On van dependency

I found this post in my drafts, from way back in october 2010, when this blog and my thoughts on transport policy were young. I thought it was really time to chuck it out and get it out of the way. I think it was probably waiting for another illustration I’d had planned but never shot, or something…

Private cars (including taxis and minicabs) for transporting people make up perhaps only a half of the inappropriately used vehicles clogging our city centres on weekdays. Nor are they the most polluting of these vehicles. Fighting car and taxi dependency and fighting for support for alternative modes of transportation for people will not alone make our cities liveable again.

This week, because somebody drove into me last weekend, I have mostly been catching up with the pedestrian and bus passenger’s experience of central London. On Monday morning, already late (I always forget that a half-hour bike commute takes an hour on public transport) and not up to hobbling even the short distance from Cannon Street to Grays Inn Road, I waited outside the station for a number 17. I could see the number 17. It was just down the end of the road at Monument Station. But it took a while for it to arrive on account of the long line of vehicles parked along Cannon Street’s double yellows, beside the “no loading” markings. Vehicles like Thoroughshred‘s DU02OVK.  (This van’s hazard lights of course indicated that the vehicle had temporarily broken down, and the driver was visiting a nearby friendly office building who helpfully supplied the box of old documents that fixed the van’s immobility.) Note that Thoroughshred care for the environment by using “low-emission vehicles”. As my bus was finally approaching, Office & General Cleaning had an unfortunate incident on the opposite side of the road: the driver quickly braked and pulled in on the double yellows, firing up his hazards. What were the chances, two vans broken down on either side of the road, blocking the busy bus routes of Cannon Street? All counted, there were seven unfortunate van drivers who had broken down on the yellow lines of Cannon Street that morning, and twenty three on the two miles to Grays Inn Road.

(Office & General Cleaning, it should be noted, use low-sulphur vehicles, and make the bold and scientifically illiterate claim to have eliminated all chemicals from their cleaning “regime”. This makes their business “environmentally sustainable”.)

Here on the recently remodelled Long Acre, with its fabulous dedicated bicycle contraflow, private mail van EU57OKC makes vital deliveries of toner to Rymans.

One particularly worrying breakdown had occurred on Ludgate Hill, where Eden Springs were stopped, hazards flashing, on the double yellows in the eastbound bike lane just below St Paul’s. In an attempt to get the vehicle working again, the driver was bravely unloading large bottles of water onto a trolley, and an adjacent office must have selflessly agreed to store them for the company. Eden Springs are clearly doing important work in London: as they point out, water is vital to the health of office workers, and it’s not like you can just turn a tap and expect it to come pouring out like magic. Eden Springs have a philosophy: to be an environmentally responsible partner. (After livetweeting my bus journey, I discovered a new follower: Eden Springs. Somewhere somebody is living their PR career dream.)

Elsewhere, on New Change, a van sat at the lights full of towels and tablecloths that it had collected from restaurants to be cleaned on an industrial estate on the north circular. On Exhibition Road they delivered paper cups and single-use wooden spatulas to the museum cafés. On Great Queen Street a lorry swapped around the furniture between conferences at a hotel. All over Soho, bars took deliveries of ice cubes.

Everywhere people were delivering blank paper and printer cartridges, stepping over the bags of paper recycling strewn across the pavements. Everywhere people were delivering disposable cutlery while the council swept up the disposed of cutlery. And everywhere people were delivering water. Water. A substance that is available on tap in every London building for a negligible cost.

Whenever one suggests that the price of the congestion charge should be vastly greater than it is, that there should be stricter limits on the vehicles that are allowed into city centres, or that a significant proportion of zone 1 roads should be closed to vehicles entirely, one is asked what one would do about all the people who simply have no choice but to drive into Central London: the businesses who need things delivering. Vans are essential and the costs they’re already asked to bear are hurting, we’re told.

Well if businesses in the centre of the city are choosing to have ice cubes and water driven to them in vans instead of turning on a tap and buying a £200 ice machine, having contract cleaners cart mops around instead of investing in a broom cupboard, and sending their laundry to a barn on the orbital instead of putting it in the washing machine, I say the costs aren’t hurting enough. Or rather, businesses are not paying their bills. Because, as is amply evident on any journey through central London, the main reason such ludicrous operations manage to survive is by breaking the rules and dumping the consequences on the rest of us.

Business is one of those fields that I’m really not competent to begin to comment on — and christ can I think of nothing I’d like less than to be so. But I’m happy to speculate wildly anyway — content that on this topic I don’t really care if I’m spouting embarrassingly simplistic crap — about how Britain, and London especially, built itself into its unhappy van dependency. This situation appears to be the outcome of the pursuit of an extreme outsourcing. The vans of companies specialised in simple everyday tasks, like freezing water and washing tablecloths, serve asset light and asset stripped “enterprises” — owners of nothing, investors in little, employers of nobody, constructing products and services entirely out of the leased and the subcontracted.

Whether that’s clever responsible responsive flexible capitalism or dangerous short termist profiteering that contributes nothing of any real value to the lives of our cities is too far outside of my field even for my wild speculation. All I know is that it only works by dumping its costs on society in the form of the traffic in our towns: the vans that we are reminded are so essential.

10 thoughts on “On van dependency”

  1. Reminds me of this article http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2012/09/jobs-of-the-future-cargo-cyclist.html
    I’m sure small goods, such as disposable tableware, could easily be delivered using reasonably sized cargo bikes. Wonder whether giving all deliveries a set time in which they can deliver their goods would work. With the get out clause that if they wanted to make a delivery at another time they would have to use something smaller than a van. Removing vans and HGVs from the road at peak times would go quite a distance towards reducing accidents involving vulnerable road users.

    1. On the question of the time that vehilces stop for, I would suggest that lots of short stays at the curb are more hazardous than longer stays. “I’ll only be a minute” is part of the problem. The shop-lined roads where I cycle have all sorts of restrictions and regulations designed to “help”. The end result (for me as a cyclist) is actually worse. There are higher levels of unpredictability and an increased numbers of manoeuvres. The loaders and unloaders are gtting their work done – but a lot of others are put at increased inconvenience and risk.

      It is time that one or two cities had a serious trial of building in some cycle logisitcs for local deliveries, designed at an infrastructure level. Where periphery distribution centres send out dozens of vans, cycle logistics could be added in to demonstrate the viability. Big vans only look viable because they are able to circumvent or ignore existing regulations and charges. It’s a quesiton of recognising external costs and shifting them to an appropriate level.

      1. In Cambridge we have Outspoken Delivery, who are rapdily growing. They have a fleet of small cargo bikes, some of them now branded up for businesses (though not dedicated to them) in addtion to the normal “courier” bikes. For larger loads, they have trikes that can take a bulky payload up to 250kg. That’s pretty serious stuff. being Cambridge, this is all human-powered but such things can easily be e-bikes/trikes.
        As far as i know, they’ve started taking on “last mile” deliveries for some parcel firms

  2. Nails soundly struck on their heads. Competitive business practice will always resolve, eventually, at the fundamental principle of “whatever you can get away with”. It’s a natural, logical, force that no amount of theorising or idealising can avoid. At the point where consideration for others no longer makes money we either have effective policing or the weakest and most vulnerable will suffer.

    Perhaps double red lines (“no stopping at all at all”) might work for a while? Or big tow-away trucks?

  3. I think the Crown Estate were trialling the use of a distribution centre called Clipper Logistics to reduce the amount of delivery vehicles on Regent Street. I can’t remember the full details at the moment, but it’s worth investigating – the logic being by getting businesses in one area to consolidate their deliveries and commercial traffic, they could substantially cut congestion.

    1. I worked in a crown estate building on Regent Street until March, they had two cargo bikes in the basement branded with Staples or Rymans which appeared to be used for basic office supplies and the like. Of course, the building had the loading bay in the basement at the foot of a steep hill. Bikes were slow up it but much easier to turn around in the bays. Leaving aside the cycle use, the fact the bays were internal of course meant no servicing needed anyone to park on the street.

      Except that naturally delivery drivers were lazy and parked around the corner in Hanover Street regularly. In the contraflow bike lane. (sigh)

      Great post, Joe.

  4. We have this problem as well: I work with a small carpentry company and we’re often contracted to customers in the centre of a local city. While better than most British cities for congestion it is still pretty busy. I’ve often had ‘discussions’ with supervisors as to why they are blocking a pavement for half a day while we move the furniture into our customers premesis, especially as there are often loading bays some distance away.

    The answer I get is that we are paid by the hour and a master carpenter is paid quite a lot per hour, and that includes travel. If we were to charge our customers for the extra ‘cost’ of time taken to load and transport things from the van to the place we are delivering to, then it would add up and the customer woud refuse to pay.

    My own feelings are that if you want the snob value or convenience of a flashy apartment or office in a congested an very fashionable city, then you need to understand there are also disadvantages and live with it, and stop expecting other people to pay for your lifestyle.

    As well as this, we charge for unloading the van at the end of the day, for sweeping up our workshop, and for carrying deliveries up and down stairs, so why not the time taken to walk along the road for a bit?

    I am just a humble apprentice, and don’t understand these things…

  5. Ultimately, far too many people also think that hazard warning lights are a get-out-of-jail-free card for parking restrictions… (Highways Code rule 116: “Never use them as an excuse for dangerous or illegal parking.”)

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