How Green Is Grocery Delivery in Cities?

Grocery delivery can cut carbon emissions compared to driving your car to the store and back. But delivery services also replace walking, biking, and transit trips. Image: ## Research Forum##

In a recent study out of Seattle, researchers Erica Wygonik and Anne Goodchild found that having groceries delivered by truck can cut mileage by up to 85 or 95 percent compared to driving a car. “It’s like a bus for groceries,” Goodchild told NPR. “Overwhelmingly, it’s more efficient to be sharing a vehicle, even if it’s a little larger.”

The most efficiency can be squeezed out of grocery delivery when dispatchers can design short routes that serve many people. When customers can choose their delivery times, however, the routes become significantly less efficient.

But in urban areas, where houses are close enough together that delivery might be relatively efficient, not everyone drives to the store. And people without access to a car might be the most likely to use a delivery service. In these locations, perhaps delivery services are replacing walking, biking, and transit trips more than driving trips.

It looks like more research is needed to evaluate the full impact of grocery delivery services on travel choices and carbon emissions. “We don’t have great data about how people get to the store,” Goodchild said in an email exchange. “We also don’t know to what extent these shoppers (bike/ped) might choose to shop online, versus those who drive to the store.”

She said she and her co-author have talked about conducting simulations where they consider biking “but would need to estimate calorie burn.” Yes, calorie burn — but hopefully not “increased respiration.”

29 thoughts on How Green Is Grocery Delivery in Cities?

  1. This would make for an interesting study in NYC, thanks to the difference in how groceries travel to the neighborhood market vs. how they travel in “home-delivery-only” setup.

    When goods travel to the local market, (large) trucks jockey for position, double-park and idle outside. Goods are unloaded one pallet at a time, spend time outside (subject to spoilage and damage) and are loaded piecemeal into the store’s storage area. A good percentage of the perishables likely is never sold.

    In a “home-delivery-only” setup, large trucks back up to loading docks, where they can be unloaded directly to the appropriate storage area. Only sold goods are then loaded onto (smaller) trucks for delivery.

  2. Not being a New Yorker – just a casual observer – NYC has more grocery stores available within walking distance than most cities, right?

    How do most New Yorkers obtain their groceries? How many use delivery services?

    A dense city like NYC (or parts of it) may experience bad effects if too much is delivered by van because of the addition to pollution and crashes.

  3. Three years ago, Freshdirect was doing 25,000 orders a week. Even if that’s doubled since then, that’s still not a huge amount. I’d imagine most people still go to the bodega or supermarket by foot or by car.

  4. If the delivery is from a larger warehouse rather than simply from a supermarket, the net pollution should decrease. Speaking as a non driver, delivery has the primary advantage of bringing bulky or heavy items–I walk to my local vegie store, but choose a bus for trips to acquire milk as examples.

  5. I tend to do most of my grocery shopping on my way home, in largish stores near the train station (the station I usually use has three large grocery stores near it, one in each direction, as well as a bunch of smaller food stores!). I then just carry my groceries home with me. [There are also huge amounts of bicycle parking near the station for those people that want to do a shopping trip; there’s almost no car parking…]

    I imagine this method of shopping is far, far more efficient than home delivery, never mind driving to the store!

    Given the way mass-transit tends to result in highly-trafficked nodes which are perfect locations for local shopping, this seems a natural and beneficial way of doing things…

  6. I have wondered about this question for a long time, but don’t have the resources to do the research.

    This is a good start. They note the need to refine their research to address mode choice and trip chaining. Energy consumption by the stores and distribution center also needs to be considered.

    With home delivery, there is minimal lighting and HVAC compared to the supermarket. Additionally, home delivery should minimize the time food waits before reaching the end consumer, whereas food spends more time in refrigerator or freezer cases in stores before being purchased, and I suspect much larger spaces must be cooled to display the products to consumers in stores.

  7. Several years ago, a company called WebVan did just that in the San Francisco Bay Area. It failed. However, I’m not sure whether the concept was fundamentally flawed or if it was just badly implemented. I do recall it required a huge capital investment in warehouses, trucks, web interface, etc.

  8. In comparing deliveries by bicycle to deliveries via fossil fuels, it is wrongheaded to meticulously include the calories burned by the bicyclists as many studies seem to feel obliged to do. First off, although a bicyclist may expend more calories than someone in a car/truck, it is not always true that they ingest more calories. The person in the car/truck may ingest the same calories and turn them into fat. On top of that, if they do consider additional bicyclist calories, they need to also include the carbon footprint of the additional health care required by the driver due to his/her sedentary job. The more hours behind the wheel, the more obese and unhealthy one is and the more medical care one consumes. Our health care industry has a huge carbon footprint, accounting for 8% of all carbon emissions.

    As worldwide net energy declines, in dense cities most small and medium sized deliveries will be delivered by electric-assist bicycle (sometimes pulling a small trailer.) People will live in cities precisely because they can shop and bring home most of their purchases easily by foot.

    We have had a couple different grocery services deliver groceries in the past. Even with on-line ordering, it’s not that much time savings and involves its own set of hassles. (And I am not a person who likes to shop.) Especially in terms of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, you can’t see what’s fresh and looks like good value.

  9. They burned too much capital too fast. Unlike other concepts which attracted continuous infusions of cash they ran out. Too bad, I found them highly efficient for staple items while I continued to walk to my local veggie store for fresh things. Webvan was extra usefull for ordering supplies from afar as I was homeward bound after a couple weeks away (empty fridge). Literally met the truck as I was walking home from BART.

  10. Why do you assume the non-cyclist is necessarily unhealthy or sedentary.

    You miss the point entirely about nutrition: whereas there are individual variance, people can be healthy with varying degrees of caloric intake and activity. Some professional swimmer that practices 6h/day ingests around 18.000 kcal per day (between food and all supplements). A healthy male that practices minimum exercise (30 min/day 4x week) needs no more than 2.500 kcal.

  11. It is proven that the more time spent behind the wheel, the more obese and unhealthy the person is. Of course there is individual variability. (A driver might spend their off hours exercising like mad and be in fine shape.) But on average driving is sedentary occupation that makes people unhealthy.

    Many studies comparingn the carbon footprint of motorized vehicles to bicycles assume that if a biker expends more energy than a driver, he/she is ingesting more calories, and so they count the carbon footprint of those calories, assuming the bicyclist eats the average American meat-laden diet. What I’m saying is that it’s not proven that the average bicyclist ingests any more calories than the average driver, therefore this assumption of extra carbon from the bicyclist diet is incorrect. In addition, since everyone needs 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day just to be healthy (which most Americans are far from getting), the first 30 minutes of a bicyclist’s time has to be considered carbon-free in any event.

  12. I don’t think a cargo bike has enough capacity to make it a realistic alternative to truck delivery. A store would need a fleet of cargo bikes to equal one truck. Nor could a cargo bike go as far or as fast as a truck.

  13. And the fleet of cargo bikes would cost the same as one truck. Remember with cargo bikes the major expense is purchasing them. There is no gas or insurance to worry about. There are repairs, but cargo bikes are pretty sturdy. Most repairs consist of replacing the tires when they wear out. If you use airless tires, there no labor fixing flats. You can also pay delivery bike riders far less than a truck driver given that they need no license or special training.

    Speed depends upon how much congestion there is. In a place like Manhattan, I’ve little doubt cargo bike could often be faster than truck. You also don’t need to double park to unload a cargo bike.

  14. But what about personnel costs? A small truck can easily transport 400 packages tucked inside, or something like 12 tons of parcel cargo.

    How many cyclist-delivers would you need to hire? The cost of manpower could easily outstrip any savings on equipment.

    Moreover, society should move away from physical demanding jobs to intellectual based ones or jobs that use mechanics to reduce the need of muscle strength. Only backward countries strive to keep more people working in occupations where you burn a lot of extra calories and damage your joints and bones.

  15. You’re ignoring five things here:

    1) You can find no shortage of people in urban areas willing to work for $1 to $2 an hour, so I’m not seeing that labor is a problem. Yes, it’s currently illegal to pay wages that low but if we needed a lot of manual labor to perform the functions of society I’ve little doubt that would change.

    2) Society currently doesn’t charge for the negative externalities of truck delivery but it still nonetheless must pay for them. The costs of these externalities are huge, and would easily dwarf any labor costs for a fleet of cargo bikes.

    3) The cargo bikes can make deliveries much faster in many cases than trucks. The greater productivity partially offsets the lower cargo capacity.

    4) A cargo truck may hold hundreds of packages, but route inefficiency delivering that many packages will be a big problem. That means a lot of time spent driving just to get to disparate points on the delivery route. A cargo bike with a dozen packages might be able to make all its deliveries within an area of a few blocks, or even all in the same building. Or put another way, we’ve found that economies of scale only work up to a point, and only in certain situations. Truck delivery is best suited when you’re moving cargo from a main warehouse to several retail stores. Local delivery of individual packages can be better handled with much smaller vehicles.

    5) Nobody is saying the cargo bikes can’t have electric assist, or even full electric drive. I want cargo bike delivery people to have a long working life, and to be able to retire with all their joints in good shape.

    I agree to some extent about the general move from physical to intellectual jobs EXCEPT for the fact that a fair amount of the population can’t do anything but manual labor. Remember that the average IQ needed to do many intellectual jobs is increasing far faster than the IQ of general human population. We either have to create jobs for these people, or support them on welfare, or just plain prevent them from procreating. Of the three, I think the first is by far the easiest to implement politically. Unfortunately, nobody in positions of power want to even talk about the growing problem of finding work for people who just innately cannot do intellectual jobs. There’s also a shortage of jobs for the truly bright and gifted thanks to massive cuts in R&D, but that’s a problem easily solved if society moves in a different direction (i.e. away from profit-driven enterprises towards long-term projects which benefit the entire human race).

  16. Having operated a cargo-bike delivery service, I can attest to the importance of staff costs. It doesn’t cost that much more to hire a driver than a bicyclist, and driving is a lot less physically taxing than bicycling.

    Also, the bike is fairly expensive and you have to pay the employees enough to encourage them to take care of it.

    Large dolly carts are cheaper than bicycles, don’t require expensive workers’ comp insurance like bicycles, and hold more. And you don’t have to worry about teaching operators how to use them like you do with bikes. That’s why fresh direct and other delivery services use them instead of bicycles.

  17. living in a more remote part of queens, my local supermarket is 3 blocks away with a parking lot that is usually packed. i opt to walk to the market rather than drive the relatively short distance even though my hands would be holding 6-7 bags full of groceries. (i have a driveway). my point is that nyc with many supermarkets and grocers within walking distance, most folks would choose to walk anyways than to drive. by introducing a grocery delivery service, wouldnt that increase pollution?

    Yes, i know we have services like fresh direct, but it is still a small scale within the whole grand scheme of food purchasing.

  18. I do the same (I don’t have car so I have no choice), and I hit all the markets within about 3/4 of mile in the course of a normal week. One thing I might suggest you do to make your life easier is to invest in a good shopping cart. I hand carry groceries if it’s under about 20 pounds, but much more than that I just bring the shopping cart. I’ve loaded it with 100 pounds no problem.

  19. Um, Revolution Rickshaws today is executing upwards of 100 deliveries weekly and counting for which is a curated grocery delivery service. It’s all about strategic deployment.

  20. Fresh Direct will deploy freight trikes in its logistics matrix soon after electric assist bikes and trikes are legalized in NYC – as will other enterprises. There’s another gorilla in the room here, to be sure: air-tight food safety systems. Look for Revolution Rickshaws to tackle that one in the next year with the help of Streetsbloggers such as yourself.

  21. Sedentary jobs can damage your body too. I have a bad back from my 15 years of intellectual work at a computer.

  22. My experience is limited to Brooklyn and Manhattan, but there have always been grocery stores nearby, and bodegas even closer. My strategy is to hit a good grocery store (Park Street Food Co-op when in good standing, Flatbush Food Co-op otherwise) now and then, a greenmarket once a week, maybe another greenmarket that I’ll change my commute route to get to. Running out to bodegas now and then.

    Most New Yorkers are carfree. I would shop with bike trailers and/or a messenger bag, but I expect rolling carts and the subway are used more.

  23. Webvan and Kozmo used the dot-com model: burning their venture capital as fast as possible. Both heavily promoted gimmicky usage with online coupons and an upsell to impulse items.

  24. Yes, this is the third option that is a glaring omission from the comparison in the study. Combining trips is a common strategy. (There are, of course, people who fire up the SUV to drive a block away to pick up a pack of cigarettes.)

  25. That’s no gorilla, those have existed for quite some time in NYC. I first saw one in the 1990s, on a Worksman delivery bike for a deli, to keep food secure and kosher.

  26. You’d need millions of those Worksman beasts along with workers to pedal them and additional infrastructure to move an appreciable amount of food in NYC on them, Jim. I’m writing of scale here, to be sure. Separately, that’s quite a trick that Worksman has a special system that keeps food kosher (as opposed to other pedalogistics systems) – tell us more!

  27. It’s just an insulated box with a lock on it. I’m sure it could be scaled up, and folks like the Cargo Bike Collective could haul larger boxes around.

  28. When Sysco is using Worksman trikes, you’ll know something is happening. In the meantime, has City Harvest, Fairway, and other enterprises rolling with proper work trikes.

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