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Solving the Last Mile in Transport

By 2050, Melbourne’s population will increase by three million, to reach eight million. It’s growth that will put us on par with London and Tokyo today, and it was at the centre of last year’s state election. How, where, and in what should we be investing to support the travel of not just our congested state capital, but the oft neglected regional areas.

 The first event of 2019 proved that the ‘last mile’ is a simple enough term that represents a complicated intersection of community values, emerging technology, infrastructure planning and investment, housing affordability, and economic inequality.  

 We discussed:

  • Defining the last mile

  • How the last mile is unique in Australia

  • Transport technologies and solutions in development

  • The role of infrastructure in supporting established transport options, and zero emissions

  • The role of government, and influence of community values

With panelists:

What is the last mile in transportation?

The ‘last mile’ is a catch-all term for the issues that arise from making first, or final, connections between destinations, and high-capacity hubs.  It began in telecommunications, where the limitations of materials can diminish the delivery of the full bandwidth of the network to homes and businesses.  In supply chain management it was appropriated to refer to the exponential cost of transporting goods from stations or ports, to a final destination.

In transportation planning it refers to the access issues associated with the distance between homes and public transportation. ‘Access’ is defined by walkability; the maximum individuals are willing to walk is estimated by urban planners to be just 800 metres. In assessing if there is a last mile issue the question is, ‘could an individual walk the distance from their point of origin to the transport hub, and vice versa?’ And, ‘can vision-impaired and disabled individuals do the same?’ 

Why is the last mile a problem in Australia?

We are a unique country in many respects, and the manifestation of our last mile is no exception. Unlike many of our Asian neighbours and European allies, population density is low and urban sprawl is high, making it difficult to meet the 800 metre requirement for the majority of the population.

In Victoria, the ‘last mile’ catchment for train stations accounts for roughly 7% of the area of the state, most of which is concentrated in the inner metro areas.

Considering also that housing affordability is pushing more to middle and fringe suburban areas, regional residents are often tens of kilometres from their nearest public transportation option. Most of the economic activity still occurs in Melbourne CBD, individual car ownership is less about preference and more about necessity.  

High levels of car ownership, paired with population growth sees congestion and pollution become dangerous side-effects. There are also the adverse mental and physical health issues associated with long commutes, often to mostly sedentary jobs - physical inactivity was estimated to cost the Australian economy $13.8 billion a year in 2014 by the Heart Foundation.

What is the solution?

Planning to support a growing population, and close a growing last-mile gap, is turning into one of policy’s wicked problems.  There is no one single solution, but many, and juggling investment in each while also connecting them through a system that allows efficient trip planning will be crucial.

Dockless bikes, electric vehicles, and e-scooters oh my!
New tech has dominated the narrative around last mile solutions.  We’ve seen O-Bike fail, been frustrated by the additional congestion created by Uber (40% are driving clogged Melbourne streets without passengers), and followed the news as Lime try to convince the Victorian Government to give them a shot.

Are these disruptors our last mile heroes fighting red tape, or Silicon Valley charlatans? The answer is somewhere in between. Uber have managed to make using their service a cheap and seamless experience that alleviates pressure on parking, and where O-Bike failed to provide an experience and service valued by their target customers, e-scooter companies Lime and Bird are learning and improving - one in ten in Christchurch have ridden a Lime e-scooter, Brisbanites are completing around 10,000 trips a day, and you’ll soon see them buzzing around Adelaide Fringe Festival.

These sexy solutions are, however, generally focused on young, educated, inner-city suburbanites who often have the least distance to travel. With the exception of experience-startups like Jaunt, they aren’t seeking to address the issue where the most disadvantage and congestion occurs - the lower socioeconomic middle-to-fringe suburbs, and regional areas.

‘Let’s just hop in the car’ - appealing to values and changing behaviours  
Australians love their cars. There were over 18 million of them registered in 2015, and what’s not to love? The ease and independence of slipping into a vehicle that you own, that will take you anywhere, anytime, is convenient and empowering - all the things that travel should be. And if you’re living in an outer suburb that’s 40 km from the CBD, and 10 km from the nearest train station where frequency is low, and carriages are packed, it’s not only the easiest option, it’s the most attractive.

Behaviours are part of the last mile problem, and changing them by offering a travel experience that appeals to values other than ownership, and independence will need to be part of all solutions.

Pay-to-play - financial models
London and Singapore are high profile examples of the use of financial disincentives to manage city congestion. The London congestion charge applies between 7am and 6pm Monday to Friday, generated 2.6 billion pounds, and reduced congestion by 10% within the first ten years of its introduction.

While these charges have proven to be successful in reducing the number of vehicles in high-traffic areas, they have also been criticised for further disadvantaging lower socioeconomic groups who live further out of the city, where there are already reduced travel options.  

Putting the power in the hands of the commuter with on-demand
On-demand programs refer to a public transport service where local commuters book vehicles to pick them up from a location of their choice, and take them to their nearest transport hub.  

There have been several trials but they’re often expensive and require subsidies to run, though there are some successes and often in the under-serviced outer suburbs.

In Sydney, Keoride has made an impact in the Northern Beaches and Macquarie Park with over 10,000 trips completed in November 2018, and a satisfaction rate of roughly 98%.

Good, old-fashioned infrastructure
Once budget has been assigned for roads, trains, and council-managed contracts and regulation car parking there’s not much left for the infrastructure that supports zero emission transport.

Walking and cycling are also the options that not only alleviate pressure on other forms, but they support good mental and physical health.

Has anyone solved the problem?

While we are unique in Melbourne, we are not alone as cities around the world grapple with how to develop and implement solutions that will allow their citizens to travel safely, with greater ease, and with less impact on their health and the environment.

Portland, Oregon is one of the most progressive cities, introducing a range of trials and pilots to combat the last mile;

  • In 2015 they introduced a light rail with five lines

  • In 2016 they introduced one of the most successful bike-share programs with a fleet of 1,000 for the 8% of commuters that cycle (one of the highest rates in the US)

  • Bird, Lime and Skip have all established successful e-scooter trials in the past 12 months

  • In 2018 they launched the Smart Automated Vehicles Initiative (SAVI) to advance the safe piloting of connected and automated vehicles in the city

In Amsterdam, commuters cycle an estimated two million kilometres per day, and have one of the most famous cycling cultures in the world.  This wasn’t a natural cultural progression though, it was driven by purposeful grass-roots, community action in the 1970s to drive investment in cycling infrastructure in anticipation of a growing population. They now have separate bike tracks (as opposed to lanes), only two slow speed limits for cars in the city, stress-free intersections, and are converting many streets to be completely car free. Between 1990 and 2017, car trips in Amsterdam reduced from 38% to just 2.4%.

How can Melbourne bring about change?

What Portland and Amsterdam both model goes beyond the nuts and bolts of specific solutions.  These cities exemplify governance that is forward-thinking and aligned with the values of the community.  We have examples of them here too, ‘the Gis’ - a bus that connects residents to the Gisbourne train station - is a beloved, and well utilised regional service for all demographics in the community from peak-hour 9-5 workers, to retirees travelling in the off period.

The key is state and federal ministers who are forward-thinking, and govern portfolios that combine roads and transportation (like Queensland). These are the ones best positioned to empower others from local government, and independent agencies like the National Transport Authority, to go out and find the smart solutions.  

There is also a role for developers.  Two weeks ago, the Victorian Government released 12 new suburbs for 50,000 homes in the west, northwest and southeast.  We need developers who can consider and develop for quality of life - plan for walkability, cycling and other zero emission activities - not just return on investment, or density alone.