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From electric trucks to 'curbside management,' Smart Freight Centre studies how to improve flow of goods

The Smart Freight Centre, a partnership between U of T, Peel Region and other universities, will launch 24 research projects on topics ranging from supply-chain resilience to automated delivery of goods (Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

From take-out pizza to online shopping – which nearly doubled in Canada this year – the use of home delivery has greatly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Matt Roorda, a professor in the University of Toronto’s department of civil and mineral engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, says what happens between clicking “add to cart” and picking up a package on the doorstep is a complex process – and one that could benefit from fresh ideas.

“Our whole economy and way of life depend on freight transportation,” Roorda says. “COVID-19 has highlighted some key issues, but the need for innovation was clear before the pandemic and will continue after it’s over.”

Roorda chairs the Smart Freight Centre (SFC), a centre of excellence for goods movement. SFC is a collaborative network established in 2019 by the Region of Peel, McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering and the U of T Transportation Research Institute (UTTRI).

“Approximately $1.8 billon [worth of] goods move through Peel on daily basis, accounting for 43 per cent of jobs in Peel Region,” says Peel Regional Chair Nando Iannicca. “But with strong growth pressures and the current pandemic situation, businesses are becoming increasingly challenged and need even greater support. This partnership is key to helping us find innovative solutions for safe and efficient movement of goods and ultimately creating more jobs for Canadians.”

This fall, SFC received an Alliance Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to fund a new research initiative called City Logistics for the Urban Economy, or CLUE. More than $3 million in NSERC funding is matched by contributions from the institutions and partner organizations for a total of over $11 million in direct and in-kind support.

“Goods movement hasn’t been studied as extensively as people movement, but interest is growing as it becomes clear just how much we rely on an efficient goods movement system,” says Judy Farvolden, executive director of UTTRI. “CLUE addresses issues of significance to Canadians and this collaboration of public and industry partners further strengthens our chances of success.”

The CLUE initiative includes 24 separate research projects on a wide range of topics, from driver training and supply-chain resilience to automated delivery of goods and the impact of local bylaws.

“The goal is to provide efficient goods movement while minimizing the negative impact on neighbourhoods in terms of safety, noise or pollution,” says Roorda.

For example, last year SFC completed a pilot study on off-peak delivery. Industry partners at Walmart, Loblaws and the LCBO shifted key deliveries from daytime hours to the early morning (before 7 a.m.) and late evening (between 7 and 11 p.m.)

Preliminary results showed that the change increased the average speed of trucks by 18 per cent, with associated reductions in key air pollutants of between 10 per cent and 15 per cent. The team plans to conduct a larger and more detailed study as part of the CLUE initiative.

Another research direction looks at what is known as “curbside management.”

“The curbside is a very busy place with many competing needs: parking, bicycle lanes, loading zones and even outdoor dining,” says Roorda. “We can use cameras to study how these spaces are being used now and leverage this data to model how they could be used more efficiently in the future.”

Other CLUE projects will examine alternative modes of local delivery. These could include electric trucks, pedal-powered vehicles, autonomous robots or even the use of commuter vehicles, a concept known as “crowdsourced delivery.”

“There are companies trying these strategies out today, including here in Toronto,” says Roorda. “What our research can provide is rigorous scientific analysis of what works and what doesn’t. That should help everyone make smarter decisions going forward.”