The uncertain future of city centre deliveries

Drive around most city centres these days and you’ll see road signage with terminology that we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago – most recently, Clean Air Zone (CAZ), Low Emission Zone (LEZ), and even more futuristic, Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). London, Bristol, and Cambridge are pioneers in delivering these new national schemes at local authority level, banning old and high-polluting vehicles from certain areas, typically city centres. In other areas such as Newcastle upon Tyne, where the Newcastle Council recently launched its scheme, residents and hauliers alike will no doubt keep an ear to the ground to find out how it affects them.

The law of unintended consequences
On the face of it, protecting the environment is a priority we should all get behind. However, when delving into the details, one has to question to what extent financial opportunism is driving these schemes, and whether the issue that needs solving is simply being displaced into other areas. How does it help the environment to charge high-polluting older vehicles to enter city centres? Is it solving an environmental problem or is it simply raking in money to allow the problem to remain? The idea does leave a somewhat hypocritical taste in the mouth.

In any case, we are where we are. Hauliers are likely to want to avoid these costs wherever possible, understandably so as some of these daily tolls are hefty. Transport planners will now be required to route vehicles around these zones. In Newcastle, for example, the A167(M) is a motorway that runs right through the city centre, over the Tyne Bridge, and forms part of the CAZ. As a result of legislation, simply passing through the city without stopping will mean a charge has to be paid, unless you reroute and go through the Tyne Tunnel (with toll) to cross the river, or head out towards the A1.

This doesn’t solve Newcastle’s air pollution problem; it simply moves it from the city centre to the outskirts. In fact, it will actually increase the amount of pollution in the air as these older vehicles might now start travelling more miles than they would have before. If there was serious intent to combat the environmental impact of older vehicles on the road, wouldn’t one expect a total ban? And wouldn’t such a ban include diesel cars? During ClientEarth’s case against the government’s National Air Quality Plan in 2016, Dr Claire Holman, air quality expert, said that “various real-world tests carried out on Euro 6 cars have shown that they exceed the emission limit by a very large margin.”

But these zones and additional costs won’t just hit hauliers’ pockets; they will affect everyone. The haulage industry won’t be able to absorb these costs entirely, and they will be passed on, inevitably driving up inflation on our goods.

Hauliers doing it for themselves
Regardless of individual opinions, it’s likely that these zones are here to stay. As a result, hauliers and haulage organisations are already exploring and pioneering new technologies, innovations, and initiatives to help reduce the impact on themselves and their members.

One such innovation that can make a difference, is load exchange platforms. This is where hauliers connect with a network of other, trusted hauliers to either sell excess loads or buy loads to transport when they anticipate empty return trips.

Government domestic road freight statistics show that, in the 12 months from July 2021 to June 2022, over 3,656 million miles travelled by HGVs were empty miles. This is 30% of total vehicle miles travelled during the same period. Limited research has been done, but there is evidence to suggest that nitrogen oxide emissions from empty trucks are higher than for fully loaded vehicles. An explanation for this could be the fact that vehicle emission control systems, which are fitted to the vehicle’s exhaust pipe, only function optimally when the exhaust reaches a certain temperature. This temperature may not be reached when a vehicle is empty.

Haulage exchange platforms therefore offer an immediate, significant opportunity to cut millions of miles of empty travel, thereby reducing costs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Another interesting development is the creation of “last-mile hubs” in London by pallet network Pall-Ex. The hubs help members trade with trusted local members who know the area and have the vehicles that are allowed in the zones. This helps to keep costs down, not only for hauliers who don’t have low-emission vehicles but also for their customers. It’s expected that other networks will set up similar schemes to help their members avoid these new costs to their businesses.

In the North of England, family-owned business Campeys of Selby has started trialling DAF’s 19-tonne all-electric vehicles (EVs) for their York city centre Palletforce work. A vehicle with zero emissions would generate no additional costs to the haulier or their end customer for deliveries, bar the cost of purchasing the vehicle, of course.

Finding serious, sustainable solutions together with industry
While these are fantastic, proactive ideas, as anything that can help the environment and keep costs low is to be lauded, there are questions about the immediate and long-term scalability of last-mile hubs and EVs. Last-mile partnerships: they’re a great short-term solution, but as it scales, we will inevitably need more land for warehousing and distribution. Where will that land come from? Electric HGVs: aside from the delivery waiting time, we also don’t have nearly enough EV charging infrastructure available. So, even if every haulier in the UK were able to buy one electric HGV today, that wouldn’t mean they could start using them tomorrow.

Neither business nor policymaking moves in a straight line and it’s not unrealistic to expect that the rules we have in place today could change in the next few years. There’s no doubt we need to look after the environment, and the way we’ve been working must change to do this. However, making fast, sweeping changes to established practices, without suitable and scalable solutions to replace them from day one, is likely to do more harm than good.

Inflation will continue to grow, and the air quality won’t improve without concerted intervention. That’s why government and local authorities must work alongside the haulage industry to understand the real challenges, rather than inventing rules and schemes that don’t solve the problems they’ve been justified against. Unless you have rubber on the road yourself, it’s highly unlikely that you can appreciate the real problems that hauliers face, let alone know how to solve them.