E-commerce is a rapidly evolving sector. With 94% of Belgian inhabitants having access to the internet, 80% of them are e-shoppers. Additionally, 7 in 10 Belgians shopped at least once to up to five times during the past three months to the survey conducted in 2021 by EUROSTAT.
Impact of e-commerce deliveries
The consumers’ convenience to buy online and their demand to be delivered at home make the last mile logistics of the e-commerce sector challenging. According to the World Economic Forum, if the operations of the last mile are not optimized, growing demand for e-commerce will result in an additional 36% more vehicles for parcel deliveries in the cities by 2030. Subsequently, estimates suggest that the traffic from the delivery sector will cause a rise of 30% more emissions and 21% more traffic congestion in the top 100 cities globally. Whereas the congestion and air pollution of the delivery sector is investigated well, the impact on road safety of e-commerce is yet to be explored.
A study by VIAS has investigated the road safety impacts of parcel deliveries in Belgium. The road safety impacts were explored by reviewing the recent literature, analysis of available data combining vehicle registration and road crashes in Belgium, and analysis of specific quantitative and qualitative data collected from the various stakeholders in the sector. The list of important stakeholders includes; two representative samples of 1000 Belgian citizens to share their opinion on the acceptability and frequency of specific delivery transport driver behaviors, a survey among 100 delivery transport drivers concerning their behavior on the road and attitude towards it, and 14 focused interviews from service providers, relevant associations, authorities, and police, concerning the challenges, opportunities, knowledge gaps and specificities of the sector.
Despite the growth in the total vehicle fleet of vans (≤ 3.5 tonnes), the number of crashes in Belgium has dropped for all transport modes (-20%), and a similar decreasing trend was observed in the number of crashes with vans (-13.5%) between 2017 and 2020. However, the company-owned vans were involved in more road crashes with vulnerable road users than privately-owned vans, particularly cyclists (16% vs. 12% of the number of victims in 2022). This value grew in recent years for cyclists (11% in 2017 vs. 16% in 2020) and remained almost the same (5% in both 2017 and 2020) for pedestrians, despite a sharp decline with most motorized vehicles. The current statistics on road crashes do not allow us to distinguish between vans used for parcel deliveries and other purposes, such as vans used in the construction or catering industry.
Many van drivers admitted that they often do not respect the highway code. The common unsafe behaviors reported were speeding violations and using space for cyclists and pedestrians to load or unload packages. They also indicated that the behavior of other road users causes difficulties in their daily work and is one of the key reasons for (near) crashes. A strong correlation was observed between the experience, the behavior, and the attitude of the drivers. With more driving experience (more than two years), the unsafe behavior practices reported were lower, and the attitude towards safe behavior was also positive. On the other hand, 72% of general road users in Belgium strongly disapproved of professional van drivers’ driving behaviors such as aggressive driving, speeding around a school, and use of mobile phones.
Most road users (63%) found it unacceptable to load/unload in the middle of the carriageway to deliver packages, whereas this is allowed legally for certain delivery vans. Moreover, a limited willingness was indicated to pay a higher price among the Belgian population to improve delivery standards. However, ensuring fair working conditions for the delivery workers was strongly supported, even at an additional cost. These results are in line with other studies. Home deliveries remain the preferred delivery option, although self-collection points were indicated as an interesting alternative to many.
The challenges acknowledged by various stakeholders and perceived as very important for road safety were: traffic intensity; parking space for loading and unloading; the use of road safety as a competitive advantage; the training, competencies, recruitment, and retention of drivers; the modal shift towards active modes; and the interaction between road users on shared spaces.
Long-term urban planning
The stability in the growth of the e-commerce sector indicates that it is here to stay. However, long-term urban planning and structural changes are required to adjust the needs of making last-mile logistics operations sustainable and efficient; short-term solutions could already be initiated. For example, the short-term solutions proposed are better enforcement to prevent recurring road violations, training and coaching drivers from improving road behavior and gaining required experience, and infrastructural separation of vulnerable road users. However, clarity of the sector’s road safety impacts and stakeholder collaboration is essential before deep diving into the solutions.
Access to the data specific to road safety impacts (road crashes, associated costs, distance traveled, unsuccessful deliveries, delivery drivers’ dangerous road behaviors, health and safety conditions of drivers, and record of road violations) is not yet straightforward. Sharing this data is currently viewed with skepticism as if it might contribute to the negative perception of the e-commerce sector. However, data-sharing practices should be considered an advantage for public road safety. Building mutual trust between authorities and e-commerce service providers is necessary to highlight the benefits of achieving road safety standards for the sector.