How we buy things has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Online shopping is up 30% in the US since 1999, accounting for almost 12% of all retail goods. Online companies have enticed shoppers with free shipping, free returns, and promises of faster and faster deliveries. Current stay-at-home conditions have reinforced this trend, increasing online orders another 30% since the COVID-19 epidemic began. Online purchases of some goods were up 10 fold in April and May.
We found, in a March 2020 study, that the upsurge in faster delivery times and more deliveries would lead to many more warehouses and truck trips closer to city and town centers–where people live.
Real estate data from our more recent study support this prediction. In five of California’s most populated regions, goods delivery companies are moving to smaller and more numerous warehouses and distribution centers, located closer to densely populated downtown areas. This shift increases truck traffic, even if the overall amount of cargo remains constant. More truck traffic means more greenhouse gas emissions and more pollution and noise in local communities.
Unfortunately, this increased pollution and noise tends to disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities. Since minorities and low-income communities make up a significant proportion of residents in disadvantaged communities, they are often burdened with the negative by-products of congestion and exposure to on-road emissions. We found a correlation between the number of warehouses and unhealthy air. While it’s unclear to what extent these warehouse facilities are the cause of this pollution, it is clear that the increased truck traffic is increasing congestion and degrading air quality—and generally in communities that are already overburdened. This inequity is demonstrated by the fact that about one-third of the regions we studied are classified as disadvantaged, but more than one-half of warehouse transactions in the past two decades have occurred in these areas—and are increasing.
It seems inevitable that online shopping will continue to grow. Making a few simple mouse clicks to accomplish a day’s worth of shopping is very appealing. The convenience to one segment of the population, however, is creating a burden to others. So what could or should be done about this shift?
First, local and regional agencies should adopt warehouse siting and air quality rules to mitigate those impacts—with a focus on protecting vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Public and private sector interventions could reduce commercial traffic on neighborhood streets and mitigate overall pollution associated with warehouses and trucks.
Second, the electrification of trucks and industrial vehicles (such as forklifts) should be accelerated. The California Air Resources Board has just adopted requirements for zero-emission trucks starting in 2024. Perhaps local governments, working closely with the private sector, could identify specific uses where the requirements may be expedited. Transitioning to cleaner delivery vehicles won’t mitigate traffic concerns, but would lessen their impact on local air quality.
Third, new policies or strategies could incentivize logistics companies and consumers to aggregate or batch deliveries and orders to minimize the total number of trips needed.
As online retail shopping continues to grow and as consumers demand faster deliveries, more effort is needed to address the downside of these changes, especially since those adverse impacts exacerbate the environmental, health, and traffic problems already burdening disadvantaged communities.
Miguel Jaller is Co-Director of the Sustainable Freight Research Center at ITS-Davis. He studies freight transportation, sustainable transportation systems, and humanitarian logistics.