This website uses cookies to enhance your user experience. By using this website you are consenting to this.

close and accept


Can London’s River Ease Congested Streets?

KSP Team

April 2023

The waterways in London have a long history of carrying cargo for delivery to the heart of the city. Could the Thames offer a future strategy for reducing traffic and emissions created by logistics delivery. KSP asked our transport advisors Vectos about the opportunities using the river network in London offers the logistics sector.

Too many delivery vehicles, not enough streets

In 2022 London was the most congested city in the world (INRIX), and the growth of e-commerce delivery vehicles on our streets is only going to exacerbate this issue. Although delivery companies have begun decarbonising their fleets, this doesn’t remove vehicles from the roads. Congestion will only increase to serve our expanding metropolitan population. How can we reduce congestion and create a liveable city that prioritises the community that lives there, their health and the environment. The solution might be to take inspiration from the past and turn back to the River Thames.

Delivery by water

The idea of returning back to the Thames for transporting goods has been in development for years. Currently, the River is used to transport around 40 million tonnes of freight per annum, although only a small proportion of this is delivered within London. The majority is bringing in aggregate or construction materials. The London Plan proposes the reactivation of London’s safeguarded wharves and increasing river freight capacity.

“The Mayor believes that river transport should be increased within sustainable limits, and that owners and users of riverside sites should consider how they could contribute to or benefit from river transport.”

In addition, the move from road to river freight can play a significant role in achieving London’s net zero target, subject to the use of low-emissions river transport.

Increasing Thames capacity

Increasing the river’s capacity to transport goods is not without challenges. London has lost too many wharves and we lack a suitable network to transport light freight such as parcels, food, beverages and other supplies. Trials have been undertaken by individual organisations looking to reduce their impact on London’s road network. For example, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust partnered with CEVA in 2021, transporting medical supplies from Dartford to Butlers Wharf Pier. DHL also launched the UK’s first riverboat parcel delivery service in 2020. These small-scale trials were successful, but to roll out the service at a large scale, significant capital investment would be required.

There is potential to increase this. Forty three safeguarded wharves are located across London and private developers could unlock these sites as large-scale mixed-use developments, activating the wharves whilst providing other land uses to generate return on investment. Support for this approach is enshrined in policy, subject to appropriate and high-quality design.

Watching the river flow

A move from road-based to river-based transport will need to be competitive in terms of cost while also reliable in terms of the provision of a regular service. Timetables will need to take account of tides, and transport will need to be designed that is efficient in terms of economies of scale. In addition, increased river traffic would need to be introduced in a sustainable way that preserves our waterways for generations to come.

Unlocking potential for London

In many circumstances, a limiting factor may be the availability of suitable land-side space where storage and distribution centres could be constructed to support river freight. A way to overcome this could be to move freight consolidation away from London to external sites, for example Port of Tilbury. This approach would be of immense benefit to central London-based developers and residents. Freight could be unpacked at the Port, sorted into appropriate consignments and loaded directly onto riverboats for transportation up-river. This would allow for the use of smaller piers for unloading into smaller micro consolidation centres. Then these last-mile deliveries could then be undertaken by a variety of sustainable last-mile solutions such as cargo bikes, e-bikes or drones, or they could be picked up from lockers in the local community hub.

GLi has several logistics developments that are based close to a number of waterways including the Thames. We fund schemes to help revitalise London’s waterways, supporting bringing rivers and canals back into use for the local community. Schemes include pollution clean up in partnership with the Canals and Rivers Trust and supporting school-based activities, such as canoe lessons for students at the local primary schools. To learn more, please visit our Urban Life information site here.

KSP would like to thank Paul Green and Vectos for their support on this blog. For more information on GLi, their sustainable industrial warehousing and our Urban Life initiatives, please click here.
Back to London Zero ’30