Latest TEG Road Transport Index out now

The Back to the Office Drive and Road Transport

7th June 2022

Since March 2020 when the pandemic hit, and people had no choice but to work from home, they were waiting for the day when there would be a return to the office. Fast forward to May 2022, and the Back to the Office Drive is in full swing, although many people are opting for a form of hybrid working where they work from home for a few days a week.

However, the work from home mandate in 2020 emptied the roads of the UK meaning essential road freight transportation was quick and efficient, with no traffic and therefore clear routes. By the end of March 2020 road transport in general was down by nearly 50% on 2019.[1]

The measurement of road transportation, however, is a complex one with supply-demand of goods being a major factor and this has changed since the start of the pandemic.

Post-pandemic road transportation

As would be expected, 2020 saw a massive decrease in road freight transportation, as demand from closed businesses (e.g. hospitality, retail) dropped. By December 2020 there was an 11% drop on the previous year on goods moved in the UK by GB-registered HGVs, and a 12% drop on goods lifted in the UK by GB-registered HGVs.[2]

Slowly since the lockdowns and restrictions were lifted in 2021 this is recovering. For example, by October 2021 in Europe the road freight market has shown a recovery of 4.7%.[3] This is still 1.5% short of pre-pandemic levels but is moving in the right direction, and once the UK government statistics come out later this year they are likely to show a similar trajectory for the UK.

What has changed is the requirements of road transportation. With many businesses no longer trading, more people turned to online shopping during the pandemic and haven’t gone back since the restrictions were lifted. According to the Society of the Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) report, light commercial vehicles (LCV) increased by 21.4% in 2021 with more than 355,380 vans registered in the UK. This increase was put down to home deliveries and construction.[4]

Between September 2020 and September 2021, when the restrictions were lifted in the UK van traffic increased by 7.3% on the previous year and lorry traffic increased by 8.9%.[5] However, as more people were once more travelling on public transport, motorway traffic decreased by 1.4% on the previous year.

Since the Back to the Office Drive began in January, the office occupancy levels hit and average of  below 25% across the UK, which is the highest since March 2020.[6] But not everyone is comfortable using public transport with buses at 70% of pre-pandemic demand and the London Underground at 55%. Instead, many are continuing to drive, which adds to the congestion on the roads. In London for example, more than a third of car trips could be walked in 25 minutes, and it seems that since the middle of 2021 the London road traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

To see the full impact of the Back to Work Drive, we will have to wait and see how it levels out. There will be some areas, which are predominately offices seeing a decline in footfall, and therefore a decline the need for deliveries whereas, other areas which are close to residential areas or active high streets could see a revitalisation and an increase in road freight transport. But until the Drive to get people back to the office has started to plateau, and the new hybrid way of working is established the full impact on road freight transportation  will keep evolving.

Plain sailing?

Even with things getting back to ‘normal’ in the UK, this does not mean it is plain sailing for the road freight industry. There are still two big challenges that need to be addressed going forward: fuel costs and driver shortages.

There is still a shortage of 100,000 drivers in the UK meaning it is difficult to get the journeys staffed. And with the escalating fuel costs road transportation is becoming more expensive for all businesses.

As we reported here, in line with the global economic crisis year on year for April road transport costs have increased by 8.8 points, with the current level at 117.5 points which is the highest figure since the index was started in 2019.

We still have some way to go to get back to pre-pandemic levels of road transportation, but we are moving in the right direction.  

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