distribution center aerial view
Freight transport

Online purchases that travel our highways: how e-commerce impacts traffic and mobility

18 of May of 2022

Shopping baskets are becoming more digital. In the United States, almost a quarter of retail sales are expected to be made through e-commerce in 2025. This change in the way of doing things obviously has an impact on highway traffic. However, this could be different from what was expected.

A study conducted by Cintra and the University of Texas at Austin has let us confirm that the increase in e-commerce will result in a 5% increase in truck traffic in the areas around cities without much impact on the light vehicle traffic moving through them. Behind these figures is a complex, interesting situation that must be understood to make the most of it and optimize our operations. 

The context of online commerce

E-commerce has brought about a major change in how we do things. Many people have gone from shop purchases to those made on computers or smartphones with the click of a button, not leaving the comfort of home. The general trend suggests that this will significantly reduce traffic, especially in contexts like the United States and Canada, where most trips are made in private vehicles. 

However, more factors must be considered to understand this phenomenon. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted into our lives, traffic associated with e-commerce in the peri-urban areas around Dallas (United States) and Toronto (Canada) accounted for only 2% of heavy vehicle traffic. 

However, this percentage is expected to grow with the increase in online sales. In 2019, e-commerce accounted for 11% and 7% of retail sales in the United States and Canada, respectively. By 2025, these figures are expected to increase to 24% and 17%. 

It’s also important to note that e-commerce logistics are much less efficient than traditional trade logistics due to their fragmented nature. Delivering each product to each house with quickly shrinking delivery windows or to different points makes it difficult to optimize trips, and it generates more traffic. While this piece affects urban areas more, it also has an impact on the areas around them. 

Considering all these factors, Cintra set out to investigate the impact of e-commerce on peri-urban highway traffic accurately in these regions of the United States and Canada. To what extent can it impact our numbers and results?

A positive trend

The study was done with the University of Texas at Austin and in collaboration with Chandra Bhat, a professor of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at that center. It was based on data from highways in the Dallas and Toronto areas. Scientific literature and other research on the subject were also considered in its preparation. 

The main conclusion is that the evolution of e-commerce between 2019 (before the pandemic) and 2025 will mean overall growth of more than 5% in truck traffic. It should be noted that calculations for this figure only took the effect of e-commerce into account (above all, its growing penetration and its fragmented nature), but other effects, such as the economy’s evolution and prices, were not included. 

This therefore has a positive effect on demand but also on traffic, given that truck traffic in the areas of study would increase due to e-commerce. 

And what about trips in private vehicles? Everything seems to suggest that the fact that people buy online can be offset by other complementary or substitute trips. Buyers often test out, pick up, or return products at physical stores or pick-up and delivery points, for instance. This means that certain trips are not only not eliminated but, in some cases, actually increase. In addition, buying online saves time that can then be used for other activities involving driving. This means that there is hardly any difference between the number of trips taken on an individual level.

A common trend

The study’s conclusions are along the same lines as research on teleworking carried out in collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology at the University of Atlanta: there’s nothing to suggest that these new trends will produce major changes in highway traffic and mobility. They may even have positive effects on the demand for them. 

What at first glance seems to have a major impact on our day-to-day lives doesn’t ultimately carry much weight when looking at the hard numbers. After the COVID-19 pandemic ends, traffic will continue to change, but it will do so in a gradual, orderly manner. Knowing precisely how these trends are evolving is our best bet to offer the best solutions and maximize opportunities. 

There are no comments yet