Could Grocery Delivery be More Efficient Than a Trip to the Store?

Most research and investment toward improving transportation in cities has traditionally addressed the commute to and from work.  However, less than 20% of our everyday travel is work-related, while the rest are for shopping, social, and personal purposes.  Efforts to make transportation more sustainable and equitable will benefit from more research into these other travel patterns.  Today, we look at the rise of online shopping and ask whether getting fresh groceries delivered to your home could be more efficient than a trip to the store.

A new study published this month suggests that not only is grocery delivery a time-saver, but you can also feel good about saving energy and fossil-fuel emissions—maybe.  Erica Wygonik and Anne Goodchild, two researchers at the University of Washington, examined the difference between everyone driving to the grocery store and a system where everyone gets their groceries delivered instead, using the Seattle area as a case study.  They found total miles traveled by vehicles would be 83% lower with a delivery system, and carbon dioxide emissions would be cut almost in half.  These large savings are possible because the groceries are sharing a ride instead of traveling individually, even though delivery trucks are not as fuel efficient as personal vehicles. “Shared-use vehicle transportation services provide for the movement of passengers and goods and may offer opportunities for reducing the environmental footprint of these activities when compared to individuals using personal vehicles,” write the authors.

Online grocer Peapod truck at the Museum of Art (image courtesy of progressivegrocer.com)

Grocery delivery truck at the Museum of Art (image courtesy of progressivegrocer.com)

This is one of the first studies of its kind done in the United States, but can these findings be applied here in Philadelphia?  Many city dwellers finding this headline were probably thinking, “How is it possible that delivery could be greener than my walk or bike ride to the store?”  In fact, in this city, many residents already have additional options for getting to and from a store other than driving a personal vehicle.  Replacing a walking, bicycle, or public transportation trip to the store with delivery, then, will unlikely have the same savings.  Although this study did not account for such trips, the authors do note that grocery trips not involving a private car should be accounted for in further research.

These findings highlight the need to manage and accommodate deliveries and freight within urban areas.  Here in Philadelphia, being a delivery driver on busy Walnut Street in CenterCity or tiny Third Street in OldCity means competing with many users for limited space.  How could we best fit loading space into a complete street that provides safe sidewalks, driving and bicycle lanes, and parking?

To learn more about how Philadelphia is incorporating a complete streets policy accommodating all users into planning and programming, visit the Philadelphia Complete Streets Design Handbook website.

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