Real Estate

How online shopping snarls traffic on city streets

This past holiday season, to the delight of retailers, saw shopping records broken left and right. Amazon set a sales record over the long Thanksgiving weekend. Cyber Monday hit a record $7.9 billion in sales. Online holiday shopping, at a predicted $126 billion, would mark an all-time record.

That also means a record number of online deliveries. The strong retail economy this holiday season resulted in a 5 percent increase in e-commerce deliveries year over year, said Professor José Holguín-Veras, director of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That meant more trucks, hauling more presents, and clogging more roads, than ever before.

The increase in e-commerce and online shopping, and corresponding rise in deliveries, which experts call urban freight, has been dramatic. Between 2009 and 2018, urban freight traffic attributed to online shopping and e-commerce doubled, according to Holguín-Veras. In 2009, there was a single daily internet delivery for every 25 Americans. Today, there’s one for every eight Americans. And Holguín-Veras says that traffic will double again by 2023.

Today’s city streets and transportation networks simply were not designed to handle this additional flood of packages and freight trucks, especially with the added pressure of next-day or, in some cases, next-hour, delivery.

“What percentage of these deliveries are truly urgent?” he says. “They all need to arrive tremendously fast to meet these deadlines, and that just puts incredible, tremendous pressure on the delivery system.”


Eduardo Alvarez of Rhion Logistic is loading the boxes to the delivery van at Amazon South Denver Delivery Station. November 8, 2018. Amazon South Denver Delivery Station is the point where packages go out in truck, vans and cars before heading to their final destinations.
Denver Post via Getty Images

One-click consumerism creates congestion

The rise in e-commerce, increasingly fast delivery options, and the expectations of relatively instant gratification, has strained city streets across the country, at a time when traffic jams are increasing. Over the last decade, e-commerce has grown 20 percent annually each year, according to research by Alison Conway, who studies urban transportation and freight at the City College of New York, and it will only become more prevalent in the future. By 2021, she estimates, e-commerce will make up 18 percent of total sales in the U.S., 20 percent of sales in the UK, and 30 percent of sales in China.

This dramatic growth explains why trucks, currently 7 percent of U.S. traffic, create 28 percent of the nation’s congestion, according to research from the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute.

These projections mean more boxes, more trucks, more stops, and more congestion. As cities try numerous policy prescriptions to allay traffic jams, the seemingly inevitable rise of urban delivery traffic creates a particularly knotty challenge. It would be simple to point a finger at retailers, says Holguín-Veras, but the issue is multifaceted: consumer demand, improper transportation planning, antiquated traffic rules, and inadequate delivery infrastructure all contribute to the problem.

“Unilateral approaches have serious limitations,” he says. “Complex problems don’t have simple solutions.”


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Why pooling packages doesn’t always mean less traffic

If all the packages bouncing around the back of a single delivery truck represent a potential shopping trip, doesn’t that mean less cars heading to stores and shopping malls? Shouldn’t pooling our packages together mean less traffic and congestion?

That can often be true, says Barbara Ivanov, director of the Urban Freight Lab at Seattle’s University of Washington, a research project funded in part by retailers and carriers such as UPS and Costco. E-commerce can definitely create less trips, but it also creates a lot more stops, which cause a lot of the traffic issues in dense urban areas. Carriers such as UPS, DHS, the Post Office, as well as delivery services working for retailers like Amazon, all have tight schedules. They also often need to deliver packages within huge apartment buildings or commercial offices.

Add up frequent stops on narrow city streets that weren’t designed to be loading docks—which can block other uses of a city street, such as bike paths—and the time it takes to find an office or apartment in a multi-story building, and it becomes clear how even a small number of trucks can start impeding traffic circulation. Research in London, cited by University of Gothenburg professor Michael Brown, showed that nearly half the packages delivered to offices and commercial spaces were actually meant for workers to take home, adding to the overwhelming number of packages arriving at reception desks.

Urban Freight Lab research discovered that half of the trucks making deliveries in downtown Seattle were forced to park in unauthorized spots or double-park on busy streets. Anne Goodchild, one of Ivanov’s colleagues and founding director of UW’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center, also found that 80 to 90 percent of the time delivery drivers spend working is on foot, tracking down absent apartment dwellers and locating the right office. Cutting dwell time and delivery frequency have become the biggest challenges for carriers today.

Proper ticketing, and discouraging delivery drivers from lingering in the wrong part of the street, would seem to be a simple solution. But that’s too simplistic, says Ivanov, dealing with a symptom instead of the overall health of the urban transportation network.

“Some cities and elected officials take the position that they’re going to enforce the hell out of the laws and ticket drivers and they’ll behave,” she says. “But you don’t see that changing their behavior. That doesn’t change the fact that they need an hour to do all the deliveries for an 80-story tower.”

In short, the infrastructure to send the packages—online shopping, huge logistics networks of warehouses and trucks, and local delivery drivers—is well-established, well-maintained, and poised to continue growing. The infrastructure to receive the packages needs a lot of work, and a lot more analysis. Currently, between meal delivery and online shopping, a hugely complex logistics infrastructure has spring up in less than a decade, one that is barely tracked by cities trying to reduce traffic.

Delivering solutions

Improving the urban freight system requires work on many levels. As Goodchild told Curbed, cities laid out transit maps and plans before the boom in online shopping. When the Urban Freight Lab mapped out Seattle’s delivery system, including alleyways, it discovered it was the only city in the U.S. or the EU that had created such a comprehensive resource for planners.

“It’s like a transit system where you didn’t plan for the bus stops,” she says.

Cities can start by tackling the issue at the curb. Creating more holistic designs for roadways, like adding more curb cuts (graded ramps between the sidewalk and the street) and larger loading zones, to make it easier for delivery drivers to find space and access buildings without impeding other road users.


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The public locker system being piloted by the Urban Freight Lab in Seattle.
Courtesy Urban Freight Lab

Holguín-Veras also argues that cities should not just mandate where, but when, deliveries happen. Staggering delivery hours, or time-shifting when trucks make drop-off, can significantly cut down on parking problem and congestion.

Another solution seeks to cut down the number of stops with public lockers. While Amazon and other companies have built impressive networks of retailer-specific lockers and curbside pickup options, a truly public locker, accessible by all, would not only cut down on the time delivery drivers spend out of their trucks, but eliminate problems with porch piracy.

Recently, the Urban Freight Lab has been testing out its public locker system in Seattle high-rises. According to Ivanov, a study found using the lockers cuts down on the time UPS spends in a 64-story tower by 70 percent. The Lab is about to kick-off a larger trial in Seattle’s downtown, using a $1.5 million dollar grant to set up a public locker system, targeting transit stops to make it easier to pick up deliveries on the go.

Finally, in addition to shrinking delays and drop-offs, some carriers want to shrink delivery vehicles. In Seattle and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, UPS is testing how modified electric bikes with 400-pound payloads may help speed-up deliveries in dense neighborhoods, an idea that’s already being tried by the company in Europe since 2012. UPS may expand this across the country if it shows promise, according to spokesperson Kristen Petrella.

One of the great selling points of online shopping has been more immediate satisfaction while saving time and effort. The dramatic increase in urban freight traffic, as well as environmental side effects of e-commerce, have burst that bubble. But with better planning, and multiparty effort, the cascade of cardboard boxes can be contained.

“Freight doesn’t appear to exist in urban planning, and that’s a problem,” Goodchild told Curbed. “Most people look at public transit and mobility, but they don’t appear to be living in a physical world. How can they plan complete streets when the words ‘freight delivery’ [aren’t] used?”


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