight and passenger) is increasingly called for. In passenger transport this is done using public transport, starting with buses and going up the capacity ladder to bus rapid transit (BRT), light rail transit (LRT), regional rail etc. (Bruun, 2014). Thus, the last- and first-mile problem also arises when accommodating demand for transport within cities, certainly as some cities become larger and larger in area and population. Furthermore, and in addition, urban transport is largely characterized by relatively short trips, which use the same network/infrastructure as that used to feed (or access and egress) long-distance inter-city transport. Many of these trips are made by school-age children (often accompanied by parents) and are trips to and from school. In the morning peak, such trips form a significant part of the demand for transport and cannot be examined separately from other trips that together form the demand for transport. These trips, in this context, can be referred to as the ‘only’ mile trips and are responsible for the one-mile problem.

    The above suggests that the last-mile problem must be more broadly defined as the first-, last- and one-mile problem. It also suggests that cities, as the focal point of the transport network, are where also inter-city transport planning must focus. This, however, turns the problem into an opportunity as it points to where the solution might lie. With this broader approach in mind this special issue looks at the first-, last- and one-mile challenge in urban transport. What this issue also sees as central is the recognition that all these trips, long and short distance, urban and inter-city, and freight and passenger transport, cannot be considered separately, but as part of the same challenge, and this resonates with the ever increasing need for integration in transport planning (see Givoni and Banister, 2010).


This Special Issue

With this broad definition of the ‘mile’ problem in mind the first three papers in the special issue adopt a contemporary perspective to consider the last (freight), last and first (passenger), and one mile (children/school) transport challenge.

    Niklas Arvidsson, Moshe Givoni and Johan Woxenius in ‘Exploring Last Mile Synergies in Passenger and Freight Transport’ aim to bring together the literature on the last-mile problem in freight transport with that on integrated transport in passenger transport, which in essence looks at the same problem but from the perspective of two important types of flows in cities: of goods and passengers. By that, they explore synergies in carrying and distributing these flows across the city, especially in the context of a long-distance, inter-city and multi-modal journey. They note the tension, or competition that exists today in accommodating the demand for the transport of goods and passengers and attribute this in part to the institutional roots and separation between the ‘business’ oriented world of logistics and the ‘public’ oriented nature of passenger transport. Overcoming this institutional barrier is seen as the key for exploiting synergies in distributing passenger and freight transport across a city.

    Treating the last-mile of passengers’ journey as one category is limiting and a hindrance to overcoming the last/first mile in passenger transport. Robin Hickman and Giacomo Vecia in  ‘Discourses, Travel Behaviour and the ‘Last Mile’ in London’ demonstrate this in the context of travel to and from work by dividing commuters (into a London suburb) into different groups of users according to their opinion and perception of their journey to work and the transport system they encounter on the way to work, especially in the work area (the last/first mile). While acknowledging the importance of the infrastructure to accommodate walking, cycling and public transport facilities, they also emphasize the importance of giving attention to factors that influence the experience of passengers when traversing the last mile.

    The idea that saving travel time is not necessarily always beneficial and desired, and that not all demand for transport is derived demand (Mokhtarian and Salomon, 2001) is often still difficult to accept in mainstream transport policy, practice and research. This notion, that minimising travel time is not a priority, is more acceptable when children’s travel is concerned. Yet, Rebecca Shliselberg and Moshe Givoni in ‘Cultural Differences in Children’s One Mile Mobility’ argue that children’s and adults’ (parents) journeys, especially in the morning, are intricately connected and therefore should not be treated separately. Parent’s first mile of the journey to work is related to children’s one or only mile journey to school, and to parents’ decision whether or not to ‘send’ the child alone (unaccompanied by an adult) to school. Independent travel of children to school might free parents from the need to drive children to school, opening the door for children to benefit and get accustomed to active transport modes and a range of health and social benefits. In this context, what Shliselberg and Givoni aim to add to the discussion is that parents’ decision whether to allow independent travel is very much influenced by cultural norms within the parents’ social communities. By comparing secular and ultra-orthodox Jewish families in Israel cities (in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area) they show that for secular families the car is a necessity in bringing up children while, in the same cities, ultra-orthodox Jewish families, by relying on strong community ties, can ‘survive’ without the car.

    The next two papers consider what might be the, not too distant, future of transport and assess that future from a first-, last-, and one-mile challenge perspective. The issues that are at the centre of these analyses focus a lot of attention in current transport research and policy and can prove to be detrimental, or an opportunity, for addressing that ‘mile’ challenge.

    Shared mobility, which is part of the rising interest in the sharing economy and in a shift to servicizing – whereby firms move from selling products to selling services (Plepys et al., 2015) – is aimed at offering (or persuading) consumers to give up their ownership. In the context of car use, it means giving up car ownership without giving up its use, but hopefully reducing that use. If the last- and first-mile problem in passenger transport is largely getting to and from the long-distance transport hubs, rail station for example (Brons et al., 2009), then a shared car can fill that role where and when the traditional urban public transport service (bus, tram, metro, etc.) does not do so adequately. A wide range of such services are offered today and are described, categorized and analysed by Susan Shaheen and Nelson Chan in ‘Mobility and the Sharing Economy: Potential to Facilitate the First- and Last-Mile Public Transit Connections’). From a supply perspective, these services are predominantly offered by a variety of private companies adopting different business models and, as such, in most cases are still more separated from, rather than integrated with, the public transport system. But the potential synergy, due to the potential to overcome the last-/first-mile problem results in increasing interest from public transport agencies and in a move to integrate shared mobility services into the traditional public transport system.

    The same concept of ‘shared mobility’ is also at the centre of Michaeal Ohnemus and Anthony Perl’s paper, ‘Shared Autonomous Vehicles: Catalyst for New Mobility for the Last Mile?’, but their focus is on shared mobility using autonomous (self-driving, driverless) vehicles. They emphasize the potential of using shared mobility for the last/first mile in suburban and low-density areas where traditional public transport services fail to provide high level of service. They also point out that future mobility in these areas depends very much on the extent to which deployment of autonomous vehicle technology is shared or not. In both cases a question that arises is the extent to which passengers might opt to use shared services, autonomous and not, for the entire journey rather than using it in combination with other modes of public transport. While there is no doubt that shared mobility can complement public transport well, and should be encouraged to do so, it can also become (and is becoming) a strong competitor to it.

    To end the special issue, the remaining two papers look at a future which might be seen as farthest away from where we are today. This future might centre on a very different set of social norms and priorities that will alter our choice of mode to move within the city or it might be centred on technological developments.

    Miles Tight, Fiona Rajé and Paul Timms in ‘Car-Free Urban Areas: A Radical Solution to the Last Mile Problem or a Step Too Far’ look at the last mile in the context of car-free cities. They describe several cases of cities which have made a significant move towards a notional car-free city and study this against the background of a visioning exercise of (mainly) ‘walking and cycling’ cities. In such cities, where car use is reduced to several percentages of all trips, the first-, last- and one-mile problem has been overcome and travelling by walking, cycling and public transport is seen as good as doing so by car, even better. This suggests that overcoming the last-mile challenge is most likely one of the main barriers to moving towards what many will see as a utopian future for cities. In this respect, it looks as though the autonomous vehicle discussed above, if adopted as a car and not public transport, and even if shared, can become a major hindrance to such a future.

    Other advanced technological innovations and developments could potentially transform cities and the ‘mile’ problem. Alan C. McKinnon in his paper ‘The Possible Impact of 3D Printing and Drones in Last Mile Logistics: An Exploratory Study’ seals this issue by critically assessing the possible impacts of 3D printing and Drones (a new mode of, largely urban, transport) on last-mile logistics. These technologies will no doubt transform freight transport within cities, for better and worse, but the key issue is their scalability. McKinnon explains that while the potential of these developments is large they are unlikely to offer a complete answer to the challenge of transporting freight into, within, or from cities and as such could only serve as a part solution which in turn in itself raises some challenges to overcome.


Winning the Last Mile

Colin Clark’s (1958) recognition that transport is the ‘maker and breaker of cities’ holds today as ever. In an attempt to be more specific, this special issue claims that it is the so-called ‘last mile’ which is the key to cities’ future. Similarly, that same ‘last mile’, a term traditionally used in the context of transporting freight into cities, is key to many of the current problems and challenges in transport planning and policy. Yet, to address properly the challenge of the last mile its definition must be broadened to include the first as well as the last mile of an inter-city long-distance trip and its intricate links with short-distance, intra-city ‘one’ mile trip. A broader definition enlarges the scope of the problem but also increases the potential of any solution to address it.

    It is the whole chain of trips door-to-door (in passenger transport) or the ‘factory’ to the door (in freight transport) that is important and the different parts of the chain cannot be looked at in isolation. Yet it seems that the part of the trip that is within the city’s boundaries is of special importance with respect to the rest of the trip and has a large influence on it. This is the part where economies of scale in transport are hardest to achieve due to the spatial distribution of demand. Also in terms of time this part is, in most cases, the most ‘expensive’ part of the trip.

    What emerges from this special issue as a solution, or at least a winning strategy to address the most problematic ‘mile’ of a journey, the mile within the city, includes several components. First, the institutional level is where changes must be made first. As long as the governance of transport is so divided across modes, freight and passenger transport as well as between inter-city and urban transport, it is difficult to see clearly the linkages between them. The door-to-door journey should become the unit of analysis for transport policy and planning. Such an institutional change is a precondition for the ever-needed better integration between the different components of the door-to-door journey, including integration, where feasible, of passenger and freight transport. Integration is the second component.

    In turn, institutional change in the governance of transport that facilitates integrated transport will foster more and better ‘sharing’ in transport, and this has emerged in this special issue as central to addressing the mile problem. This, the third component, appears in different forms. From sharing the space (infrastructure) allocated to transport within cities to sharing a vehicle amongst people and also amongst passengers and freight – as in crowdshipping (McKinnon, 2016), and finally better sharing infrastructure and vehicles throughout the day.

    The barrier to ‘sharing’ today is not only technical and supply (policy and planning) oriented, it is very much, or maybe first, a cultural barrier. In most cases, sharing of some form will entail some personal loss, but a social gain in return. The vicious cycle, where the convenience of using a car for short trips takes people (and children) off the streets results in making them feel they must use the car because of the perceived risk of being out in the street, can be turned into a virtuous cycle, where giving up the car for some trips and bringing people back to the street makes the streets desirable and the car unnecessary. In today’s often hostile urban environment some sharing of parents’ responsibility for children proves an important factor in allowing children to walk, cycle and even take public transport to school, and without their parents. This so-called cultural aspect, the forth component, can break the vicious cycle of environments that are deemed unsafe for children. Moreover, a ‘pleasant’ urban environment – a psychological feeling – can result in journeys which some might even be happy to extend in addition to doing it on foot or bicycle. This highlights the role of ‘place’ in creating and solving the mile problem. This feeling of ‘place’, the fifth component, can easily be imagined to exist in cities without cars and it can be attributed to different factors that may relate to the physical structure of the city, the physical built environment, and especially the transport network.

    These components taken together mark a shift from a technical, functional perspective of transport planning to a more holistic view of mobility planning, which probably applies more to passenger transport but is closely related to freight transport. Rapid technological developments offer great promise but also a substantial increase in uncertainty. While technology can certainly assist in addressing each of the components described it is not seen as component on its own in addressing the last, first or only mile. In some instances, for example those covered in the special issue, what technology enables is a mere replacement of the driver, and while this could be an advantage, it is not seen as the main problem or cause of the last-mile challenge.

    In conclusion, the solutions to the last-mile problem exist, but they will require us to change current travel behaviour, or our behaviour more generally. Each solution will probably require some personal sacrifice such as giving up our car parked outside the house or waiting a bit longer for the next delivery. Urban transport is the key to winning the last mile – if we can sort out transport in our cities we can sort out the whole transport network.



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