The Ascent of the White Van Man: Causes and Consequences

The Ascent of the White Van Man: Causes and Consequences


L Casullo, S Kohli, Steer Davies Gleave, UK


The growth of vans since the 90s outperforms that of any other vehicle. How do technology, consumer choices and industrial change drive this phenomenon and what does it mean for cities? We wish to inform policy, modelling and practice on this issue.


Light Goods Vehicles (LGVs) are vehicles not exceeding 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight and are commonly known as vans. LGVs now form the core of any city?s logistics.

The Department for Transport figures show that van traffic accounted for 13.5% of all vehicle kilometres in 2010 in Great Britain. This represents the highest share reached by vans in the past 50 years, underpinned by constant growth in van sales and traffic throughout the 90s and 00s.

Between 1993-2010, road traffic for all motorised vehicles in Britain rose on average by 20.3%. While car traffic grew by 16.1% and HGVs only by 9%, light vans witnessed a growth of 61.6% over this period.

Recent data also shows that vans have been more recession-proof than other vehicle types: after a minor decline in 2009 and a rather swift recovery in 2010, 2011 has witnessed record sales (+20%) and license registration (+16%), at a time when the market for other vehicle types has been sluggish. LGVs traffic is projected to grow further by 30% in the next decade (NRFT).

Transport planning policy in Britain tends to overlook LGVs. Vans are subject to lower national speed limits than cars on carriageways; in London and Scotland, policies have been tailored to reduce their emissions. However, their fast growth seems to have been explicitly acknowledged only at the EU level, with the Vans Regulation adopted in May 2011.

Likewise, transport models tend to either ignore LGVs or treat them similarly to cars or HGVs, although the causes and behaviour of LGV traffic is different from other motor vehicles.

The above figures, coupled with the a generally poor understanding, make the rise of vans a topical issue. This paper will explore the causes of the phenomenon through an econometric analysis that identifies the key drivers of such growth over time, looking at three main areas:

- Competitive advantage over other vehicle types - how do factors such as flexibility, operating costs, regulatory and environmental burdens favour vans over heavier vehicles?
- Technology and e-commerce - to what extent does e-shopping produce an increase in LGV traffic? What is the effect of buying higher value-density products?
- Socio-economic dynamics - are vans better suited to serve more dispersed populations and smaller households? Are vans preferred by the self-employed? Finally, what can van traffic tell us about economic restructuring during the current period of low growth?

Having identified the main causes of growth in LGV traffic, we intend to draw the attention of transport practitioners and policy makers to the implications of this trend for our cities and our road network in the future. On the one hand, this will depend on how the main drivers emerging from our analysis will evolve. On the other hand, it is important to monitor and assess the economic, social and environmental impacts of a growing LGV fleet in Britain. This paper will attempt to address how such impacts can be forecasted and evaluated.


Association for European Transport