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Grocery Delivery Is More Efficient Than Driving, But It's Still Not the Best Solution

If we're really to reduce emissions, we need to think about what could be, not just what is.

by Mat McDermott
May 2 2013, 4:20pm
Photo: Andy Roberts/Flickr

FreshDirect has touted the environmental benefits of getting your groceries delivered for a while now. The logic goes that it uses less energy to put everything on trucks and then make deliveries than each person driving to the store and home again. Well, there's some new research coming out the University of Washington that appears to back up that thinking.

Because of the reduction in driving that delivery allows, trucks filled to capacity can transport groceries between the store (or warehouse in this case) with dramatically reduced carbon emissions: 20-75 percent compared to each customer making an individual trip. The gains are even larger if companies efficiently plan deliveries; that is, not just sending out a delivery vehicle based on individual orders, but rather grouping them together in clusters—something which I imagine nearly every delivery service already does.

Data from Seattle showed reductions in carbon emissions in both the densest part of the city and more suburban areas, and the study hints at the benefits possible even in rural areas where distances between deliveries are likely greater. 

Let's all save some gas. Via University of Washington, Goodchild/Wygonik

It all sounds really good, right? And it is, in many ways. It makes perfect logical sense, to the degree that I'm not sure a study really even needed to be done to prove it, except to get a better idea of just how large the reductions in carbon emissions actually are. 

There's only one problem: the study was done using what seems like too much of an abstraction, ignoring several factors of how people actually move about. To pick out their sample delivery houses, the researchers at UW randomly selected households in Seattle and Kings County and assigned them to their local grocery story to calculate their emissions for a single trip to the grocery store. They then compared that to the emissions produced if trucks had delivered all of their goods.

The devil's in the details. The researchers said that in the future they'd like to look at how customers combining their shopping with their work commute would affect emissions. In other words, the model was based on each individual customer taking a trip to and from the grocery store, without any other stops combined to offset the individual emissions.

Having grown up in a rural/suburban place, where driving everywhere was an unfortunate fact of life, and now living in Manhattan, where the majority of people either walk, bicycle or take public transit, I have to question some of the assumptions of the study, based on my personal experience in both locations. 

Living in suburbia, while certainly sometimes you do make a trip specifically to get groceries, more often you combine it with trips to other locations. Though I'm willing to be proven wrong when all these factors are fully accounted for, I have to think that for someone who is already commuting to work, adding in going grocery shopping adds only marginally more emissions to each trip—potentially eating into the emission reductions shown when comparing delivery versus individual trips to the store. 

Then, living in New York—which I bring up because the researchers themselves bring up FreshDirect here as an example—I imagine the comparison entirely falls apart, even taking into account trips from the store in a taxi. The fact of the matter is that in a walkable, bike-friendly environment with robust public transit options, no one drives specifically to get groceries.

Even outside of Manhattan, with the exception of Staten Island and parts of the Bronx, this holds in most places. Here, getting to and from the store under your own carbon neutral power or via public transit is likely to always have less environmental impact than delivery. 

Most places in the US are not built like New York City. But if we're trying to construct a greener society then we can't overlook development patterns when discussing greener transportation. Yes, in places where you have to drive everyplace delivery of groceries may offer many benefits. But if we're really to reduce emissions, we need to think about what could be, not just what is, and that means trying to make more and more locations where people don't have to drive themselves to the store at all.