Freight: a Young Professionals Panel perspective

Published: 2 May 2019

By: Henry Metcalf

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Young people benefit from the UK’s freight industry – but they are also concerned about its impact. So, the Young Professionals Panel welcomes the Commission’s freight study Better Delivery: the challenge for freight and its recommendations to address this.

A wide range of factors drive freight movements in the UK, including moving items we all depend on for modern society to function: food stuffs to supermarkets, taking car parts to factory floors, ensuring biomass reaches power plants and products get to market. The economy is reliant on our freight system and cannot function without it.

Yet, while the freight industry serves communities, it can also create costs for them in the form of congestion, noise and air pollution and potential safety hazards.

Many country villages suffer from the ‘sat-nav’ scourge of HGV drivers rat-running to avoid traffic on the trunk road network. I remember visiting the village of Lavenham and seeing several giant HGVs mount kerbs and narrowly miss historic buildings as they ran through the High Street.

Young people like me, who are for the most part digital natives, have grown up in a world of on-demand deliveries to their doorsteps for items ordered online.

For example, I recently hosted a dinner party and naturally used Tesco’s delivery service to get the food and drinks to my house, then ended up using Deliveroo later the same day when I hadn’t cooked enough food! Same day delivery or quicker is taken for granted and while most people don’t give too much thought towards their home deliveries – and the myriad freight movements they entail – it is a contributor to the UK’s ‘freight footprint’.

The impact of this is often hidden from the end user. Indeed, if all you see is a light goods vehicle drop off your new trousers, you rarely stop to consider how this may have been shipped to a UK port, moved to a national distribution centre and sorted before onwards movement to a regional distribution centre, a fulfilment centre and then to your front door. Not to mention the potential for failed deliveries when people aren’t home and the ensuing repeat deliveries.

In many ways, the popularity of internet shopping and door step deliveries among young people is a result of the UK’s unrivalled freight services that provide efficient and competitive freight movements.

The UK’s freight industry is world-leading and growing: the Commission’s study highlights an expected increase in freight movements of between 27 and 45 per cent by 2049. This demonstrates the need for government to control the industry’s harmful impacts going forward.

In the coming years, young people are unlikely to want to give up the home deliveries they have become accustomed to or the other benefits the UK’s freight industry brings to their lives. However, young people support initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of these and other freight movements.

Key to achieving this is through the planning process, and the report’s recommendation for freight to be fully considered within planning is vital. This will hopefully stop freight issues being ignored or pushed down the list of priorities.

As freight movements will continue to be a vital part of the economy going forward, we need to ensure we have the right infrastructure and policies to encourage freight companies to move goods in an environmentally friendly as well as in a timely and cost-effective manner.

At present, a major obstacle to this is cost, with freight companies seeking to lower them without always considering the external costs of their choices on the environment and society. Air pollution generated by freight vehicles is a particular concern for young people, especially in our large cities, and that is one reason why a ban on the sale of new diesel HGVs by 2040 is so important to improve the environmental performance of the industry.

Looking to the future the report’s recommendations will help create the conditions for the freight industry to invest in the environmentally-friendly technologies of tomorrow.

In particular, if government adopts the report’s recommendations the freight industry will be able to plan when to invest in low carbon alternatives for freight transport and plan how to integrate these new technologies into their existing fleets.

There is also the potential for new technological enhancements to disrupt the freight industry in the coming years. At present, there are several ground breaking new approaches to freight but most seem unlikely to take off. For example, DP World and Virgin Hyperloop One are developing a new, super-fast way of moving palletized cargo. But this will be a hugely expensive undertaking and it is not feasible that a truly national or international hyperloop network could be built in the near future.

Elsewhere, Amazon is exploring on-demand deliveries to your doorstep via electric drones that can recharge on top of lamp posts. But while this would obviate the current ‘last mile’ problem and provide much quicker deliveries to door-steps, it would also require vast numbers of flying drones that may not be practical.

Nonetheless, other opportunities may create serious improvements for freight movement. A case in point is the potential of ‘shared deliveries’ – whereby anybody on the move, whether commuting to work or going to the shops, can offer to transport goods to someone’s home as part of their journey for a fee.

The future is difficult to predict and the next disruptive technology might change all our expectations about freight. But even in the most optimistic case current technologies and movement patterns are likely to persist for some time and the report’s recommendations will deal with these now to create a better future for freight.

Henry Metcalf is a member of the National Infrastructure Commission’s Young Professionals Panel

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