How last-mile deliveries need to change

The final stage of delivering a product to its buyer is troublesome from an environmental perspective, especially in urban areas, but eco-friendly solutions are being developed apace.

By guest author Chris Stokel-Walker from Raconteur. He is a Freelance technology and culture journalist and author of YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a Generation of Stars, his work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.  

We have become a nation of Veruca Salts since the Covid lockdowns forced us into e-tail therapy. More than a quarter (26.1 %) of the UK’s retail sales went through digital channels in June, according to the Office for National Statistics – and, when we buy online, we tend to adopt Salt’s refrain from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “Don’t care how, I want it now.” Next-day, if not same-day, delivery has become an expectation rather than an optional extra.

This level of demand affects every part of the supply chain, but the most obvious impact is felt in the last mile of the delivery process. Our already congested towns and cities have become even more clogged with oversized vans, doubled parked or idling on yellow lines as couriers race to drop their cargo before the next traffic warden appears.

Providing an efficient last-mile delivery service requires a careful balance of cost, speed and environmental impact.

In a report entitled The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem, the World Economic Forum warned that, in order “to satisfy customers’ ever-rising desire to buy products online, without any intervention, the number of delivery vehicles in the top 100 cities globally will increase by 36 % until 2030. Emissions from delivery traffic will increase by 32 % and congestion will rise by over 21 %.” Given that it was published in January 2020, this grim forecast doesn’t even take the pandemic’s considerable impact into account.

Despite the clear ecological ramifications, consumers are unlikely to lose the taste they have acquired for fast etail. More sustainable solutions are therefore required to ensure that our demand for convenience doesn’t cost the Earth. 

Unpicking the problem

“This is a complex problem that links back to the high number of motor vehicles in urban areas,” says Dr Ersilia Verlinghieri, senior research fellow at the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy. 

A report that she co-wrote for environmental charity Possible in August 2021 proposes replacing delivery vans, 96 % of which are diesel-engined, with electrically assisted cargo bikes to reduce congestion, increase delivery efficiency and improve air quality. It estimates that an e-bike’s lifetime carbon footprint is no more than 12.5 % that of a diesel van.

Raleigh, one of the world’s biggest bicycle manufacturers, offers a range of electric bikes called Stride E-Cargo. Their batteries can provide 40 miles’ worth of assistance to the rider’s pedal power on one charge, which takes less than five hours. The most capacious model in the range, priced at GBP 5,950, is a trike with a 900l box over its front wheels that can carry up to 100 kg of cargo.

Although Raleigh has only just launched these products, its MD, Lee Kidger, noted when he unveiled the new range in July that 100000 electric cargo bikes had been sold in Germany over the previous year.

Feel the power

DHL’s delivery arm is adopting e-bikes in pursuit of its goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

“Providing an efficient last-mile delivery service requires a careful balance of cost, speed and environmental impact. In the city centre, there is a need for deliveries to be greener and also quieter, as they pass through built-up areas,” says the company’s CEO in the UK and Ireland, Ian Wilson. “We are reducing the number of vehicles on the road by replacing them with an environmentally sound alternative that’s fast and efficient too.”

Among other initiatives to reduce its environmental footprint, DHL has started a riverboat parcel-delivery service that uses the Thames as a congestion-free route through central London. 

The company and several of its rivals are also investing in electric vans. These still form a tiny proportion of the UK’s total van population, but they look a surer bet than some of the more out-there vehicular concepts, such as drones. Amazon’s Prime Air arm started developing these in 2016 but it was recently closed, with the loss of more than 100 jobs

Other delivery vehicles that don’t clog up the roads include the six-wheeled robots, designed by US firm Starship Technologies, that the Co-op is trialling in Milton Keynes and Northampton. The supermarket chain’s goal is to have more than 300 of these semi-autonomous devices travelling footways around the UK by the end of this year.

Smaller, closer fulfilment centres

Tackling the last-mile challenge has also required delivery companies to rethink where certain facilities are best located. For instance, Verlinghieri says, “having a consolidation centre on the outskirts of a city, where goods can be dropped off by large commercial vehicles and passed on to electric vans or bikes, is an option”. 

DHL’s approach has been to create more pick-up and drop-off points closer to its customers, as Wilson explains: “In order to meet the requirements for more flexibility in the last mile, we have installed a large number of service points and lockers across the UK where parcels can be collected or returned at the customers’ convenience.”

These so-called micro-fulfilment centres – several of which are repurposed inner-city shops that have lain dormant during the pandemic – can have a macro effect on last-mile emissions. A new report by Accenture, The Sustainable Last Mile, estimates that their use in London could cut the capital’s delivery traffic by 13% before 2025. Customers must still visit their local centre to collect purchases, of course, but their journeys should be so short that a large proportion can be made on foot or by bike. 

It’s clear to Kidger that the last-mile problem requires a multi-pronged, collaborative solution. 

“I don’t think that cargo bike manufacturers can manage that alone,” he says. “Teaming up with logistics companies, which understand where hops [between vans or bikes] need to be to get that last mile right, will be vital.”

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