Are parcel vans really that bad for the climate? That’s okay, but it could be better

Delivery of package at the Zuidas in Amsterdam.Image ANP / Berlinda van Dam

The alleged negative impact of the online delivery economy returns with some regularity in the media. In this discussion, which is of both economic and social importance, various causes and effects are confused with each other. Time to outline a broad perspective on this matter by examining a number of myths in more detail.

1. Home deliveries mainly come from online stores

Online stores place between 600 and 700 million orders, or almost 40 orders per year per Dutch person. The majority is delivered by vans by the five major parcel carriers (and their subcontractors). However, some of the parcel deliveries go to companies, including SMEs. For example, the local bicycle repair shop orders the equipment needed for a repair online. For some carriers this is more than 50 percent of the deliveries.

About the author

Bram Kin is researcher sustainable urban logistics at TNO.

In addition to orders placed with online stores, 50 million so-called ‘local for local‘ orders are placed: from local suppliers, such as pharmacies, liquor stores and sandwich shops, to local customers. This number is increasing. The delivery economy also includes groceries, (fresh) meals and two-man deliveries such as white goods. The delivery economy is therefore more diffuse than just the large web stores and parcel carriers.

2. The environmental impact of delivery vans is greater than going to the store yourself

Extensive research shows that the effect of the delivery economy on CO2emissions and local air quality is limited. With more orders, the number of vehicles for parcels does not increase proportionally. Various studies have shown that the emissions of doing your own shopping is more polluting than having it delivered at home (on average, a car is used for half of the number of shop visits).

A delivery van transports on average between one hundred and two hundred parcels. If the consumer were to use the car for only part of this, even if several purchases are often combined, this leads to a higher environmental burden. The exact effects depend on the area: the city center of Groningen is simply different from a suburb or village.

3. Parcel deliverers are guilty of unsafe traffic and nuisance

An estimated 15 to 30,000 van journeys are made per day in the Netherlands for parcel deliveries from web stores. This is particularly a problem in the built environment, because space is limited and it is busier with vulnerable road users. It is estimated that approximately 1 percent of urban traffic consists of delivery vans from parcel carriers. The other vans – there are almost 1 million in the Netherlands – are used for other activities.

This does not alter the fact that the parcel vans are particularly visible in the streets and that in the perception of the general public there are concerns about road safety. Unfortunately, studies into both actual accidents and into feelings of insecurity are virtually absent. However, it is a simplification to only look at the parcel deliverers. After all, they are under great time pressure, which is the painful outcome of our ordering behavior and the promise of free and fast deliveries by many online stores. In addition, (particularly in residential areas in cities) the number of parking and unloading places is limited, as a result of which parcel vans often block the street. This is partly caused by the large number of – yes – parked consumer cars.

4. Parcel vans are loaded inefficiently

Indeed, in residential areas there are often several vehicles for home delivery from different parcel carriers, and that seems inefficient. But when they leave, these vehicles are often fully loaded. With up to two hundred (!) stops in busy times, a high load factor and relatively few kilometers, this can be called efficient. This is different for the vans of local shops that deliver themselves, where the level of service to the customer is often leading.

The parcel carrier optimizes the transport as much as possible within the existing preconditions, such as agreed time windows. This does not alter the fact that there are possibilities to reduce the nuisance, such as consolidation (merging packages, red.) at the area level – which requires extensive cooperation between companies – or delivery outside peak hours.

5. Having parcels delivered at home has the least negative impact and is the solution

An intricate network of collection points can lead to the kilometers (and CO2emissions, insofar as it does not concern electric vehicles) from vans. We have calculated that when 50 percent of the packages are brought to a collection point in a round trip, the vehicle mileage of vans decreases by 17 percent. The net effect on emissions ultimately depends on how the consumer goes to that collection point. It is therefore important to encourage cycling and walking.