Does ecommerce take cars off the road?

The least surprising result of COVID-19 was growth in ecommerce sales. Households stuck in lockdown brought a huge jump in online sales. It’s been a discussion point for environmentalists whether ecommerce is better for the planet. The central argument is that buying online in a bulk van delivery avoids many car trips by shoppers. Nobody knows how the post-COVID world will change, but there are clues in historical data which might tell us how retail and traffic are changing. I took a long, twenty year view at the question, and here’s what I found.

Trip Purposes

Brits travel less every year, and travel far less by car to shops. We travel about the same amount as the 1970’s, and generally shorter distances & times. How much of this is down to online shopping? Ecommerce is a long term trend which COVID-19 has accelerated, and along with shopping trips by car decreases every year, as well as car trips in general. There’s definitely some relationship. However, retail is changing quickly as the population becomes city-centred. Shops have concentrated in bigger chain stores with lots of choice and stronger demand management. Driving to a local high street for a shopping trip is only needed in increasingly rural areas. Both Tesco and Sainsburys have almost doubled their store count since 2008, the growth being almost exclusively in city convenience stores. It will be interesting to see whether recent online grocery shopping will decrease this trend.

If there are less trips overall, and less shopping trips by car, are the roads clearer? Clearly, roads won’t be empty any time soon. There are less trips per person, but the population has grown – meaning more traffic. But the makeup of traffic is changing. Car growth slows whilst vans and heavy goods vehicles accelerate – there are 48% more licensed vans today than in 2000. The huge COVID-19 traffic hit to cars has almost returned to slightly below average, but van traffic is at its highest ever level. The crunch is in last-mile – delivery of stuff to addresses. Pitney Bowes thinks that the number of parcels shipped increases a massive 17% annually in the UK. 35% of this is Royal Mail, 7% Amazon. Increased delivery speed by most providers plays a role in vehicle increase too. 

Shoppers’ desire for online shopping with fast delivery means more vans, more HGV’s, more deliveries. We travel less too, particularly for shopping. Car growth is definitely slowing down, and as ecommerce explodes, it’s possible that shopping trips could evaporate to the point of taking traffic off the roads. Even if not, people are using cars less (and choosing trains, bicycles & walking), and shops are becoming closer to everyone in cities. It’s a fascinating time, and potentially positive from an environmental perspective.

The Shift is a weekly update about how business impacts the planet, good and bad, through data. Get one question each week in your inbox.