Sustainable freight: is it possible?

Getting cars off the road and passengers into public transport is the simpler aspect of making transport more sustainable. Freight is a whole different proposition and despite much talk about sustainable freight, the issue has not really been properly addressed by government or industry. The negative effects of freight transport are usually considered as the price that has to be paid to ensure that everyone gets what they need quickly, efficiently and relatively cheaply.

While this article focuses on short distance urban freight, it is worth noting at the outset that any shift of long distance freight from lorries to either rail or water, which currently each only account for around 5 per cent of the market, would make the transport of freight far more sustainable. Both these methods have the advantage in many areas of bringing goods further into the centre of towns and cities than traditional trucks whose depots are often in industrial districts far away from the centre. Consequently using these methods reduces congestion in the outskirts and cuts the length of the journey on local vans and trucks for what is known as ‘the last mile’ but which can be far longer.

According to research carried out for a report by the Urban Transport Group ‘the main requirements to achieve greater modal shift from road to rail are adequate paths for freight services to share the capacity of the rail network and the availability of a network of rail-connected distribution parks. The same is likely to be true for water freight.’ [1] Therefore any policy of making reducing the environmental damage from freight must start with an examination of how the long haul section can be made more sustainable.

Sustainability is far more than merely reducing greenhouse gases but encompasses noise, particulate pollution from tyres and brakes, accidents and, in particular, local air pollution. To be truly sustainable, as Christopher Snelling, head of UK policy at the Freight Transport Association, puts it, ‘you  would have to have zero negativities from the transport of freight’. He suggests that ‘this is probably impossible, especially in relation to accidents. ’ But is it? And should we not be trying in all possible ways because, as Tesco puts it, ‘Every little helps’?

In the urban context, freight consists mostly of smaller loads goods much of it transferred from long haul carriers. This can range from parcels and food deliveries for individual households to produce for supermarkets and supplies for offices. However, some bigger lorries do go right to the heart of cities such as cement mixers and aggregate trucks for building sites and large trucks that supply major shopping centres. These are particularly polluting, noisy and dangerous to other road, contributing a disproportionate number of cyclist and pedestrian deaths in city centres.

Clearly such movements should be kept to a minimum. There is no doubt that 44 tonne HGVs and city centres are not a good fit. Banning them entirely from some areas is generally thought to be damaging to the local economy and, according to many in the logistics industry, would lead to greater congestion as there would have to be more lorries albeit with smaller loads. However, many towns and cities already do impose restrictions on these vehicles, most notably at night, an issue that is considered below.

The logistics industry tends to argue that there is little alternative to delivering the 2.5 million tonnes of freight into our towns and cities daily other than carrying most of it, most of the way, on 44 tonne lorries. Sure, the argument goes, there are niche markets for e bikes or ‘foot logistics’, the new term for what the urban postman (or woman) does, or for carrying more goods by water, but basically the potential of these ideas to make a widespread impact on environmental degradation is limited. On the other hand, environmentalists argue that this is a failure of imagination and that there are all kinds of ideas which could make a big impact on improving the sustainability of the freight transport industry. The truth is somewhere in between. There is no doubt that we could do a lot better than we do now. There are lots regulatory measures, political decisions, large scale strategies and technical developments which could reduce the impact of freight in urban areas.

The key difference between urban and long distance freight is the average size of load. Most of loads in towns and cities are small and the way that these are transported must be targeted if there is to be a major improvement in sustainability. There are various possible ways of making this type of logistics more sustainable. Clearly, having fewer deliveries reduces fuel consumption and congestion. Moving deliveries to another time, particularly at night or early morning when there is little traffic, is another idea worth considering. So is reducing demand through regulatory means, whether it is road user charging, or Clean Air or Ultra Low Emission zones.

Then there is the use of new technology which might lead to more sustainable forms of transport. Autonomy is often cited as being safer than conventional driving, and therefore would lead to a reduction in accidents. Drones are often talked about for making that last mile journey.

Even small reductions are helpful. A Cabinet Office research paper found that half of the extra urban traffic increases experienced over a recent ten year period was due to extra van traffic, a trend that has increased given the rise in deliveries resulting from internet shopping[2].

The National Infrastructure Commission is on the case. Last December it published an interim report on the future of freight which pulled no punches about the environmental degradation caused by road freight and, in particular, vans. ‘LGVs have been the fastest growing source of road transport demand in percentage terms, with van kilometres rising by 67 per cent in the past 20 years (car and HGV kilometres have increased by 12 per cent and two per cent respectively). LGVs travel 15 per cent of total vehicle miles and emit 16 per cent of transport greenhouse gas emissions’[3].

The biggest barrier to sustainability is, ironically, the very efficiency of the industry in its current form. As Jonathan Bray, the head of the Urban Transport Group put it, ‘The freight market is very competitive, has no subsidy and is very efficient. When do you go to your local shop and get told that, sorry, there is no milk?’.  It is a highly competitive marketplace with tight profit margins that make it necessary for the logistics companies to be constantly on the outlook to drive out cost from operations. As the Infrastructure Commission put it, ‘Therefore, the incentives to reduce environmental impacts and other harmful effects are limited. Left to industry alone, these will not be prioritised or fully addressed’.

In this respect, intervention from government, whether local or national, to reduce environmental impacts are hardly likely to be welcomed if they threaten profitability. Or worse, they can result in the introduction of half-hearted or token efforts to ensure the right boxes are ticked but never with the intention of introducing such schemes across the board. Bray, for example, recalls an initiative mentioned in the Urban Transport Group report around the use of Euston station to bring in goods for distribution in central London. He said: ‘Main line stations obviously have the potential of being used more for freight. They are empty at night and historically they were freight hubs. All the sorting and loading could take place within the station buildings, minimising the noise and disturbance for local residents. It also opens up opportunities to use short-range low emission vehicles to transport goods over the last mile.

Bray recalls the trial: ‘One night in June 2014, Colas Rail and TNT Express ran a trial freight train from Rugby to London Euston, carrying express parcels and perishable products for distribution in central London. When the train arrived at Euston, the goods were sorted on the platform before being transferred in less than an hour, to a fleet of TNT electric and low emission road vehicles waiting on the platform. It was a great success.’ Except, as he points out, that it was not repeated. The idea has stagnated because no one is driving this initiative and there is no obvious financial incentive to encourage companies to adopt this method of distribution.

The Infrastructure Commission argues that the freight system is at a crossroads because it is on the cusp of major technological change: ‘Significant advances towards clean fuels, data availability, automation, and artificial intelligence could all rapidly change the costs and the by-products of freight. With technology and innovation on heavy vehicles developing more slowly than for lighter vehicles, there remains a great deal of uncertainty over which technologies will prevail in the coming years. However, ambitious and determined action, coordinated across government, could help accelerate freight towards a zero carbon and congestion neutral future’[4]. But that requires a coherent approach from both central and local government which, it says, is missing.

The Commission cites ‘delivery drones and droids (aerial and ground based), e-cargo bikes, and more basic approaches such as human portering will all have impacts on the freight industry, infrastructure, and society’[5]. There are indeed plenty of such good ideas around, and lots of trials and tests which operate in a particular place or for a short period of time, but making these permanent, upscaling them or spreading these examples to others have all proved uphill tasks. The overriding problem is one of cost. For the most part, environmental effects are externalities which are not borne by those supplying the logistics. Therefore in the narrow economic analysis which looks only at the costs in monetary terms, the structure of the logistics industry militates against taking into account environmental issues.

 Overall, there are opportunities for both local and central government to encourage the sustainability of freight transport but given that local councils are often constrained to act by opposition from residents and businesses, it is central government which must set the tone and create the right regulatory structure. The National Infrastructure Commission is unequivocal about demanding more involvement of the government: ‘According to the Committee on Climate Change’s assessment, further policy action is needed to meet the 4th and 5th carbon budgets (2023-2032)…To date, firm targets or plans that achieve either these budgets or zero emissions from freight do not exist. Voluntary targets provide limited impetus for change and no long term clarity. Whilst there is government ambition to reduce carbon emissions from rail, the pathway to a zero emission future remains unclear. Without determined and ambitious action from government, change will be slow’.

Environmental considerations are becoming mainstream. A FedEx source, for example, said that the company has to make sure its investment is viable and that means it has to accord with the environmental considerations set out by governments. However, he added: ‘We want to be good corporate citizens ,we want to go green and go electric, but you have to cooperation between the public and private sectors to achieve that’. Indeed, but the National Infrastructure Commission report highlighted that little thought from either national or local government on planning for freight and adopting any coherent strategy towards it. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the environmental impacts of freight are rarely considered. It concluded: ‘Creating the conditions in which the freight system is both incentivised and able to make environmentally efficient choices at the right pace will require a more coordinated government response within and between different tiers of government, and based on better data.’[6] In these times of political uncertainty as we depart the EU, such a concerted approach may not be forthcoming in the near future.

Perhaps, though, we need to go back in time. When I was a child growing up in West London, Harrods made its deliveries in an electric van and the milkman still used a horse and cart. The latter was possibly the more sustainable form of transport since it used very little carbon and was almost entirely autonomous since the horse needed no guidance from the milkman to walk round his regular route.


Urban consolidation centres


In many respects, this is the holy grail. Bring the goods to a consolidation centre on the outskirts of an urban centre, break down the loads and sort them into area specific deliveries, in most cases only to retailers, which can then be taken ‘the last mile’ by vans, preferably electric, or even cargobikes. The big benefit is that there will be fewer vans duplicating their journeys around city centres, greatly reducing congestion and cutting emissions. Retailers can also benefit by knowing that they will receive fewer deliveries which will save them staff costs.

This is model has been tried in several places and is actually operating in a few, but there are both practical and financial barriers.  In the UK the most successful example is in Bristol, which now also covers neighbouring Bath. The consolidation centre was set up with European Union support in 2002 and extended to Bath in 2011.

The scheme is managed by DHL and uses electric vans. It serves around 100 clients in Bristol and Bath, about a fifth of whom use the centre for the vast majority or all their deliveries. Located on the old A4, near the motorways serving the region, the goods which include a very wide range other than perishable food,  largely arrive in medium sized trucks and are distributed using 9 ton electric vans that can hold 5 tons of freight. There is widespread satisfaction with the scheme and no retailer has voluntarily left it since the start despite the fact they have to pay a fee to take part.

Around Europe, this model has been tried but there are few examples of sustained viable operation. There are different types such as centres which serve a series of narrow streets in a historic town centre, or alternatively which serve a single large site such as an airport or shopping mall. In Germany, for example, a number of centres were established outside major cities to serve local retailers and operated for a while but they have been shut down because they proved unviable. Local authorities funded various schemes in France, too, but again they have largely been abandoned. The fundamental obstacle is that unless there is a requirement for both hauliers and retailers to use them, there is a reluctance to do so. Retailers are reluctant to pay any fee and getting competing delivery companies to work together and share loads has proved difficult. As the study into the Bristol scheme concludes: ‘Despite the benefits related to the reduction of HGVs and the improvement of livelihood of the city centre, it is far from obvious that UCCs are efficient and viable. Initial funding of the central or local government is necessary for feasibility studies and trials during the first period time.’[7]  Moreover, while there are undoubted benefits to these schemes in terms of reduced environmental negativities, these are difficult to measure precisely.




The barriers to full scale electrification are well known. There are concerns over the price of the vehicles, which are higher than their conventional equivalents but, of course, this is offset by cheaper fuel. Some industry observers reckon that parity over lifetime costs has now been reached and that soon electric will be cheaper in this respect.

So far there is nothing like a viable 44 tonne electric truck. Several manufacturers such as Man and Mercedes are testing large trucks but none is yet in production. Smaller trucks and vans are though widely available, and in an effort to encourage the greater use of electric light goods vehicles  the government has changed the weight threshold of electric vans from 3.5 to 4.25 tonnes to take account of the weight of their batteries.

Range remains a barrier. To electrify there is a trade off between weight and range, and one fundamental issue is whether to have lots of charging points and therefore be able to cope with a shorter range, or have bigger batteries. Christopher Snelling of the FTA suggests ‘it is better to bring the electrons to the vehicle through frequent charging rather than carrying them around in big batteries’. However, the problem with that is there is a lack of charging points and no coherent government policy about how to provide them. The reduction in the operating costs of electric vans does not tackle issues of capital costs such as the higher cost of purchasing the vehicles and the need to install charging systems at depots.

While the introduction of electric vehicles obviously improve air quality if they are used on roads instead of conventional vehicles, the overall effect is more complex. The disposal of batteries which includes highly toxic chemicals is an area which has not been resolved and to complicate any assessment of their sustainability, just under a third of electricity in the UK is currently produced from sustainable sources. The take up of electric vehicles is still very low, with sales amounting to just 4 per cent for hybrid and fully plug in vehicles. If there were a massive take up, the issues of the source of electricity would come to the fore. Moreover, as was pointed out by the government’s Air Quality Expert Group in July, particles from brake  and tyre wear as well as dust from the road surface directly contribute to well over half of particle pollution from road transport. Therefore even an entirely electric fleet would not be entirely sustainable.





Cargobikes are often derided as irrelevant given their weight limitations but could undoubtedly make a contribution to sustainability, particularly now that e-versions are becoming availble.  Certainly the government thinks so. Last September, Jesse Norman, at the time a junior transport minister, announced £2m in grants to support the uptake of e-cargo bikes. The Department has agreed to pay 20 per cent of the purchase price of a new e-cargo bike up to the first £5,000 of the cost and to support capacity building in the industry. It’s hardly revolutionary but it does demonstrate interest in the concept. Germany, where more than 15,000 e-cargobikes are now sold annually, has gone much further with grants of up to a third of the purchase price in order to encourage their use in urban centres.

Cargobikes are not exactly a new concept, as they were ubiquitous for butcher’s deliveries a couple of generations ago but they can be revived with the extra power which electricity can give them. Payloads of up to 350 kgs are now feasible, though there are concerns that such a heavy vehicle would be a risk to pedestrians in congested central city areas.

Cargobikes do have a number of advantages in crowded city centres, being able to dodge past traffic jams and have the flexibility to be wheeled into depots and even some shops rather than, as with vans, parked illegally on high streets. In Europe, major delivery firms such as DHL, TNT and UPS are all investing in cargobikes. They have become commonplace in some cities, notably in Holland, Germany and Belgium, and the potential is large. A Dutch study[8] into their use suggests that e-cargobikes could replace up to 20 per cent of delivery vans in large cities.

In the UK, Zedify, which was originally Cambridge-based Outspoken Deliveries created in 2005, has now merged with a similar outfit, Recharge Cargo,  in Brighton to build a nationwide company to provide ‘last mile’ deliveries. The company has depots in Cambridge, central London, Waltham Forest, Brighton, Glasgow, and Norwich, which take in deliveries every morning for distribution later in the day using either conventional or e cargo bikes. In July it announced the opening of a new depot in Hackney, east London which it hopes will eventually handed up to 1,500 deliveries daily.


Radical technological solutions


Sustainable transport is a dull subject  and therefore the media has become obsessed with coverage of any gizmo that seems about to become the next big thing in transport. Drones, autonomous vehicles and delivery robots all attract far more attention than a boring cargobike which is a modern adaptation of a very old invention. Yet realistically, none of these inventions is going to make a contribution to the transport field in the near future, if ever. The idea of drone deliveries, with all the attendant dangers of a large object with spinning propellers flying near humans, let alone their potential for dropping out of the sky on top of people or cars, is really too ludicrous for serious consideration, however much Amazon would like to think otherwise. Moreover, how will these things ring people’s doorbells or write a note to say ‘sorry you were out’.

 Autonomy is perceived as a safety measure. It is argued that since human drivers kills so many people, driverless vehicles will do better. However, again serious examination of the suggestion leads to the conclusion that the concept is overhyped and unlikely to be realised. The idea that Level 5, full autonomy, will be feasible in city centres in the near future, possibly ever, with the myriad of obstacles, pedestrians, children, dogs and strange objects is, again, too fanciful to take very seriously. The industry itself is reining back on its claims and the hype over the issue is now being exposed. For example, the industry leader’s boss, Waymo Chief Executive Officer John Krafcik, said last September that he thought self-driving cars would require driver assistance for many years to come, and that he did not envisage a day when the technology could operate in all weather conditions and without some sort of driver involvement.  Therefore, this technology is unlikely to have any impact on the short to medium term that is the scope of this article.



Night time working


Since 1985, London has had a night time ‘lorry ban’ which effectively rules out most HGV movements after 9 pm and before 7 am. In fact, although it is popularly known as a ban, hauliers can apply for permission if their movements are deemed necessary. Outside London, there is no such formal ban but the FTA says that in effect, with many local restrictions and noise concerns, few of their members would dare to rely on night time working into city centres. There is a strong argument to suggest this is now counterproductive. Delivering at night would reduce fuel consumption and therefore improve air quality because there is less traffic. Lorries are now much quieter than 35 years ago and, indeed, electric mid-sized vehicles are likely to be available which would make even less noise. Obviously this might require consideration on a case by case basis, but there may well be enormous benefits in terms of sustainability if it can be made politically acceptable.



The FORS initiative


Safety is a key, though neglected, aspect of sustainability. An initiative started by Transport for London after a spate of accidents involving cyclists killed or seriously injured by HGVs has now become a national scheme. The Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme was started in 2008 as a voluntary accreditation scheme for operators and encompasses all aspects of safety, fuel efficiency, vehicle emissions and improved operational practice with the aim of making the industry ‘safer, greener and leaner’. The scheme was originally run directly by Transport for London but in 2014 was contracted out to AECOM which now has a national remit and more than 5,000 operators have not been accredited. There are three levels of accreditation bronze, silver and gold. Each one involves meeting more rigorous standards but even the basic level requires drivers to spend time on a bicycle to demonstrate what it feels like from other road users’ perspective. Accreditation to the scheme also involves appointing a fuel champion to monitor fuel consumption which both saves operators money but also results in more defensive and conservative driving techniques. It has been shown that there is a strong correlation between safer driving and fuel efficiency.  Entry into the scheme is still voluntary but both major and smaller operators are now under pressure to apply as more and more users of their services, such as building contractors and retailers, expect their logistics suppliers to be accredited.




Clean air zones


The creation of clean air zones is increasingly becoming a major weapon towards making freight transport more sustainable but it is also controversial. Imposing the zones is, however, controversial especially as the government’s own calculations show that of the £1bn expected fleet adjustment cost of complying with Clean Air legislation, just under half, or £455m would fall on business. The original driver for the imposition of these zones has been the European Union but even after Britain’s expected departure, there is increasing public pressure for towns and cities to clean up their acts and not have polluted air, especially near schools.

London is clearly ahead of the game, with the launch, in April this year, of its scheme which at the moment encompasses only the central area covered by the congestion charge but will expand

tenfold in October 2021, covering virtually all of the capital within the North and South Circular roads. Other cities, seeking to meet requirements after a High Court finding that they must improve air quality, include Birmingham, Bristol, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton. Birmingham, for example, is planning to impose a charge of £8 per day on LGVs and £50 on HGVs entering its central zone at some point, as yet undecided, in 2020.

This is a highly contentious area. The industry argues strongly that the burden of paying for these charges should not fall only on freight carriers. In July, Bristol announced that it was consulting on either imposing a clean air zone aimed solely at freight vehicles as it would not include private cars or a total ban on diesel vehicles in the central area between 07 00 and 15 00. The Freight Transport Association responded strongly saying: ‘why should the logistics sector be left picking up the bill, when private motorists continue to drive unsanctioned?’ However, such proposals are likely to emerge in several other major cities over the next few months as they struggle to improve air quality.




[1] PTEG (now the Urban Transport Group), Delivering the future, 2015, p 12.

[2] Cabinet Office, An analysis of urban transport. 2009

[3] National Infrastructure Commission, Interim Freight Report, 2018, p 12.

[4] National Infrastructure Commission, Interim Freight Report, 2018, p 6.

[5] National Infrastructure Commission, Interim Freight Report, 2018, p 18

[6] National Infrastructure Commission, Interim Freight Report, 2018, p 33.

[7] Daniela Paddeu, The Bristol-Bath Urban freight Consolidation Centre from the perspective of its users, University of Cagliari, 2017, p 6.