Smart Transport

The role of freight in delivering a greener future for cities

Clare Linton, policy and research advisor at the Urban Transport Group

Author: Clare Linton, policy and research advisor at the Urban Transport Group

As millions of people rolled up their sleeves, waiting for the pinprick of a Covid vaccination over the last year, thoughts about how the vaccine and other products vital for administering it reached their destination were probably far from their minds.

But it is of course the freight sector that has been responsible for, quite literally, delivering the goods that have allowed the UK to achieve its large-scale vaccination programme during the pandemic.

Up and down the UK, our city regions rely on the smooth movement of goods to keep hospitals and vaccination centres supplied with medicine and other equipment, ensure supermarket shelves are adequately stocked, and to deliver other materials and products that support thriving urban communities.

The pandemic has served to further highlight the essential role that freight plays in the functioning of our everyday lives and the UK economy (the freight sector contributes some £86.5 billion annually).

However, the current dominance of road freight (accounting for nearly 80% of goods moved in Great Britain), using largely fossil fuelled vehicles, is a cause for concern.

These vehicles produce many negative impacts for our towns and cities, from road danger to air pollution and carbon emissions, and from damage to highways and noise.

The growth of e-commerce, which accelerated during the pandemic, exacerbates these issues, increasing van traffic on urban roads.

That’s why the Urban Transport Group, the UK’s network of city region transport authorities, has decided to take a fresh look at urban freight issues in its new report.

The report shows how road freight – although vital to the wider freight sector - makes a significant contribution to carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.

For example, in 2019, transport accounted for 27% of the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest emitting sector.

Of this, 16% was from heavy goods vehicles and 16% from light goods vehicles (although not all LGVs will be used in the transportation of freight).

It also highlights how goods vehicles, both vans and HGVs, are involved in serious and fatal collisions on our roads.

Greening urban freight and logistics by increasing the amounts of goods moved by rail and water (where possible), and rapidly shifting road freight to low and zero carbon vehicles, offers a solution to many of these issues, and will be key to the decarbonisation strategies of both cities and national government.

So, what needs to happen to maximise the positive benefits that freight brings, while minimising the negative aspects? Our report has four recommendations.

First, we need to in invest in infrastructure that allows modal shift.

More freight can only be brought into cities by rail and water if we expand our network of rail and water-connected distribution sites, explore other distribution hub formats beyond rail and water, and by consolidating orders through consolidation centres.

Second, we need to incentivise modal shift by reviewing the fiscal regime for road haulage to ensure it covers more of its indirect and direct costs and which encourages safer and greener operation, and thereby improving the competitive position of rail and water.

Next - in addition to phasing out new non-zero emission HGVs by 2040, national Government should develop a clear plan for delivering these zero emission HGVs and the infrastructure necessary to support them.

Local government and the wider public sector must work to decarbonise its own fleets, and cycle logistics infrastructure should also be supported and expanded. 

Finally, the safety of urban freight must be improved.

This would involve reviewing the regime for road safety, recognising the disproportionate impact of goods vehicles, through a new UK road safety strategy which will help to deliver on targets for collision reduction, as well as setting and enforcing vehicle standards at the national level. 

Freight undoubtedly has an important role in decarbonising city regions and we need it to play its part in creating urban areas that are not just greener, but fairer, healthier and more prosperous places for people to live, work and spend time in.

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