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Online Shopping Is Greener, But That Doesn't Mean We're Using Our Cars Any Less

Ordering everything on Amazon isn't necessarily improving the air or the roads.

Shopping malls are becoming ghost towns.

Photo: James R. Martin via Shutterstock

Is online shopping greener than hopping into the car and driving to the store every time we need something? The answer, according to researchers at the University of Delaware, is yes. But as you’d expect, it’s not quite that simple.

The model for online shopping is indeed greener. One van visiting your street each day, bringing goods to anyone who ordered them, is better than everyone in each street driving to the store each day in their own vehicle. But the newly published study shows that the situation is complex, and that the rise of home-delivery, thanks to online shopping, hasn’t led to a decrease in traffic at all.

The first bad assumption we make is that people will stay home now that they aren’t shopping. But of course, we fill our saved time with other activities, and in the U.S., whether we’re going to the gym, taking a walk, or visiting friends, we go by car. "We found that the total number of vehicle miles traveled hasn’t decreased at all with the growth of online shopping," says study co-author Ardeshir Faghri. "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."

But even if we did all just stay at home and browse Amazon for yet more stuff to have delivered, the roads wouldn’t be much better off. The increase in home-shopping means more delivery vehicles on the roads, which leads to more pollution from their diesel engines, and more wear-and-tear from these larger vehicles.

The other problem is that our residential streets aren’t built for deliveries. When the UPS van parks outside your building, it’ll either hold up traffic, or the traffic will be forced to edge past. This not only leads to increased emissions, but it makes the streets even less safe for kids to play in.

"The increase in online shopping also affects land use patterns such as the number and size of stores in large shopping malls with vast parking spaces," Faghri says, "as well as changes in labor markets, with, for example, less demand for sales personnel, and more for truck drivers."

Faghri also emphasized that the study looked at only private, residential shopping, not commercial deliveries. It also focused on a small area. In New York City, online shopping might often take the place of walking or subway trips. In other countries the patterns are different again. In Southern European countries like Spain and Italy, daily grocery shopping in local markets and stores is still common, along with shopping for small non-food goods. In Germany, online shopping is huge, but not yet for food. And in all of Europe, public transport like trams and metros is more common, as well as bikes in many northern cities.

From our consumer point-of-view, home delivery seems like a half-finished experiment, with lots of waiting around and missed delivery windows. But as online shopping grows, perhaps we’ll find the problems are with our roads and infrastructure, and not just with lazy and/or harried delivery drivers.