The number of small vans on London’s roads is steadily but relentlessly increasing.
In the decade before the recession kicked in, the volume of road freight carried by van in London grew by more than 30% and vans now account for 13% of total motorised vehicle use in the capital.
In simple terms, the reason for this increase is that Londoners (both individual and small businesses) are ordering smaller volumes of goods to be replenished more frequently and with ever smaller lead times. Every little brown package from Amazon must be delivered to a front door by a little white van.
Many are concerned about this trend. The doomsday scenario is that the number of vans on our roads will continue to rise leading to increased congestion, emissions and delivery costs. Yet there are, I believe, several reasons for optimism that we may be about to reach ‘peak van’:
New forms of consolidation may compensate for the ever-increasing growth in the number of shipments of goods. For example, high density residential developments are increasingly planned with concierge services, which reduce the number of failed deliveries and therefore the need for redelivery. Concierges also allow more deliveries to be made during weekdays – a time at which car usage in Inner London continues to decline. We are beginning to see click-and-collect services put in place at tube stations in Outer London, and it will be very interesting to observe the take-up.
In the commercial market, larger development plots and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) offer opportunities to reduce the over-servicing that can occur when tenants have numerous providers for the same services. Developers and BID managers could be encouraged to reduce the number of deliveries through shared service providers could, encouraged by emphasising the land value of space currently given over to servicing, as well as the possibility for using this existing space for the benefit of the public realm.
The digital revolution has already had a large impact on the way that the products of London’s knowledge industries are moved around. Gone are the days when analysts’ spreadsheets, architects’ plans and musicians’ demo recordings would be transferred physically. We can only start to imagine what impact 3D printing will have on the need to transfer a range of other physical goods.
Logistics companies now recognise the need to invest in smaller vehicles to meet new demands and cleaner vehicles to meet emissions regulations. Cross-party political consensus on the need to improve emissions standards in Central London will provide certainty to fleet managers in their investment decisions to continue this trend. Small driverless vans and cargo-bikes, both of which take up less road space, are likely to take a greater share of the delivery market in the future.
Concerns about the apparently ever-increasing number of small vans on London’s roads are likely overdone. While policy measures such as emissions regulations and road use charging can help, broader trends look set to reverse this long-standing trend even in the absence of intervention. Time and tide wait for no van.