Last mile solutions from European research projects in Barcelona


Seeking to optimise and improve the problems associated with last mile traffic, Barcelona is implementing the last mile distribution of goods with electric cargo bikes within different European projects. The GrowSmarter lighthouse project is assessing the impact of this solution and its replicability to other cities

Recently, the popularity of online shopping has led to more delivery trucks visiting residential areas, resulting in increased emissions, noise levels and traffic hazards. Smarter, integrated deliveries can cut overall traffic and provide better information on delivery times, while the use of cleaner vehicles will help to reduce local pollution levels.

Last mile delivery of goods is a new approach to reduce congestion, lowering emissions and diminishing delivery times in dense urban areas. The use of electric tricycles improves the delivery operations in pedestrian areas where conventional vehicles have limited access, while also reducing time, costs and mileage for conventional carriers.

Barcelona has approached this solution through the participation in different European projects. At present, within the GrowSmarter project, Barcelona is evaluating the environmental impact of this solution and finding new sustainable business models to be replicated in other European cities.

Barcelona’s Approach

Barcelona Municipality’s SUMP (Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan) contains a number of actions to improve the sustainability of mobility in the city and make it more efficient, equitable, safer and healthier. One of the freight action lines concerns micro-distribution. The concept of micro-distribution is that shippers use trucks to bring parcels to a trans-shipment point or microplatform, and from this point cargo-bikes (or trikes) are used to make the last mile of delivery .

Barcelona Municipality has enjoyed a long tradition of collaborative European projects in the field of city logistics, and the investigation of solutions based on cargo-bikes can be dated back to the SUGAR project (a transfer case study). The SMILE project of the INTERREG programme was the first pilot trial with EU co-funding and this was followed by NOVELOG, an H2020 project that enabled the action to be taken a step further.

In 2015, Barcelona became a lighthouse city as part of the GrowSmarter project. Within this project, Barcelona will share its experiences to other cities after evaluating the economic sustainability of the solutions and its environmental impact. This knowledge will provide opportunities for replication into the European urban structure. Besides, it will create a qualified market for these solutions and give support to the growth and to the transition towards a smart and sustainable Europe.

The work

The microdistribution concept was introduced in the city in three phases. The first phase – SMILE – is referred to as the subsidy approach, and saw a collaboration between the Municipality and the cargo-bike start-up company vanAPEDAL. The pilot promoted a shared cargo-bike service. This achieved some success in breaking the logistics chain, with more than half a dozen shippers taking part. It enabled vanAPEDAL to establish some new exclusive cargo-bike services, and it confirmed this latter service as the one that shipper companies prefer.


A second phase of microdistribution development saw the Municipality working within the framework of the H2020 NOVELOG which had as its primary objective the development of tools to assist cities in the process of implementing measures to reduce the impact of the last mile deliveries and to provide guidance. A pilot test was carried out in this project, where the idea was to reduce the costs that Last-Mile Cargo-trike operators (LMO) face without using a subsidy to intervene in the market. Thus, the Municipality cedes (in a concession model) off-street space so that the Last Mile Operator avoids paying the rental of the space and the overnight parking of the cargo-bikes. In exchange, the LMO provides data to the Municipality and assumes the compromise to be a neutral operator: this means working with any carrier requesting their services. The data and knowledge generated is then used by the city to improve its services and possibly extending the model to other areas.

The third phase is under development and taking place as part of the solutions implemented in the H2020 GrowSmarter project. Due to the proximity of the Estació de França microplatform to the neighbourhood where GrowSmarter is demonstrating smart city solutions, CENIT and fellow GrowSmarter partners IMI, I2CAT and IESE Business School approached vanAPEDAL to extend the collaboration further. This time, Barcelona will be evaluating the economic sustainability of the solutions and its environmental impact to provide replication opportunities to other cities.

Finding Space

One of the main concerns of this model is the location of the distribution platform. The first pilot experience, conducted within the SMILE project, performed operations from an on-street spot where a provisional container was placed. It was soon rejected by neighbours and the townscape department due to the externalities caused on the street such as noise, public space occupation and the movement of parcels on-street. For this reason, in 2015, the Mobility Services department searched various types of off-street public premises: municipal markets, car parks, some public transport stations, and other spaces owned or leased by the City Council. The spaces require approximately 100m2 in total on the street level; this includes the administrative area, plus a place to make the trans-shipment activity. In addition, another space, not necessarily on the street level, was needed to park/store the bikes at night. 

Environmental Impact

In January 2017 the evaluation period of the solution implemented started. CENIT, a transport research centre, has coordinated the evaluation work of the NOVELOG and GrowSmarter trials. The main objectives were to introduce a more efficient and effective freight transport system in the city and analyze the reduction in CO2 and vehicle kilometers due to shift from conventional vehicles to electric bikes.

Since the operation of the services began, 14 delivery tours were made each weekday – primarily by cargo-trikes – each tour delivering a daily average of 56 parcels. Over 80,000 parcels were delivered over the 5 months: the monthly average of delivered parcels has been 16,301 (total for the two platforms). The result is an order of magnitude improvement on the traffic handled during the previous SMILE (subsidized service) trial.

The work within GrowSmarter includes I2CAT’s prototype sensors installed in three of vanAPEDAL’s cargo bikes. Information about the routes can be visualized along with the concentration of a wide range of pollutants, noise levels and other atmospheric values. The sensors are powered by the tricycle battery and were installed under the tricycles to minimize the risk of robbery or vandalism. External antennas with long cables were used to enhance the coverage of the GPS and the communication links. The information captured through the sensors will help to validate the difference in pollutant concentration between the pedestrianized areas and the outer areas where the micro-platform is located. Also, it will provide the possibility to analyze the routes covered and propose more optimized paths.

CENIT’s work shows that there is a positive contribution to GHG emission targets, and to improved air quality (in streets having a high concentration of pedestrians) and hence to Barcelona’s SUMP goals. This improvement is due to the reduced number of vehicle kilometres needed by conventional vehicles to perform deliveries since e-bikes takeover this duty. Whereas bikes and trikes have covered 19,000Km during the pilot phase, the same deliveries would have needed approximately 36,000 truck vehicle-kilometres.

The two platforms piloted provided a reduction of air pollutant emissions with special importance in CO2 emissions where a combined reduction of 9,472kg was achieved (the trial was assessed over 5 months).

Air pollutant emissions savings during the first 5 months of 2017

The GrowSmarter trial will be further developed during 2018 to assess the business models of collaboration that could underlie a permanent service of this kind. So far, the average percentage of successful deliveries has been 92.73 per cent. This value has increased over time, and it is seen by mobility experts as encouraging in particular as conventional carriers usually have lower figures.


The model being tested by the GrowSmarter project could be replicated in other European cities that fulfil some requirements. Such a service can only be sustainable in high-density areas of a city where the number of shipments makes it profitable to deliver them by bike. Old quarters of cities, especially in pedestrianized areas, are the most suitable locations for this type of solution. Also, the local environment is very important since cooperation among different stakeholders is crucial for the success of such an initiative. Different models to the one tested in Barcelona could be used, and a key question is what level of public intervention is required – if any. In Madrid, for example, in the context of the Frevue project, public space was allocated to any logistics operator that performed the last mile using an electric vehicle. Several companies joined the trial and shared this space as a crossdocking and parking area. Although successful, the trial ended because the municipality needed the space for other uses. In London, a trial carried out in the framework of the Lamilo project also required public funding to set up an urban consolidation centre which succeeded in reducing the number of vehicle trips as well as the kilometers driven, but did not establish a clear, sustainable business model without the intervention of the public authority.


Last mile delivery of goods has become a good solution to reduce congestion, lowering emissions and diminishing delivery times in dense urban areas. Electric tricycles are widely recognised as being the more suitable vehicle for small shipments as they improve the delivery operations in pedestrian areas where conventional vehicles have limited access, while also reducing time, costs and mileage for conventional carriers.

Despite all these benefits, the implementation of microplatforms still has several challenges to cope with. E-commerce has largely increased the demand of last mile deliveries in cities that, in turn, have lowered the unitary fees charged per delivered parcel, threatening the profitability of carriers. This reality adds even more uncertainty to such measures and should encourage municipalities to intervene in some way to foster innovative delivery systems that avoid adding congestion and pollution to the city.

Financial sustainability is one of the major concerns when thinking about long-term sustainability and replicability. The role of Public Authorities is critical to foster the introduction of sustainable last mile delivery services in cities and has to be reviewed. At the end of the evaluation period, the outcomes of the GrowSmarter project will provide a better understanding of the business models that can support such solutions, and whether cargo-bike start-ups can remain independent by diversifying the microdistribution business with higher-value messenger services, electric bike repairs, and consultancy services to other last mile operators.

The solutions presented can contribute to mitigate climate change, and public-private partnerships are the means by which the public authority gains the knowledge to evaluate such policies. To GrowSmarter we need to find paths that can promote, scale-up and replicate so as to make a higher number of cities and citizens can take-up the challenges and secure the benefits.



Carles López leads the development and monitoring of the City’s Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans at the Barcelona City Council.

Xavier Cruzet is responsible for City Logistics actions, and works in the Planning Team at Barcelona Municipality Mobility Services.

Gonzalo Cabezas is the Barcelona site coordinator of the GrowSmarter project.

Enric Gallifa is co-founder and CEO of vanAPEDAL.

Jaume Roca is Project Manager for the Urban mobility and logistics research area at CENIT.

Simon Hayes is an independent sustainable mobility consultant.

Editorial Coordinator: Luana Bidasca, Polis.


This article is based upon presentations made at the NOVELOG 3rd workshop, Barcelona (January), Citylab symposium, Rome (October) 2017, and GrowSmarter outcomes