“I want it all and I want it now,” Freddie Mercury sang, and as consumers, we’re with him all the way. The demand for speedy receipt of goods we’ve bought is such that, in a piece of research conducted by McKinsey in Germany, France, Sweden, and the UK, fifty percent of people surveyed said they would happily pay £6 or £7 for having same-day delivery of an item which cost them £59. This attitude, which also demands more and more specific time slots when items will arrive may be contributing significantly to the levels of congestion and pollution on our roads.
A few weeks ago I caused a little bit of upset among cyclists by suggesting that the congestion problem facing our larger conurbations may be being made worse by the reduction of tarmac available to other road users. Less available road space, I mused, could mean more snarl-ups and more stationery traffic. I wasn’t, as was being suggested, blaming cyclists for congestion but I was questioning the impact of cycle and bus lanes on traffic flows and saying that more research was needed. It was therefore very interesting to listen to some extremely learned evidence put before the Transport Select Committee recently on precisely this subject.
Professor Tom Cherrett, Professor of Logistics and Transport Management at the University of Southampton, said that Transport for London has concluded there has been significant reduction in what they call network capacity, ie tarmac, because bus and cycle lanes are prioritised. Professor Cherrett said there has been a 30% loss in terms of proportion of network capacity for private motorised vehicles. Now in recent years the amount of traffic has stayed largely constant, fallen slightly in fact, while congestion has gone up. Surely, logic would dictate that the lack of available road space must be a factor. However, there’s another reason which came through loud and clear in the evidence session. Me and you.
Professor Cherrett then told us that 17% of vehicles in congestion zones are goods vehicles. And more than half of those are service vehicles like those driven by plumbers or heating engineers. However, of those vans making deliveries the vast majority are nowhere near full. In fact, the average delivery van is only loaded up to 38% of its capacity. Now it would be easy to criticise the courier firms for that, but as ever, it’s not that simple. In an eight or nine hour day the average parcel delivery van will make thirty-five stops in one of our major cities and only cover less than four miles. 70% of the driver’s delivery time will be on foot, meaning his van is parked up while he physically hands over the goods. That stop takes up road space which slows traffic. The reason he was originally only 38% full is because that is as much as he will be able to deliver in the allotted time. What’s more, as of today, 10%, of the parcel market is for same day delivery which is super efficient for us as consumers but again, means the driver’s van will only be carrying that day’s goods.
Retailers are under similar pressure to provide us with what we want right away. Twenty years ago there was a 60/40 split between selling space and storage space in the average shop. Today that figure is 80/20, which means more delivery vehicles are needed to replenish the shelves quickly because of our demands. Then, because there’s more traffic on the roads, while demand for quick delivery increases, the ability to meet that demand means more half-empty vans on the road, means more congestion, means a greater need for more vans to meet consumer need and so on, spiralling ever upwards.
So, assuming that the public’s (that’s our) insatiable desire to have our stuff brought to us at the earliest possible moment doesn’t dwindle for some as yet unforeseen reason, the question is, how do we continue to meet this demand without making our major urban roads even worse? One answer may be load consolidation; this is where different businesses are encouraged to pool their deliveries into one vehicle. It’s a nice idea, although there are problems. Even combined loads won’t allow for vans filled beyond that 38% average the time to get where they need to be to meet consumer demands. Also, this merging of loads onto one carrier has to physically happen somewhere. In London for instance, the amount of land available for such a process to take place is very limited and very expensive, and the economies of such a system depend on short journeys. The farther out of the city the consolidation actually takes place the more miles will have to travelled to carry out the deliveries. What’s more, emissions from the average diesel vehicle which comes to a standstill twice in a mile are three times as high as those produced by the same vehicle cruising consistently at 30mph, so if our consolidated load has to travel through heavy traffic over any distance the benefits are questionable, at best.
One achievable answer, and a lot of people won’t like it, is to consolidate a lot of vans into a very much smaller number of HGVs. In load terms ten van journeys are equal to one journey by a medium-sized lorry which will, of course, take up less space and produce less pollution. Then, load consolidation could come into play. The consolidation centres could be further out of town if enough vans were replaced by a tenth as many lorries because they would be able to make their deliveries through more free-flowing traffic thus lowering cost and pollution all in one go. Then there’s the other possible solution of operating outside peak hours, ie deliveries being made at night. A lot of people aren’t keen on that either, fearing increased noise and disturbance at unsocial hours, and a lot of local authorities actively discourage it. That is despite the massive amount of work to make vehicles and loading/ unloading much, much quieter.
It’s an old argument with a modern twist. Delivery vehicles are bad unless they’re delivering to us.
We have some choices to make. Either, we ignore our deeply-held instincts for instant gratification to make the delivery process less fraught and more sustainably manageable or, we put up with an excess of goods vehicles of varying sizes and all the congestion and pollution which goes with them to accommodate that base need. Failing that, we might have to redesign our road systems to allow for traffic to flow at an effective level and perhaps sacrifice some bus and cycle lanes in the process. It’s not an easy call but it’s one which will eventually be decided not by the Department of Transport or vehicle manufacturers or delivery companies, but by all of us sorting out where our priorities really lie.