Shopping on the net could jam the roads

April 20, 2001

Spates of e-road rage are forecast if the popularity of shopping over the internet keeps growing at its current rate.

The prediction is just one conclusion of a detailed report on the impact of e-commerce on transport and logistics by the University of Bradford.

It says residential areas could be overwhelmed by fleets of delivery vans carrying growing volumes of web-ordered goods. Shoppers freed from the weekly supermarket run may then use their cars for other trips, causing an upsurge in traffic and driver frustration.

Peter James, one of the report's authors, said that despite the current shake-out in e-commerce, the trend for internet shopping would have a major impact on everyone's lives over the next decade.

"There could be many benefits, such as easier shopping, lower costs within supply chains and greater access to local shops for the disabled and elderly, and to world markets for small companies. But there could also be disadvantages such as more transport," said Professor James.

The study forms part of the Digital Futures project, which is looking at the environmental and social impact of e-commerce. It has been coordinated by the environmental non-governmental organisation Forum for the Future, and funded by the government and companies including AOL, British Petroleum and British Telecom. Research has taken a year to complete and has produced a list of recommendations.

The report confirms the positive effects of e-business include its improvement of distribution efficiency, reduction of waste and costs to consumers, and the creation of broader markets for small producers, especially in remote regions.

However, these are offset by the negative effect of a greater use of air freight, extra delivery van traffic and an increased demand for warehousing at strategic locations such as the M1/M62 interchange. Supermarkets could also be closed as shopping patterns change.

Peter Hopkinson, a senior lecturer in business strategy and the environment, said the research showed that the new economy was concentrated in London and the southeast. "There's currently a digital divide between people and regions who can access and develop e-commerce and those who can't," he said.

The report's authors point out that the situation could change rapidly. While growth in home shopping would be based on the existing infrastructure of supermarkets, parcel carriers and collection points in the short term, when it reached 5-10 per cent of total retail sales significant change would occur.

This would include development of pick centres, closure of supermarkets, and the creation of new distribution channels such as purpose-built drop-off and collection networks.

"It is too early," the report concludes, "to give e-business a green light as a creator of sustainable logistics. Now is the time to take precautionary action to ensure that e-business is compatible with the government's sustainable development objectives."

Details: www.digitalfutures.org.uk

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