Last week, two entrepreneurs announced they are going to build a new distribution hub on the shore of one of Amsterdam’s main waterways. Goods (e.g. parcels) from different businesses will be collected at the hub and delivered to final customers by means of electric vessels. With varying degrees of success, similar projects in European cities have also sought to reinvent waterborne urban distribution for the distribution of parcels, construction material, restaurant supplies and for garbage collection. The common rationale is that (electric) waterborne transport can be (part of) a solution to congestion and urban air pollution. Yet, the question is why this would succeed today, when we abandoned these practices decades ago.
Many European cities relied on waterborne transportation until (most) ships gave way to faster, more cost-efficient trucks. Today, ships may be “clean”, but they are still are slow and labor-intensive and they can only reach a limited number of locations. Moreover, urban quays have found new uses, e.g. providing space for houseboats and car parking, and are hardly available for unloading. For these reasons, it seems likely that waterborne distribution, in the near future, will mostly be limited to customers who are willing to pay a premium for green delivery options and those for whom on-time delivery is crucial and waterways offer a more reliable option than clogged-up urban roads.
In the longer term, autonomous vessels could play a significant role by reducing labor costs (and ships may be even easier to automate than cars). The same is true for small (automated) vehicles that could extend the “reach” of ships beyond the immediacy of a quay. Along with technological innovation, additional institutional innovation will be needed as well. Part of this may have to come from municipalities (e.g. discouraging (Diesel) truck deliveries and re-opening quays for deliveries) or from distributors and customers (e.g. shifting to bundled and less frequent deliveries).