Study: Online Shopping May Be Harder On The Environment, Traffic

In the retail world, huge changes are being wrought by the growing domination of online shopping. The brick-and-mortar marketplace increasingly needs to find balance with customer demand for satisfying and convenient experiences. There is a perception that online shopping allows satisfaction and convenience because it reduces a community’s traffic congestion and emissions by keeping shoppers off the roads.

But that perception may be wrong.  A study published weeks ago by the University of Delaware’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department (paywall) took a careful look at the impacts of home shopping on traffic volume in the region surrounding and including Newark, DE. What they found was surprising.

During the multi-year study, researchers noted vehicle operations and greenhouse gas emissions under home shopping tended to rise, not fall as might be expected.  An excerpt:

Home shopping imposes some mobility problems and costs on society in general. Heavy-duty diesel trucks have long been recognized as one of the most important source of environmental pollution (Kirchstetter et al. 1999; Sawyer et al. 2000; Lloyd & Cackette 2001). The increase in the number of delivery trucks contributes significantly to emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). The increase in the number of delivery trucks implies the need for more parking spaces both at package distribution centers and on street networks. Residential and downtown streets were not designed to accommodate frequent truck stops, parking, loading, and unloading. In addition to interfering with through traffic and causing delay, there is already an increase in the number of illegally parked trucks, conflicts, and compromised safety. Some of the long-term impacts likely to develop are an increase in infrastructure maintenance costs (due to increases in truck volume), changes in land-use patterns such as the disappearance of large shopping malls with vast parking spaces, changes in labor markets (less demand for sales personnel, more demand for truck drivers), etc.

The study not only found that online shopping’s required fleets of new fulfillment trucks added to net pollution emissions, it also suggests that the customers weren’t using the time freed by e-commerce to stay off the roads, instead taking more trips than before for personal reasons.

The retail space industry’s evolution in the era of online commerce is undeniable. But there is still much to learn about what the changes really bring — and withhold.

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