Online shopping gets bigger every year, in large part because it is more efficient and convenient for consumers.
It takes less time to shop online, comparing prices without going store to store. It also requires less driving, which saves energy, puts less stress on roadways, and creates less pollution.
Experts at the University of Delaware don't quibble with the convenience of online shopping, but their research casts doubt on the other part.
Researchers conducted a multi-year study that suggests online shopping might have unseen impact, only making it seem greener than driving to the nearest mall.
"Our simulation results showed that home shopping puts an additional burden on the local transportation network, as identified through four measures of effectiveness – travel time, delay, average speed, and greenhouse gas emissions," co-author Mingxin Li said in a release.
To the consumer shopping from home, or placing an order using their smartphone, e-shopping seems like it would be saving resources. It requires less energy and space, right?
Arde Faghri, University of Delaware professor and leader of the study, says it's the unseen impact that raises the environmental toll from online shopping. It puts more delivery trucks on the roads, which translates into more wear-and-tear on pavements and increased environmental pollution through the emission of fine particulate matter from diesel engines.
Then there's the impact on traffic patterns. Residential and downtown streets were designed mainly to accommodate cars, not delivery trucks of varying sizes that make frequent stops to park, load, and unload.
Not keeping shoppers at home
The dramatic increase in truck traffic, he maintains, can interfere with through traffic, causing delays and compromising safety. And in the end, he says it isn't keeping consumers at home and off the roads.
"We found that the total number of vehicles miles traveled hasn't decreased at all with the growth of online shopping," Faghri said. "This suggests that people are using the time they save by shopping on the internet to do other things like eating out at restaurants, going to the movies, or visiting friends."
Faghri admits his research has its limitations. For one thing, it was conducted in a relatively small geographic area – Newark, Delaware.
However, he does believe it has value to local, state, regional, and national planners, who may be unaware of what the explosion in online shopping will mean for traffic flow and infrastructure needs.
The other impact, he says, is easier to see. In the future there will be less need for sales personnel and a greater demand for truck drivers.