Digitally transforming deliveries and collections in the gig-economy: fairer and more sustainable last mile parcel logistics

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Computing & Communications


The digital economy (e.g. online shopping) is growing rapidly - already £50bn in 2016 - which is radically transforming the high street. It is estimated that approximately 220,000 vans are operating in London on a typical weekday with approximately 5% (11,000) engaged in parcel collection and delivery. With new `try before you by' clothing services such as ASOS and Amazon Prime Wardrobe, where any number of clothing items can be ordered for home delivery, and returned 'for free', the true environmental costs are spiralling out of control. Freight transport already accounts for 16% of all motorised road vehicle activity in British towns and cities, typically burning fossil fuels and accounting for 23%, 36% and 39% of total road-based CO2, NOx and PM10 emissions respectively!

Our previous work has already highlighted how new models involving sustainable transport modes (walking and cycling) and life-style couriers/ gig-economy workers might increase average vehicle load factors by 20%, and reduce kerbside dwell time by over 50% (FTC2050, 2018). But this raises new challenges: the number of businesses in London involved in the logistics sector with no employees (i.e. using gig-economy workers) was 69,105 in 2017, up 82% since 2010. With concerns about the fairness and conditions attributed to this self-employed workforce, e.g. the recent Taylor review, research is needed to understand how algorithms and digital platforms are already encouraging this unfairness, and might be better designed to encourage dependable, equitable, sustainable and ethical end-to-end logistics.

We will:
1. Investigate current gig economy practices and technology interaction and biases using the parcel and food delivery sectors in London as a case study;
2. Expose the inefficiencies and inequities arising from current ad-hoc last-mile service provision and algorithmic approaches;
3. Develop new algorithms and dynamic models for allowing couriers to collaborate in new ways to encourage sustainable 'multi-modal' delivery and collection;
4. Create new algorithms and interaction designs (HCI/UX) that optimise for empowering gig economy couriers, rather than purely profit, to better meet working preferences and personal circumstances; matching these more efficiently to work location and availability, the use of sustainable modes of transport;
5. Explore how we can enable end-to-end trusted relationships and practices between consignors and consignees;
6. Use simulation, modelling, and trials to evaluate the potential impact and uncover barriers to adoption of the new models we propose at scale.

We expect social, environmental and economic benefits to arise from our work.
* System designers and software developers underlying logistics businesses will benefit from our new hybrid approaches that span couriers and modes of delivery; and optimise to address concerns of fairness to workers, and end-to-end service reliability and trust.
* UK courier and express parcel industry generates annual revenue of approximately £10.1 billion, collaborative scheduling using life-style couriers, a significant proportion of which would be using new operating practices involving sustainable transport modes.
* This is of interest to policy makers who can set the framework for wider adoption, reducing associated pollution and benefit the city environment.

Our innovative industry partners are well placed to help us realise this impact: Miralis are a data science company specialising in routing algorithms for the logistics industry; Gnewt-Menzies are a substantial and innovative last-mile logistics company who run the largest sustainable logistics operation in London. We are also in active discussions with a further major logistics operator who can provide further access to lifestyle couriers (who've asked not to be named for legal reasons). Transport for London are committed to learning from the outputs of the project to inform policy.

Planned Impact

Uptake arising from our work could have the potential for economic, society and knowledge impacts: the UK courier and express parcel industry generates annual revenue of approximately £10.1 billion, collaborative scheduling using life-style couriers, a significant proportion of which would be using sustainable transport modes (walking and cycling), could see vehicle load factors increasing by 20%, reduce vehicles and integration of more sustainable last-mile practices. This will reduce associated pollution with benefits to the city environment. System designers and software developers will benefit from our approaches for integrating, modelling and visualising last-mile carrier data sets for collaborative decision support, and new knowledge and understanding in how powerful metaheuristic algorithms (e.g. Hybrid Genetic or Adaptive Large Neighbourhood Search), can help produce practical solutions for optimising for this evolving class of workers toward addressing very real concerns of fairness (not least of underlying algorithms), end-to-end reliability, privacy and trust.

Beneficiaries of our work include:
- life-style couriers, who will benefit from better algorithms and software, tuned to meet their requirements for more appropriate, equitable and sustained work;
- courier services who will benefit from new approaches that allow more effective use of existing services (vehicle load factors increasing by 20%, total vehicle deployment time could be reduced by up to 40%); and could potentially offer more sustainable services to customers;
- transportation businesses and researchers, will benefit from new metaheuristic routing algorithms embracing sustainable transportation and fairness goals;
- policymakers (such as Transport for London), who can benefit from new knowledge, input into calls for evidence, and simulations and datasets illustrating the potential benefits for reducing energy, environmental and transport impacts in urban centres - by shaping the operating conditions, this can lead to substantial benefits to the city and quality of life in terms of promoting sustainable modes of transport for logistics, and reducing congestion and associated pollution.


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