We need to talk about freight: why it's time to get HGVs off the roads

Waste of space. Image: Getty.

During peak hours, freight related vehicles account for a third of the traffic in London. And yet, government figures show that, nationally, almost 30 per cent of lorries are driving around completely empty.

Freight does not have a vote, and is not seen as sexy. Consequently, in the past, it was often overlooked by politicians and officials alike.

But growing awareness of urban road congestion, the dangers of cycling and wide-spread air quality violations have all been instrumental in highlighting the need for city authorities to plan sustainable and workable freight strategies.

The air we breathe

Two issues have fuelled the debate about air quality. Firstly,  there were the revelations about Volkswagen, and potentially other manufacturers, avoiding EU air quality emissions standards by fitting “defeat devices”.

Secondly, the environmental law group ClientEarth successfully challenged the government on the inadequacy of its air quality strategy. Its challenge was based on the EU air quality directive over illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful gas emitted mainly by diesel vehicles.

Because the subsequent government strategy did not envisage compliance until 2025, ClientEarth has brought a fresh legal challenge. The hearing it’s been granted in October will be an early indicator of the line the Government intends to take towards EU legislation as a whole.

For these reasons existing freight industry practices, such as using large HGVs for urban deliveries, are now being questioned. Such practices suit the operators – but they impose heavy safety, health and economic costs on society as a whole. Department for Transport statistics show that, nationally, HGVs are six times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes on urban roads. In London, the statistics are even worse: HGVs are 10 times more likely to be involved in a fatal collision than cars, even though they only account for 3.6 per cent of road miles driven.

Hub and spoke

Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have stronger municipal governments with more resources to devote to strategic freight planning than in the UK. Consequently, they’ve developed intermodal consolidation centres which allow road and rail to play to their strengths. Under this set-up, rail freight can offer a low-pollution congestion-busting safer long-haul alternative to HGVs; at these terminals, goods can be transferred to electric vehicles and even electric logistics bikes for the final mile.  

We could implement these practices here – as long as local authorities safeguard key sites with good rail and road connections on the edge of conurbations, and enshrine them in their strategic policies so that planning permission can be obtained.

Using a similar out of town model, the Daventry rail freight interchange already removes 23m HGV road miles a year, most of them from the trunk road network. In the UK, rail freight already carries over a third of this long distance consumer (container) traffic from the key container ports.

Rail is also the option preferred by shippers, because it reduces port congestion. Freight customers are largely agnostic about what freight modes are used as long as they get their products to market on time.

On rails

Another complementary option is using passenger rail terminuses, which are closed between 1-5am each night, to bring trainloads of freight deliveries, into the heart of cities. Two successful rail freight trials into Euston, for TNT and Sainsburys, showed the merits of using freight trains, each of which can remove around 70 HGVs from city roads, with low emissions vehicles performing the final delivery.

Rail produces 90 per cent less PM10 particulates and up to 15 times less nitrogen dioxide emissions than HGVs for the equivalent journey. (Electric HGVs are not currently an option, as the weight of the battery would use up the  weight restriction alone.)

Currently, there is suppressed demand for consumer rail freight services because of constraints on the rail network. So rail upgrades remain high priorities, if we are to usher in more sustainable  and safer freight transport. Wider devolution and city mayors should result in more powers for cities such as Manchester and Birmingham to decide their own priorities and regulations, just like London has.

Technology has an important role to play in increasing efficiency, adapting to e-commerce and managing low emissions zones. London showed the way to the world with its introduction of congestion charging in 2003 – but now this system needs to be refined to incentive vehicles to use quieter times outside the rush hours.

No longer can authorities claim that their Freight Quality Partnerships, which improves road signage to ports and logistics centres, are sufficient: every year, 40,000 people die prematurely in the UK from diesel fumes. We need bold political direction, which balance the needs of business and the public to deliver sustainable integrated freight distribution.  

Philippa Edmunds is freight-on-rail manager at the Campaign for Better Transport.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.