How can London create a more sustainable system for freight?

How can London create a more sustainable system for freight?

Online shopping and increased demand for goods and services means rethinking freight and delivery, or Londoners’ health and the capital’s environment will continue to suffer.

That’s the warning from the Centre for London think tank, which this week launched a new research programme exploring “how to create a smarter and more sustainable freight and logistics ecosystem” in the city. 

“There is a serious risk that goods vehicles will come to dominate our roads, increasing congestion and contributing to poor air quality,” said Rob Whitehead, the Centre’s strategic projects director. “We urgently need to look at solutions to make the delivery of goods more efficient and sustainable.” 

The figures are dramatic: online shopping almost doubled between February 2019 and February this year, to 35 per cent of total UK retail sales, while van driver vehicle mileage is up by 62 per cent on 2009 figures, compared to a 17 per cent increase in vehicle miles travelled by cars and taxis over the same period.

Transport for London is also projecting a further 43 per cent increase in the kilometres travelled by vans between 2019 and 2041, with a “potential knock-on effect for congestion and air pollution,” according to the Centre.

The new research reflects a wider focus on “last mile” distribution in the city, as well as on the related issue of London’s industrial land generally, where some 23 per cent of space has been released for other uses since the turn of the century, despite demand remaining high.

Separate Centre for London research argues that not only online shopping but increased customer expectations of “fast, frequent deliveries of goods of various kinds” is likely to continue, fuelling demand for “last mile sites that are close to consumers”.

Fittingly, it is central London’s underused car parks that seem to be becoming popular with developers seeking to meet that demand. In December last year, a report from the Cross River Partnership of central London councils and business groupings identified 29 potential last mile sites in the central area, of which 23 were car parks.

In the same month, the City of London Corporation approved the first of a planned five hubs in the Square Mile, with 39 car spaces in its London Wall car park repurposed as a base for electric cargo bikes. The facility would take 85 vans off the road, meaning 23,000 fewer vehicle journeys a year, according to the Guildhall.

And last month developers British Land paid £20 million for NCP’s Finsbury Square car park in the City, planning a distribution hub over three levels using electric vehicles only. The previous owners had won planning permission for a retail and leisure scheme on the site only shortly before the pandemic.

However, meeting increasing demand may not be as easy as converting a car park, given competing pressures on land in the capital. Predictably, competition for industrial premises is pushing up both land values and rents.

Land values in Park Royal in west London, for example, rose to £7 million per acre in 2020, up from £2.5 million on average in 2017, the Centre reports, with the increases “set to continue at pace”. Earlier this year, the now former communities secretary Robert Jenrick ordered the removal of Sadiq Khan’s proposed “no net loss” of industrial land policy from draft London Plan.

Residents can flex their muscles too, as did those in Tufnell Park in Islington earlier this year. A “NOcado” campaign saw off a bid by the online grocery business to set up a distribution centre next to a primary school. Ocado claimed to have delivered to one in six Islington households during 2020.

As the Mayor’s deputy for planning Jules Pipe warned London Assembly members last week, it’s “getting to the point now where logistics space is worth more to a developer than using that land for housing”, creating a “real problem” for a city which needs “lots of spaces for combining last mile deliveries”. 

Image from Transport for London’s freight and servicing action plan.

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