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Shipping parcels: How DHL could use Thames for London boat deliveries


With urban deliveries on the rise, logistics companies are looking at ways to minimise their environmental impact as much as possible. For DHL, moving parcels by boat is providing a promising way to do so in Amsterdam and Venice – and the company is hoping to eventually export the model to London, according to company executives.
Ronald Leunisse, MD of DHL Express Netherlands, said the company is looking at ways to solve the challenge of increasing numbers of people living in cities and ordering more and more online. As this puts increasing pressure on traffic levels in the city and increases pollution, regulators have been looking at introducing low emission zones and other initiatives to try and curb the environmental impact.

Across the country, DHL has nine major hubs in total, but is increasingly moving from delivering to customers directly from these hubs to installing locations in the city from which it can make zero emission deliveries.

The company showcased its “floating city hub” concept to media at an event in the Netherlands. DHL loads the boat with goods from the service centre before it travels around the canals of Amsterdam, with bikes and electric vehicles meeting it at key hubs to carry the goods for the last mile.

Bikes are a particularly efficient delivery mechanism, Leunisse says. They can always take the shortest route and have no parking problems, meaning they are almost twice as productive as vehicles in city centres.

According to Ricky Van Soest, Go Green specialist at DHL Express Netherlands, the company is also moving the boat to electric propulsion, which he hopes to happen at the end of the year.

Van Soest says the Netherlands is the leading market for the company in these sorts of green delivery initiatives. Part of this advantage has been geographical – bikes have always been particularly common in the Netherlands due to its generally flat terrain. The country’s government has also been especially active in regulating in this way.

While the model is most suited to cities with wide-reaching networks of canals such as Amsterdam or Venice, John Pearson, CEO of DHL Express, said the company is looking at moving material up the London’s River Thames in the same way. Again, it would support this with bikes and vans.

In Amsterdam, the company has had a licence to use its boat since 1997. Pearson said there are more regulatory barriers in London but in general authorities are supportive; anything that reduces congestion is welcome.

Where this boat-based model is less applicable, DHL is looking at other options, with some of its hubs more akin to a traditional fixed warehouse. But even this model is being pushed.

“If we are in the city centre anyway, why not use that for the first mile?” says Leunisse.

The company is piloting a retail function for these warehouses, with a store sells DHL goods and services to customers while vehicles operate from the back.

The company is also in discussions with Ford, which has presented a concept for driverless vehicles, says Van Soest.

Whether these models make it out of the Netherlands will of course depend on their success there. But if the concept can be proven it may not be long before we see electricity-powered DHL ships moving up the Thames.

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