“The biggest misunderstanding in logistics is that it’s cheap or low-cost. Free deliveries are a myth – these have costs.”
Co-Founder, zero-emission delivery service
“I think net zero carbon emissions by 2030 is ambitious – but everyone is in the same boat, and where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Chief Vehicle Officer, sustainable energy business
Freight and deliveries enable London’s economy to function. From the food we eat and the appliances we buy, to construction materials, tradespersons and COVID-19 tests, all the goods we consume and many of the services we rely on need to travel across the city. The COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit have drastically highlighted the impact of not receiving the goods we need on time – empty shelves, critical commodities in short supply, and restaurants unable to open because of a lack of stock. 2 Logistics infrastructure is an essential asset for any city’s future – and all the more so for a global city as large and densely populated as London.
However, the mobility of goods and services comes at a high cost. Most freight is moved on roads and in non-electric vehicles, which make a large contribution to air pollution and carbon emissions, pose a risk to road safety, and can create widespread inefficiencies such as congestion. With deliveries booming, the number of vans on London’s roads shows no signs of decreasing anytime soon. In March 2021, the registration of light commercial vehicles (LCVs) saw a massive increase compared to 2020. Diesel vans saw an 82 per cent increase in March 2021 compared to 2020, and for petrol vans there was a twofold increase. 3
London is racing to meet its net zero carbon goal by 2030, as local and national governments in the UK and around the world declare a climate emergency and recognise the urgency of cutting carbon emissions drastically. Decarbonising road transport, which makes up around a fifth of total emissions in London, is essential to achieving this target. 4 The need is especially acute with freight vehicles, which emit a quarter of the total carbon emissions from transport – despite only making up 15 per cent of total vehicle miles in London. 5
Electrification is one way to reduce carbon emissions from vans and lorries. However, not all agree that this is the silver bullet. While the number of electric vans is increasing, it is not happening at a pace that would meet the timeframe of the city’s net zero goal. The prices of currently available electric vehicles are prohibitive to many small businesses, and workers who own their vans will struggle to pay the upfront costs of transition without government subsidy. Meanwhile, in the case of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), electrification is an even more distant prospect – because their range, size and battery requirements are so difficult to meet with current technologies. 6
“The death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah galvanised the community and shed light on the long-term and fatal effects of air pollution as more information came to light.”
“Certain groups are disproportionately affected by air pollution: those with existing health problems, children, marginalised and minoritised groups.”
Air Quality Analyst, London borough
Air pollution, a largely invisible hazard, causes thousands of deaths in London each year. Research commissioned by Transport for London (TfL) and the Greater London Authority (GLA) estimated that the equivalent of 3,600 to 4,000 deaths in 2019 were caused by human-made PM2.5 and NOX emissions.
Road transport is the biggest cause of air pollution in London. Freight vehicle journeys, which are increasing, contribute around one-third of this total.
The fuels used to power vehicles are critical sources of pollutants. However, non-exhaust emissions (NEEs) from brake and tyre wear also result in poor air quality by releasing high rates of pollutants such as PM2.5. Unfortunately, NEEs are less likely to be regulated and tend to be unaccounted for in policy that aims to tackle air pollution.
For instance, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) has been important in reducing exhaust related emissions, and NO X levels in central London were down 35 per cent before lockdown in 2020. 10 However, a researcher specialising in air quality emphasised that while the ULEZ targets exhaust emissions, the new electric vehicles are often heavier – as are the batteries needed to power them – and so are more likely to produce NEEs from brake and tyre friction. 11 Consequently, while the transition to electric vehicles is important to tackling pollution, ultimately traffic will also need to be reduced overall to meet clean air goals.
While almost all Londoners are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, there is evidence that poorer and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Londoners are more vulnerable to higher levels. 12 Analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund found that the average NO X levels at schools with students from the most deprived areas were almost a third higher than those at schools with pupils from the least deprived areas. 13
Congestion is a major source of frustration for all road users. It stops people and workers getting to where they need to go, adding economic costs and contributing to poor health. London is the most congested city in the UK, 14 and in 2017 the cost of congestion in our city was estimated at £2bn and growing. 15 Congestion is particularly costly for freight and deliveries, as 90 per cent of freight lifted is moved on London’s roads, 16 and lorries and vans make up 17 per cent of overall road traffic in London.
During a decade of population growth, the growth in journeys travelled by vans has outpaced those made by heavier lorries. Between 2010 and 2019, the miles travelled by light goods vehicles (LGVs) in London increased by 68 per cent. 17 This occurred despite an overall reduction in traffic, particularly in central London, and partly because of the Congestion Charge. 18 During that same period, miles travelled by HGVs decreased by 15 per cent due to multiple factors including the Low Emission Zone, a charge on the most polluting heavy diesel vehicles, a long-term shortage of HGV drivers, and stricter licensing legislation for lorries (which makes vans a more convenient option for operators).
Congestion slows journeys, increases delivery times, and raises costs for businesses – with consumers ultimately shouldering this through higher prices. These issues are a particular problem for HGV drivers, who, according to EU and UK legislation, are not permitted to drive for more than nine and 10 hours a day (respectively) and must take breaks and rests at consistent intervals during the day. 19 To overcome this issue, operators may compensate by putting more vans on the roads to make those same journeys, inadvertently contributing to congestion and air pollution.
Freight vehicles – and HGVs especially – can pose significant risks to the safety of other road users and pedestrians. Data by Transport for London shows that in 2019, 445 people suffered serious injuries from incidents that involved goods vehicles – an increase of six per cent from 2018. 20 There were also 21 fatalities from collisions involving goods vehicles – a decrease of 32 per cent over the same period. Fatalities and casualties may continue to decrease as the city implements the Mayor of London’s Vision Zero policies. For example, the Direct Vision Standard permit, which measures how much a 18 driver can see through their cab window, was introduced in 2020 and requires all HGVs weighing more than 12 tonnes to have a safety permit before entering or operating in London. 21
London’s unique context
London’s geography, history and built environment creates specific constraints for freight and deliveries:
Narrow streets and tight street patterns
Narrow streets and historic road layouts do not accommodate large vehicles well – and many London streets require clever use of space to manage conflict between different vehicles such as buses, taxis, privately owned cars and cyclists. Increasing pedestrianisation of streets to promote more active travel can also pose a challenge for large freight vehicles.
Scale and high density
London is much bigger than other UK cities. Its population density is also ten times higher than that of the North West, the second most densely populated region in England. 22 London’s scale and density means some solutions that might work in smaller cities – for example, peripheral consolidation centres – may not work here.
The high cost of land
Competing pressures over land – including the pressing need to ensure that the capital has enough housing for its population – have meant that over the past two decades, much of London’s industrial land has been released for other uses. Additionally, the high cost of land means that most retail stores in London have limited warehousing and storage space, as well as fewer offstreet delivery bays. The lack of suitable industrial space also limits the space available for consolidation hubs closer to consumers, meaning that vehicles need to travel over longer distances. Research conducted by Transport for London found that a one per cent reduction in industrial land available in London increases distances driven by goods vehicles by 0.5 per cent. 23
Parking restrictions in London stop vehicles parking illegally in delivery bays and on yellow lines outside delivery addresses. However, the lack of available legal parking means that delivery and service operators sometimes park illegally. They pay more penalty charge notices in London than anywhere else in the UK. 24
Timing constraints The London Lorry Control Scheme prevents heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) over 18 tonnes maximum gross weight from operating at night and at weekends. While the scheme is an important initiative to reduce the environmental and noise pollution of HGVs – especially in residential areas – it can also mean certain industries that might otherwise operate at night or early in the morning (such as construction and waste companies) are unable to do so. 25
The Congestion Charge, Low Emission Zone and Ultra Low Emission Zone have all contributed to a reduction in congestion and air pollution in the city. While they have been important in freeing up road space that can be used freight vehicles, they also make travelling into the city expensive for freight and van operators serving the city.
Fragmented local government
While London’s 32 boroughs and the City of London Corporation all share similar challenges, they act independently in much of their waste and road management operations, making it difficult to coordinate strategic, Londonwide action. Furthermore, the city’s roads are run by additional bodies including national agencies and London government, who have different legal responsibilities regarding road space. Highways England operates motorways within the Greater London boundary, and Transport for London manages the capital’s red routes. The rest of London’s dense network of roads is managed by boroughs. 26 Different local approaches to road management can also complicate life for commercial vehicle drivers, who will not necessarily be aware of the different loading policies as they pass through the invisible boundary from one borough to another.
At the same time, London also offers unique opportunities that could be leveraged to create more sustainable and efficient freight services:
Multiple modal networks
The city possesses a range of transport modes – including river and rail – which if utilised cleverly have the potential to shift freight off London’s roads significantly. For example, freight trains remove up to 76 HGVs from the roads in a single journey, and water freight is estimated to shift the equivalent of 265,000 HGV movements yearly. 21 The current shortage of HGV drivers – combined with the fact that the expansion of the ULEZ looks likely to make it more expensive to move goods into London – means that rail and river freight could become more economically viable options. However, any shift to rail and water freight will have to ensure that increased use of these modes remains low-carbon, especially in the absence of strict emission standards for the Thames. 28
Benefits of density
While the scale of London and its high density can lead to higher congestion and slower deliveries, it can also mean that deliveries are closer to one another and so offer economies of scale to delivery operations. 29 Small “micromobility” freight vehicles such as cargo bikes are able to use London’s high density to their advantage. While there are limits to the volume and types of goods they can shift, cargo bikes can move through traffic easily, use cycling infrastructure and utilise roads that would restrict the movement of cars, vans and lorries. This sometimes allows them to offer faster delivery times. 30