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Edited on

12 December 2018
Read time: 2 minutes

Urban freight and air pollution - learning from the Freight Tails network

23 January 2017 was a fine day in London.  Although cold, the air was clear with bright sunshine and little cloud. It was also the day on which the worst levels of air pollution in the capital to date were recorded. Throughout the day, the air held a dusky pall, as though sprinkled with dust. The UK press noted that air pollution ‘passed levels in Beijing … hitting a peak 197 micrograms per cubic metre for particulate matter’. Londoners were advised to reduce physical activity.  Asthma sufferers were at particular risk.
London’s problem with air pollution has a long history. Since the famous coal-induced smogs of the 1950s, air quality in the capital has long been a concern. The banning of coal-burning at home in 1956 made a huge difference, but recent concerns over traffic pollution particularly from diesel vehicles, has led some to call for a similar ban on diesel vehicles in the city.  The effect on public health is worryingly large: air pollution is estimated to be the cause of 141,000 life years lost, or the equivalent of up to 9,400 premature deaths.  Air pollution is the second most significant factor impacting on public health in London, after smoking.
There are many causes of air pollution: increased use of energy, density of building and weather conditions all play their part, but there is a growing consensus that, in London, it is traffic which is the problem, despite attempts over recent years to reduce the amount of traffic in the centre of the city.

In 2003, London introduced a fee for all vehicles entering the central zone, largely to reduce congestion on the city’s roads. Since its inception, the Congestion Charge (CC) has reduced traffic numbers (seeing a 23% reduction in total vehicle kilometres in 2000-14), improved road safety, and brought in a healthy £1.2bn in revenue in the last decade, which is used for investment in the capital’s transport infrastructure.  There is no doubt that congestion charging works, and yet the city’s air quality is only getting worse. London is now at the stage where it is breaking international limits for Nitrogen Dioxide and particulate matter.
Freight transport is a large part of the problem. Whilst the Congestion Charge has created strong disincentives to driving your private car into the city, freight operators continue to do business, absorbing the cost of the charge (at least £10.50 for each journey into the centre) into their operations. Road freight accounts for 16% of London traffic, compared to 3% nationally, andis responsible for an estimated 36% of NOx emissions and 39% of particulates.
It is clear that attempts must be made to reduce the impact of freight movements. The city’s Low Emission Zone (soon to be extended to an Ultra-Low Emission Zone) places high standards on freight vehicles, but this must be accompanied by behaviour change.

The URBACT FreightTails network ( has been grappling with the problems caused by excessive freight movements in 10 European cities. Led by Westminster Council’s Cross River Partnership, a public-private body operating within the very heart of London, the network is concentrating on changing the patterns of behaviour and movement of freight operations, identifying some very simple but innovative solutions to a difficult problem, in particular those which rely on companies taking individual action rather than waiting for changes in legislation. ‘Regulation change can be difficult’, Charlotte Knell, the network’s coordinator, tells me ‘for quick wins, voluntary measures can be better’.

The project is piloting an online toolkit known as ‘deliverBEST’ (, supporting businesses to improve the efficiency of deliveries to their sites. Based on 10 simple questions, the tool recommends relevant actions including choosing suppliers that use low emission vehicles, sharing suppliers with nearby companies, and suggestions to reduce the number and volume of waste collections. Visitors to the website receive an email with recommendations based on the information they submit, and this is used as a means of starting a conversation with companies and engaging them in a process of reducing their freight footprint.
One specific problem the network is addressing is the huge increase in personal deliveries to offices and workplaces: the boom in internet shopping has increased the demand of people having parcels delivered to their work address; some companies estimate that 40% or more of deliveries to their premises are personal items for staff. FreightTails partners are promoting the use of ‘Click and Collect’ services which offer delivery to locations (e.g. corner stores) close to consumers’ homes. These services reduce the number of deliveries to workplaces and help eliminate missed (and repeat) at-home delivery attempts during working hours. It might sound very simple, but can be hugely effective. Next time you visit a city, note the number of vans from courier companies parked in the street, and you’ll get some idea of the scale of the problem.

Walking away from the offices of the Cross River Partnership on a fine day in June, I began to notice the number of delivery vans negotiating London’s crowded streets. Our demand for on-time logistics, for next-day deliveries and efficient customer service are a part of living in a modern city, but they also contribute to traffic congestion, to more localised freight movements, and ultimately to poor air quality. Listening to Charlotte describe the work of the FreightTails network, I was convinced that air pollution can be improved without putting the brakes on economic activity, merely by organising our companies and our economic activities better. And a cleaner city is ultimately more attractive and more prosperous. What’s not to like?