How can we make London’s ever-growing number of home deliveries more sustainable?
As supermarket delivery slots are filled up and once again more of us are taking covid tests at home, the pandemic is a stark reminder that convenient deliveries are essential infrastructure for the city. One could almost forget that Christmas is also peak delivery season as delivery workers rush around the city to reach our doorsteps in time.
The ability of delivery companies to respond to changes in demand is very impressive, but the shift to home deliveries has impacts on the city that need to be tackled head on. Delivery miles per head have doubled in the last three decades, with nearly all of this increase taking place since 2012, and delivery vehicles now make up 15 per cent of total vehicle miles travelled in London. And because these vehicles are generally larger than cars, they generate a disproportionate amount of pollution: accounting for 34 per cent of nitrogen oxide (NOX) and 27 per cent of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions from London’s road transport. This is as well as accounting for a quarter of London’s total carbon emissions from road transport too. Delivery vehicles also impact the city in other ways: larger vehicles can create unsafe situations for other road users, for example when turning or unloading directly from the road.
With this in mind, should home deliveries be discouraged? It’s a very difficult position to argue while many are required to self-isolate, and it would certainly be an uphill struggle to go against the shift towards online shopping. Deliveries can also replace car trips, though in cities, deliveries will also inevitably replace trips that would have been made by public transport, walking or cycling. But there is a lot that can be done to make the journeys that London’s ever-growing number of home deliveries go on sustainable.
Pick up and drop off points
Click and collect can be a helpful alternative to door-to-door deliveries – reducing last mile emissions and avoiding missed parcels. Most retailers already offer click and collect options but it is an underused solution in the UK because parcel collection points are generally carrier specific. This means that collection points aren’t always within short walking distance, and you might well have to go to several pick up points to collect different parcels. Click and collect won’t become more popular until it becomes more convenient. To achieve this we recommend that the Mayor of London works with parcel carriers to put 90 per cent of Londoners within 250 metres of a universal (open access) parcel pick up and drop off point by 2025. If significant progress isn’t made, we believe the Mayor should be given the power to levy a charge on home deliveries, as a way to incentivise the use of click and collect.
There are also options to go further in London such as a model whereby every household has a private locker in their block, and all parcel deliveries are made to this locker rather than to their front door. The plus side of private lockers is that they guarantee availability (while public lockers might be full at crunch times), reduce parcels ‘bouncing back’ and may be more suitable for food deliveries since they are closer to home. However private lockers would probably have less impact on reducing vehicle miles than click and collect options.
Zero emission vehicles
Making changes to parcel collection won’t be sufficient without also encouraging the shift to zero emission vehicles. While the cost of electric lorries is still prohibitive, some companies are upgrading to electric vans and cargo bikes, though not at the pace required to mitigate the growth in deliveries. The recent expansion of the ULEZ does offer a financial incentive to upgrade to a less polluting vehicle, but it’s not sufficient to encourage many to switch to a zero emission vehicle instead. That’s because commercial premises – especially warehouses – don’t tend to be equipped with adequate charging infrastructure and power distribution networks, and investment in these is prohibitively expensive. Government funds should help delivery companies to accelerate electrification, while the Mayor should introduce a distance- and emissions-based road user charging scheme to further incentivise the switch to cargo bikes and electric vans.
Inner city warehouses
One key but often overlooked solution to reduce delivery vehicle miles is building consolidation centres closer to homes. Increased demand for fast deliveries means more consolidation space is needed to receive, unpack and repack goods before sending them on to their final destination. It is a lot greener and more efficient to bring one truckload of deliveries into the city and then divide those between smaller vehicles – such as cargo bikes. But the city is short of land for industry and logistics, and new depots are particularly difficult to locate as they create more local traffic, despite reducing vehicle miles overall. Parcel companies and boroughs should work together to bring forward suitable warehousing space – in some cases car parks could be repurposed as logistics hubs. Using zero emission vehicle fleets will also help to make consolidation projects more acceptable to residents, besides making progress towards reaching net zero.
There are other exciting solutions to respond to the rising demand for deliveries, such as bringing more wharves back into use, which coupled with electric ships and the tidal power of the Thames, would take vehicles off the roads. Railways with spare capacity could also play a greater role in bringing goods into the city, though logistics space at stations will be needed, and building this can be costly.
Parcel carriers have ingeniously created a world class parcel delivery system in London: it’s time for policymakers and carriers to work together to make those deliveries sustainable.