A good start to the new year? You must be choking

So, how’s 2017 working out for you so far? As I sit writing this we’re not even out of the first month of the year, but things are already getting quite interesting. Obviously, over in the US there’s the President Trump situation and I think we’d all agree ‘wow’ sums a lot of that up.

By this point in the month, many people have abandoned their new year resolutions – all those good intentions to hit the gym or lay off the booze, well, they sounded and felt great a few weeks ago, but as the end of a long, dry January approaches, many of us have simply passed what feels like an acceptable limit of abstinence, will power, and good behaviour.

Twas ever thus.

Would you like to know what else passed its acceptable limits in January?

Air pollution levels in parts of London.

That’s right. In some parts of London, notably south London, nitrogen dioxide levels had breached their annual limit before the first week of the year was over.

Nitrogen dioxide, which has the chemical formula NO2, come from several sources, including motor vehicles. Diesel engines are especially good at producing NO2. There are a number of reasons for this, such as the higher temperatures and pressures within a diesel engine, which are required to produce NO2. There’s also the small matter of relatively little being done until recently to capture or filter NO2 out of vehicle exhaust fumes.

South London isn’t the only place where NO2 levels are already a problem; from Gloucester to Edinburgh, this is a nationwide issue. Even the former Mayor of London, now Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, once expressed concerns about the volume of commercial goods vehicles on the capital’s roads.

A few weeks ago I was being driven along the M40 motorway at around 1am. It was surprisingly busy, and almost every vehicle was a lorry or a truck or a van shuttling stock and purchased goods from A to B. “That’s ecommerce,” I declared to my fellow traveller. “You click ‘buy’ and a lorry is called into service.”

There is still such enormous potential for ecommerce growth, and all the indicators show that’s the way things are going; it could easily double within size in the next five years. But that would not be without consequences.

All the obvious attention settles on the concerns about what continued growth in online shopping will do to stores and town centres. Not enough attention is being given to the question of traffic, roads, congestion, and pollution, all of which are going to come to the fore as the number of deliveries increases in line with the continued growth of ecommerce.

There are some who have been raising this issue for a while, of course. Not least among them is the UK Warehouse Association, which wants government to facilitate the construction of smaller distribution centres (DCs) in built-up areas.

The next target has to be reducing the volume of delivery traffic in our towns and cities – or at the very least taking steps to stop an uncontrolled increase.

Electric vehicles offer one answer to the problem of pollution, of course. But not that of congestion.

How about Amazon’s supposed plan for a flying/floating DC that hovers over towns and cities while quad-copter drones zip about dropping of parcels, some of you may be thinking. Don’t hold your breath. Can you imagine any municipal authority allowing a huge warehouse to float above the heads of its citizens? No, neither can I. Can you imagine the potential for damage in the event that something went wrong? Yes, so can I. And can you imagine the size of the lawsuits Amazon would face in that event? Exactly.

No, the solution to the problem of growing pollution and congestion is, I’m afraid, somewhat more prosaic. Reducing vehicle numbers is clearly a major part of that solution. How we get to that point, and still enable a thriving ecommerce ecosystem, is going to be the fun part.


This article first appeared on the Parcelly Thought Leadership Corner blog.