We need to talk about vans

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Van traffic is the fastest growing section of road traffic. There are 3.8 million vans registered in the UK, with these vehicles now representing 15% of all motor vehicle traffic, compared to just 10% 20 years ago. There has been an astonishing 70% increase in van mileage over the last 20 years and the Department for Transport’s road traffic forecasts project further growth in the future. What’s more, vans are increasing in numbers in city regions too. Our new report White Van Cities explores some of the key questions, challenges and options on the rapid rise in urban van traffic.

Knowns and unknowns

A van is defined as a vehicle weighing under 3.5 tonnes. These can be small vans, not much bigger than a car, through to large ‘Luton style’ vans.

While we know that van traffic is increasing, there is a lot that we still don’t know about vans, including:

  • Who owns and operates them – though we do know that 51% are privately registered and 47% are registered to companies;
  • What they are being used for – there is limited data on van journey purpose; and
  • How fully loaded they are and what is in them.

We do know that increasing van traffic impacts on a range of policy issues and challenges in our city regions. These include:

  • Congestion – as increasing urban van traffic can exacerbate existing congestion problems;
  • Air quality and carbon emissions – given the majority off vans are diesel fuelled;
  • Urban realm – as cities seek to prioritise people over traffic;
  • Safety – even though vans tend to be involved in fewer accidents per mile than other vehicles; and
  • Data and technology – which could help to maximise van efficiency.

Leading by example

Addressing these issues in the context of rapid growth of van traffic can seem challenging. That’s why our new report highlights some of the leading best practice case studies which are seeking to address this issue.

Transport for London have a number of schemes in place to mitigate the negative effects of traffic in the city, including vans. The Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003, charges vehicles £11.50 a day to enter the zone between 7am and 6pm. This is now supplemented with the T-Charge for the most polluting vehicles; for vans this costs an additional £10 for those earlier than Euro 4 standards. The Ultra Low Emission Zone is also being introduced from 2019, covering the congestion charging zone, and will levy further charges on vans. These schemes will encourage fleet managers to switch to lower emission vehicles and re-time journeys, thus improving air quality.

Fleet managers, in both the public and private sectors, are being encouraged to switch to lower emission vehicles. UPS now uses electric vehicles for many of its delivery routes in central London. Leeds City Council has shifted to electric vans for their fleet vehicles. This improves local air quality and builds public awareness of alternatively fuelled vehicles.

Given that 63% of vans stopped at the roadside have serious mechanical defects and 89% are overloaded, there are safety issues. The Freight Transport Association (FTA) runs a ‘Van Excellence Scheme’ which helps to promote improved safety, and its ‘Van Excellence Code’ sets out a code of practice, covering areas such as behaviour, licensing and maintenance.

Dealing with the growth in van traffic can seem challenging, especially as vans contribute to valuable economic activity in our cities and because many of the causes of van growth remain under-researched. By setting out options and approaches for managing the growth in van traffic, and presenting a number of areas for further potential work and research, we hope our collective understanding of increasing van traffic can be greatly improved.

Clare Linton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

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