The rise in e-commerce is wreaking havoc on our cities, the millions of packages delivered each day are worsening traffic congestion and generating a glut of emissions—and these side effects of online shopping are only expected to get worse. The demand for this kind of urban, last-mile delivery will increase 78% by 2030, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum, and without serious, effective change, delivery-related carbon emissions could increase more than 30% in the world’s top 100 cities in the next 10 years.
“Cities are now at a very critical point where not only do they have to figure out a way to meet consumer and citizen demands and allow innovations to come through, they also have to keep an eye on congestion and reducing emissions, so the two are very much at odds with each other,” says Richa Sahay, one of the report authors who leads the WEF’s supply chain and transport work. Without any interventions, congestion is expected to increase by more than 21% in these cities, equivalent to an added 11 minutes to each passenger’s daily commute.
We could try to get people to order fewer things, but that’s not a guarantee. “We recognize that consumers are always going to lean toward convenience,” Sahay says, which is why WEF wants to focus on changing the way these packages get to consumers, without sacrificing the ease or economic benefits of all this buying.
The good news is that there are solutions to the traffic and environmental impacts of our shipping addiction that can be implemented right now, and they have big benefits whether they’re mandated by city regulations or when they’re provided by companies as an option customers can choose. The biggest benefit to emissions by far would come from a switch to electric delivery vehicles; if mandated, this switch would lead to a 60% drop in carbon emissions, per the WEF report, and letting customers choose this as a delivery option would decrease emissions by 24%.
When it comes to congestion, requiring customers to pick up their packages at parcel lockers would decrease traffic by 28%, and just giving customers that option would lead to a 5% reduction. Sahay also suggests a move to nighttime deliveries, which would ease congestion by 15% if required (and lessen shipping costs by 28%), and the addition of “multi-brand parcel shops,” like the one that opened in Hamburg in 2018, which combines the packages from multiple brands so they can collaborate rather than all have their own delivery systems. That would drop congestion by 20%, if cities required them.
“These are some of the big impacts, and the reason why we also recognize them is because all of them you can do now,” says Sahay. Some places are investing in innovations like drones or cargo bikes, but they often need serious technological advancements or infrastructure changes to be truly effective. To WEF, it’s about urging a collaboration between the public and private sectors—between cities, companies, drivers, and consumers—to solve this problem.
There are a few cities that have taken big steps toward easing delivery-related congestion and emissions, and Sahay points specifically to Amsterdam, which has a plan in place to ban all nonelectric vehicles by 2030, reducing NO2 emissions by 77% and CO2 emissions by 42%; Singapore, which will test aerial drone delivery on its new drone estate; and Shanghai, in which Ikea deliveries come via a fully electric fleet. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, because what might work in Pittsburgh, for example, might not be the best proposal for New York. “That localization of these solutions is very important, and that’s part of the next phase,” she says. “The real rubber hits the road, in a way, when you start to pilot [these solutions] in certain cities.” WEF has been working with Amsterdam and Singapore, and hopes to work with U.S. cities, too, to carry out some trial and error, and analyze the results in a forthcoming report.
“The convenience of buying anything, from food to clothes to goods to, you know, even your coffee, is so easy that people don’t realize the actual impact of that,” Sahay says. “New solutions have to come in order to make sure that convenience doesn’t go away—because it’s good for the economy—but [that] it doesn’t have a huge impact on emissions and congestion.”