In this section we will provide you with advice on how best to plan routes, which is equally applicable whether you only have a few drops to negotiate over a large area, or many drops within one town, or city.
When route planning, our ultimate objective is to deliver all the parcels ordered for a given route to all the correct customers on the manifest as quickly and efficiently as possible. You need to consider your start point, your end point and how you are going to get from drop to drop, while minimising your mileage and avoiding back-tracking as much as possible.
As discussed within the section on technology, these days, much of the effort involved in route planning has been removed by the introduction and popular use of route optimisation software. However, there will still always be occasions when the responsibility for planning a route falls squarely on your shoulders with no external assistance whatsoever and while there is a place for route optimisation software, it is not infallible. If you have used a SatNav already for any length of time, you will know that there are times when they try to take you the wrong way down a one way street, or along a road which turns out to be a dead-end. Route optimisation software can sometimes present similar problems.
Ultimately, no technology is a match for driver experience. Your ability to get your head around the geography of the area that your days delivery’s cover is what is important. Your skill in planning efficient routes is what will make the difference between a good day and a bad day, profit and loss, good customer service vs letting customers down.
Going ‘Old School’
There is no doubt that in recent times there has been a technology revolution and people have been using SatNav’s for several years and now. However, even the humble SatNav is being usurped by everyones own smartphone, with apps like google maps.
While this technology does have its place in the life of a freelance courier, there are times when you just can’t beat a good old fashioned large-scale road atlas. Smartphones are great, but if you find yourself in an area with no signal and no internet data connectivity they’re virtually useless. (This is one area where a SatNav does trump a smartphone as they will still work in remote areas of the country).
When it comes to manual route planning, a large scale road atlas has benefits over any form of mobile technology currently available, especially if the area you are about to deliver to is geographically unfamiliar to you.
Let’s assume that you have been asked to cover a multi-drop route covering a large town and surrounding suburbs and that it’s and area that you have not delivered in previously. You’ve been handed the manifest for the day and all the parcels scheduled for delivery are on the loading bay waiting for you to load them onto your vehicle. Where do you start?
As you can see from Fig. 1 (above), our large scale atlas gives us an overview of a given area and provides us with a decent amount of detail. As well as your main town, you can easily see the names of the surrounding suburbs.
By reviewing the manifest, you will notice that there may be several drops in each individual suburb, as well as numerous deliveries scheduled for the main town centre. Now, considering our objective, we can decide what order to attack the route in by establishing which suburb to start at, and then how to move form suburb-to-suburb-to-town/city-to-suburb etc in an efficient manner. At this stage, you don’t necessarily have to plan every single delivery within each suburb. it’s enough to know which suburb you are going to next. Once you get close to a given area, you can start to plan the individual drops within that area. Again, when planning each suburb, keep the objective in mind of knowing where we want to start, where we want to finish and how to minimise back-tracking.
For example: we probably want our start point as near to the last drop in the previous suburb as possible and will want our last drop in this suburb to be as close to the next area/suburb on our overview plan as possible.
While your ‘old-school’ road atlas will provide you with the kind of overview that you just cannot get on a small screen, once you have planned your route, your SatNav, or smartphone can now be used to get you from drop-to-drop.
The Left Turn Technique
In the UK, we drive on the left. Any driver will know that it is generally easier to turn left than it is to turn right. If you’re turning right off a main road onto a side street, you have to move to the middle of the road, then wait for oncoming traffic to clear before turning. It’s much easier to just turn left. If you’re turning right out of a T-junction, onto a main road, you have to check for oncoming traffic from both the right and the left. If you’re turning left, you are primarily just concerned with what is coming from the right and are likely to be able to make your turn sooner.
Knowing this is something that we can now apply to our route planning and incorporate more and more as our experience of a given area improves.
Linear Town/Suburb Left Turn Technique Example:
Imagine that you have done your last delivery for the Blackburn area in the suburb of Shadsworth/Guide and ultimately you will be returning to your depot, which is in Preston, but before you return to the deport, you still have a dozen drops to complete in Darwen. You have joined the M65 westbound at junction 5 and you’re going to come off again at junction 4, which essentially is the Darwen junction. Darwen is a typical example of a linear town. It is essentially one long road (A666) with houses, shops and businesses dotted along either side of this road.
You not only know that you are coming off the M65 at junction 4 to do all of your Darwen deliveries, but you also know that you will be re-joining the M65 at the same junction to continue westbound to get back to Preston.
At this stage, a novice may be tempted to attack these 12 deliveries by doing whichever is the nearest to their current location, so in this example they may do stop number 1 first then as follows: 12, 11, 9, 10, 2, 3, 4, 8, 5, 7, 6.
This seems to be a common sense approach and it wouldn’t be disastrous. However, following this route in this way could involve turning right off, or onto the main road no less than 11 times! Anyone who has tried turning right on to the A666, in Darwen, especially during busy periods, will tell you that this can be a time-consuming process. Alternatively, if we follow the stops in numerical order (1 – 12), we can reduce the necessity for right turns (on to, or off the main road) to just 1 (at the bottom end of Darwen between stop numbers 6 and 7). This will generate a significant time saving, thus getting you back to the depot, and therefore, back home much earlier.
For each area/suburb it is important that you know your start and finish point at the beginning. In this example, if your return depot happened to be in Bolton instead of Preston, it would actually be better to tackle the drops in the same order as the novice because you would want to have completed all the drops at stop number 6, so that you can turn left back onto the A666 to head southbound to Bolton.
While it is not always possible to apply the left turn technique to every situation, you will find mini examples of where it could usefully be applied. Even with circular routes, with experience, you will discover that if you tackle the route one way around as opposed to the other, you will minimise the number of right turns involved, saving yourself essential time along the way.