Interview with Dr. Abdelrahman Ismael

Urban Freight and Parking Issues: Using OR to Improve the Livability of City Centers

Sofia Perez-Guzman
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  

After earning his B.Sc. in Civil Engineering from Alexandria University, Egypt, and his Master’s degree in Transportation Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Abdelrahman Ismael completed his Ph.D. at Rensselaer. His main research interests lie in freight transportation and sustainable urban logistics to make deliveries and parking more efficient and to study how to assign vehicles to specific parking spots. The goal of this research is to reduce traffic congestion, parking emissions and the effects of illegal parking.

Transportation is an activity that touches each of us in so many different ways, from using public transit or driving to commute to work and running errands to accessing goods and services in stores or even having them delivered to your doorstep. Regardless of what is transported, transportation is the mere re-flection of economic activity, and it is essential to our societies. Nonetheless, despite its vital role as a pillar of our communities, the negative aspects of transportation–such as the negative externalities produced by freight vehicles making urban deliveries–usually receive the most attention. Fortunately, the transportation community has become aware of these negative aspects and has begun to explore alternative solutions.

We invited Dr. Abdelrahman Ismael for an interview to discuss his approach to minimizing urban freight externalities. This article features Dr. Ismael’s doctoral research on freight transportation and sustainable urban logistics, conducted at the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Ismael aims to improve the efficiency of delivery and parking activities in urban areas. His research aims not only to improve urban freight operations, but also to significantly reduce the effects of illegal parking, such as traffic congestion and emissions.

Starting with the basics, what is urban freight, why is it important to our society, and how does it relate to parking issues and the livability of city centers?

Urban freight transportation deals mainly with transporting goods in urban areas, whether business-to-business or business-to-consumer goods. The importance of urban freight stems from the congestion and pollution concerns in major cities. Our major urban areas are densely populated, congested and suffer from increased emissions due to many factors. A big one of these is traffic and urban freight vehicles, i.e., trucks. Recently, urban freight issues have received increased attention due to the ever-increasing population of urban areas - 55% of the world’s population and 70% projected by 2050 (The World Bank, 2020) – and the concomitant very sharp rise of e-commerce deliveries.

Furthermore, urban freight leads to parking issues because trucks need a place to park to deliver their goods. Sometimes this parking requires additional space for loading and unloading purposes. Not to mention, trucks have larger dimensions, requiring more space per vehicle than passenger cars. Also, truck-ing activity incurs further difficulties. Truck drivers are usually constrained by having to: (1) meet very tight delivery windows that put them under a lot of rush and pressure; and (2) park in front of their receiver due to specific loading or unloading processes. These two constraints often lead trucks to park illegally. In fact, trucks pay a tremendous amount of parking fines in large cities because they have to deliver their goods, even if they resort to illegal parking. For example, in New York City, two major freight carriers paid around $32 million in parking violations in 2019 (Chang2020).

To have further insight, can you briefly tell us what has already been done in this area and what did you find that was lacking?

In general, there is a lot of research on how to manage on-street parking. Most of this research focuses on using dynamic (reactive or predictive) parking pricing, increasing parking spaces to meet demand, using parking reservation systems, and optimally dividing parking spaces among different road users.

One of the major missing factors in this area of research was the accounting of individual vehicles of different vehicle types. Each vehicle may have different characteristics that vary widely, even within the same vehicle type. There is also a problem of lack of information on parking availability. In cities, most vehicle-cruising (when vehicles drive around looking for an available parking space) occurs because we simply do not know where the vacant parking spaces are around our destinations.

How did your work help fill this gap, and what were the main findings from your research?

My work has focused on building optimization models that cities can use to allocate incoming vehicles to different parking spaces, considering their individual characteristics while trying to reduce the overall cost in the network (i.e., achieving a social optimum). In this regard, I proposed two different models (static and dynamic) to deal with the problem.

The main findings were that, generally speaking, vehicles with a higher time value, such as those carrying more valuable goods, have an incentive to park right next to the entrance to their destination. Providing drivers with information about the exact parking location would eliminate cruising altogether, which previous studies have shown to account for an average of 34% of traffic in cities (Hampshire and Shoup2019). The net benefit of eliminating cruising can be substantial in major cities that suffer from an even higher percentage of cruising vehicles. Finally, the breakdown in the parking situation as demand exceeds supply does not occur right away, but rather depends on a variety of factors, including changes in demand, parking turnover, and parking duration.

Can you provide an example of how your research can be implemented to have more livable smarter city centers?

The clearest example would be to use this model in a smart city with an infrastructure connectivity system. In such a scenario, drivers would be directed by their navigation apps to a specific

parking location decided by a centralized parking allocation system. This system would use driver input, camera/detector information and historical data to make its allocation decisions.

What would be your advice for students who wish to help build smart cities and improve our transportation systems, and what role do OR/MS tools play?

Building smart cities require a vast amount of data, modeling, and optimization to seamlessly develop control systems that lead to efficient and sustainable transport operations. We all need to get well versed in the modeling aspect, even if the models we produce may not be practical when scaled up. However, these mathematical models can give us good insights into what to do and what not to do. After developing such exact models, we need to be flexible enough to try different paradigms, models, and techniques that may be more practical (e.g., heuristics or trained machine learning models) or offer entirely different perspectives (e.g., bottom-up approaches such as agent-based models). In essence, we need to be flexible in our modeling approaches and perspectives because, ultimately, to quote George Box, "all models are wrong, but some are useful."

Lastly, we need to remember that we are doing this for the welfare and development of humanity. We need to ask ourselves whether what we are proposing would be in the general interest of our society or would instead increase inequity. We took up science to make the Earth a better place. We should therefore always ponder on the ethical consequences of the products of our research.



  1. Chang, S., 2020. Ups, fedex rack up parking violations as city struggles to reduce congestion. Gothamist.
  2.  Hampshire, R., Shoup, D., 2019. How much traffic is cruising for parking? magazine-article/issue-4/how-much-traffic-is-cruising-for-parking/. Transfers Magazine.
  3. The World Bank, 2020. Urban development.