Why human behaviour will be central to a more resilient freight and logistics sector post COVID-19

The Covid-19 Pandemic has brought into sharp focus how much freight and logistics underpin every aspect of consumption within modern society. But what has the pandemic taught us? Chris Douglas, Transport Planning Technical Director, Chris Douglas, explains...

From the food we eat, the medicines we need and the products that we buy, freight and logistics have underpinned every aspect of consumption within modern society.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into sharp focus. Both the general population and industry have paid attention to challenges accessing the goods and services we rely on. This is whether we are consumers or employees; as parents, carers, spouses; or perhaps most notably as patients or healthcare workers impacted directly by the virus.

Many are now speculating on when and how things may return to (a new) normal. But freight and logistics practitioners must take an evidential approach to understanding the trends emerging during the pandemic, and the likely impact on people, the day-to-day activities that they undertake and the outcomes they desire.

How has industry responded to date?

COVID-19 began to impact freight and logistics as early as the first cases of the virus were detected in the UK. As China’s goods production ceased in January, a ripple effect was felt across the world. As production activity dropped, so did levels of shipping which disrupted supply chains globally. Efforts were made to safeguard critical UK food and medical supplies; the road freight industry was pivotal to this resilience and should be commended.

Whilst e-commerce has soared, stock availability and the time needed to replenish it on popular lines has resulted in disruption and longer lead times. But as lockdown has impacted high street retail, hospitality and entertainment, the overall demand to move products has reduced for those sectors.

In fact, the Road Haulage Association estimated that this has left around 46% of the UK’s truck fleet idle, the equivalent of 240,000 HGVs parked up at any one time. But with orders down, low supplier stock and reduced staff availability due to furlough and self-isolation, a Freight Transport Association member survey has suggested 25% of members may need to close in the next eight weeks. This will have an enormous impact on the industry’s recovery.

COVID-19 will force us to think differently

What is the pandemic teaching us? It is unlikely we will go back to exactly how we operated before. But it does renew a need amongst industry to think differently. We can make the most impact by paying even closer attention to downstream human and customer behaviour as an indicator of how to recover profitable business models, but also to add more resilience. 

For example, the UK has grown to be one of the world’s largest e-commerce markets. According to the University of Westminster this has generated 1.26bn UK deliveries annually across grocery, non-food retail, takeaway and home delivery. This change has contributed to van fleet numbers growing by 71% in the last 20 years to 3.2m with an increased focus on serving urban residential and commercial premises.

What consumer behaviours might emerge in the wake of COVID-19? Will a desire for more family time drive employees to work from home? Will our need for social contact be met via Zoom and Skype rather than food and leisure experiences in our high streets? In truth, we do not yet know these answers but we need to anticipate them as they emerge.

Logistics operators have always responded to downstream demand generated by procurement, whether by organisations or consumers. The difference is the amount of data available to us in 2020. We need a real drive to work collaboratively across industry to use this data and technology to better anticipate and respond to future trends and close the loop.

Alongside this, technology is changing the way that products and services are designed and made, if they are even made at all, where they are produced and how they are delivered. The acceleration of drone trials transporting medical supplies across the Solent during the pandemic is one of the many examples of this.

It is clear therefore that the industry’s recovery will rely on us all embracing an increased focus on consumer data, combined with upstream technological thinking in industry and manufacturing around 3D printing, modular building, virtual reality, artificial intelligence.

Answering these questions sooner

Putting human behaviour at the heart of how the freight and logistics industry works will be crucial in supporting its recovery from this pandemic and making it resilient to future shocks.

For WSP, it is informing our work with Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council and Croydon Council as we help them plan to better monitor freight movements and implement practical measures based on data-led decision-making about COVID-19, ensuring inclusive access to essential goods.

But it is also informing work in the private sector to help consider how those in real estate – whether tenants or landlords – can better manage logistics using streamlined procurement, remote consolidation, zero emission delivery into urban centres and retimed activity outside of peak and to staff members.

Personally, I am hopeful that this pandemic, whilst disruptive, may catalyse the development of a healthier and more resilient freight and logistics industry. But it means we will all have to think differently: not just about logistics but also about changes in human behaviour and advances in technology.

This blog was written by Chris Douglas, Technical Director, Transport Planning at WSP