The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


How logistics operators and local authorities are learning to deliver on sustainability

The world's biggest logistics company maintains its largest African hub facilities in Lagos. Kerwin Datu takes a tour and learns how logistics operators and local authorities are learning to keep goods moving and make the industry more sustainable in the face of increasing congestion in wealthy and poor cities alike.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: New York-Newark, Nairobi, Lagos, Cape Town, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, London

Topics: Integrated planning, Roads and traffic, Transport, Participatory governance, Informal economy, Sustainability, Global cities

Sorting bins at DHL's Nigerian Gateway in Lagos illustrate the major connections held by the country's business community. Photo: Kerwin Datu
A worker sorts packages for transshipment at DHL's West African hub in Lagos. Photo: Kerwin Datu
A universal loading device waits to be taken away by the aviation handling company. Photo: Kerwin Datu
Freshly bound palettes of packages ready for departure to other West African capitals. Photo: Kerwin Datu
A motorcycle taxi speeds through all-too-common rainwater flooding in Victoria Island, a wealthy business district of Lagos. Photo: Kerwin Datu
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While the passenger lounges of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in the northern suburbs of Lagos can be a provincial affair like many African terminals, across the tarmac to the cargo handling areas is a far more industrious face of the airborne economy. An open field teems with food stalls and marquee tents, rows of workers eating at long tables, surrounded by dirt roads jostling with people, handcarts, tricycles and trucks. Along one edge are courier sheds where the airport's licenced handler sets down shipments for the city's informal traders. When a palette arrives, from Beirut, from China, from Europe, it is efficiently pulled apart by a hundred hands, bundles of boxes are dragged out into the open air to be broken down further, and each small load is lifted off the muddy ground onto the backs of the traders and the handcarts and carried into the streets.

Along the other edge and at the other end of the commercial spectrum is the national 'gateway' for DHL, the world's largest logistics company. Here efficiency is produced by more mechanical means — roller platters and conveyor belts with uniformed staff reloading packages into vans for Abuja, Port Harcourt, and several smaller sorting centres throughout metropolitan Lagos. A little down the road is its regional 'hub' where palettes are unmade and remade for transshipment to much of the African continent. In place of the traders' backs and handcarts are Boeing 727s bound for Abidjan and Libreville, from which a small fleet of ATR 42s fly out to every major city in West and Central Africa.

In a market like Sub-Saharan Africa, even a multinational learns to adapt itself to the city in ways akin to informal sector enterprises.

As several staff remind me, whether shipped by informal traders or multinationals like DHL, the packages tell the same story: 'Nigeria is an economy based on importation.' In both cases there is vastly more coming in than going out, as attested by innumerable cartons of motor parts, electrical and computing goods, household wares, all manufactured in wealthy or emerging economies. Even the high volume of medical samples leaving the country merely signifies the importation of services, being sent as they are to laboratories in Europe and South Africa for tests that Nigerian hospitals cannot perform.

Adaptation in Africa

In a market like Sub-Saharan Africa, even a multinational learns to adapt itself to the city in ways akin to informal sector enterprises. Because of the traffic in Nairobi, the global model of using fixed service centres must often be abandoned for more fluid, liminal spaces for distributing packages. Charles Brewer, managing director for the region's services, and his vice president of operations Oliver Facey talk of 'courier meet points', where a small detail of couriers will regroup spontaneously at agreed locations — car parks, covered spaces, petrol stations — to transfer packages between vans or motorcycles and quickly disperse again, using carrying capacity efficiently to cut down the number of vehicles sent down the city's streets.

Brewer recounts how in Cape Town they must think creatively about repurposing existing structures for their service centres. 'One of the creative opportunities we looked at was a petrol station with a drive-in forecourt. We looked at how feasible it would be for our couriers to drive in, we give them the shipments through the window like at an ATM or a McDonalds, to avoid using parking space at all. The same thing could be done for our drive-up customers.'

In Lagos, Brewer and Facey use boats and helicopters to bypass the interminable 'go slows' that can occur at any moment. And while DHL would always prefer vans for the safety of their staff and their packages, such vehicles would never progress through Lagos' narrow and floodprone streets so, like professionals throughout the business district, they have switched to using motorcycles for the last mile of delivery.

Collaborating with cities for sustainability

This adaptability is increasingly required in the world's wealthy cities too. Boats are used in Venice and Amsterdam as well, with the latter hosting an entire service centre on a barge that can be docked at different locations and send out bicycles. But Brewer and Facey are concerned that many European cities treat logistics as a nuisance to be constrained, rather than a basic economic function. Width restrictions on trucks, the closure of parking lanes, creation of pedestrian environments put a squeeze on the ways logistics companies can operate. DHL's research argues that when facilities like warehousing are moved to peripheral areas, they often create greater traffic numbers within a city overall as trucks must cross much larger distances to reach their inner-city customers, counter to what many authorities presume.

But Brewer and Facey are concerned that many European cities treat logistics as a nuisance to be constrained, rather than a basic economic function.

In some cities, these constraints inspire innovative responses. When London introduced the congestion charge, DHL relocated its three inner city service centres to a major facility at Heathrow Airport, more than halving its vehicle numbers by switching to a combination of using fewer but larger vehicles, and relying on pushbike and walker couriers for the final delivery.

Other cities are starting to think innovatively themselves. Brussels provided some of DHL's facilities with natural gas tanks to promote the use of alternative fuel tanks. Along with one of the world's best bus lane and cycle lane systems, Paris' roadways also command one of the world's most visible array of streetside delivery bays, with a space for a small van at roughly every hundred metres. A special electric tricycle with a half-tonne capacity was designed especially for the city's logistics industry and is employed by at least three operators.

When cities really sit down with logistics companies though, the results can be extraordinary. New York City collaborated with DHL to reduce its fleet from 190 one-tonne fossil-fuel vehicles to 100 smaller electric vehicles in return for a range of concessions in ease of circulation, delivery bays, kerbside unloading and delivery scheduling. To keep their vehicles off the congested freeways from the airports, DHL flies shipments into Manhattan by helicopter.

This is the kind of collaboration that Brewer and Facey would love to see happen with more local governments. With logistics movements accounting for 15 to 20 per cent of traffic in many cities, and with a huge spurt in business-to-customer deliveries arising from the growth of internet retailing, a bubble that is soon to hit Africa, city authorities must recognise the essential role that logistics plays in their economies, as well as the environmental challenges that this creates. It is also crucial for planners to understand how logistics operators function not only through vehicular movements and loading bays but through the meet points, service centres, national gateways and international hubs for which space must be found and infrastructural resources allocated.


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