[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]
Cities Seek Deliverance From the E-Commerce Boom
It’s the flip-side to the “retail apocalypse:” A siege of delivery trucks is threatening to choke cities with traffic. But not everyone agrees on what to do about it.
By ANDREW ZALESKI
Apr 20 2017
Just before 3 in the afternoon on a rainy spring day, Keith Greenleaf busts out his “bricklaying” skills. That’s delivery-driver parlance for balancing an inordinate amount of cardboard boxes on a metal handcart. As high as his collarbone he stacks them, packages labeled HP, J. Crew, Amazon Prime. “This is probably one of the first days I don’t have Pampers or dog food,” he says.
Greenleaf also doesn’t have any 60-pound boxes of copier paper, which is a welcome way to finish his daily rounds.The veteran UPS driver is parked near 22nd and I St. in Washington, D.C., having arrived there about six hours earlier in a truck loaded down with 320 boxes. In a few hours he’ll drive back to the distribution center in Landover, Maryland; several hours after that, he’ll be at Outback Steakhouse downing beers with a few fellow drivers.
Right now, however, Greenleaf’s in the thick of it. For 15 of his 25 years driving for UPS, he has delivered along roughly a 10-block route close to 22nd and I. Several years ago, to meet the demand, UPS shortened Greenleaf’s route by two blocks and gave them to a new driver on a new route. When I meet up with him mid-afternoon one Friday (per UPS media ride-along convention, I’ve been given my own iconic brown uniform, including pants so baggy MC Hammer would cringe), he’s unloading boxes from his parked truck onto a loading dock underneath the Residences on the Avenue, an apartment building with a Whole Foods right next door. As I get ready to climb aboard, he tells me we won’t be making any deliveries in the truck.
Several years ago, the 56-year-old was delivering mainly to commercial locations. Now half his drop-offs are residential. The traffic congestion and lack of available parking has become so unworkable that Greenleaf would rather walk the remainder of his route, delivering packages by handcart, which is what he’s done every afternoon for the last three years.
Pick any other major city or metropolitan area in the U.S., and the situation’s probably the same: a massive surge in deliveries to residential dwellings, one that’s outstripping deliveries to commercial establishments and creating a traffic nightmare.
Consumers today are spending less time in local stores and more time online, buying not only retail items but also such goods as groceries from Peapod, office supplies from Postmates, and whatever the hell they want from Amazon. It’s estimated that, on average, every person in the U.S. generates demand for roughly 60 tons of freight each year, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. In 2010, the United States Post Office—which has overtaken both FedEx and UPS as the largest parcel-delivery service in the country—delivered 3.1 billion packages nationwide; last year, the USPS delivered more than 5.1 billion packages. The growth in e-commerce is fueling a commensurate rise in the number of delivery vehicles—box trucks, smaller vans, and cars alike—on city streets.
While truck traffic currently represents about 7 percent of urban traffic in American cities, it bears a disproportionate congestion cost of $28 billion, or about 17 percent of the total U.S. congestion costs, in wasted hours and gas. Cities, struggling to keep up with the deluge of delivery drivers, are seeing their curb space and streets overtaken by double-parked vehicles, to say nothing of the bonus pollution and roadwear produced thanks to a surfeit of Amazon Prime orders.
“A humongous amount of externalities are being produced,” says José Holguín-Veras, director of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Every 25 people produce one Internet delivery. … So imagine any congested city you know of. Imagine that you were to increase freight traffic by a factor of three. This is what’s happening now.”
UPS driver Keith Greenleaf is doing less driving in the city these days: Most of his urban drop-offs need to be done via hand-cart, because of traffic congestion. (Andrew Zaleski/CityLab)
It didn’t used to be like this.
The urban home-delivery ecosystem of yore evokes images of icemen making their rounds or kindly white-capped milk men stopping by with a new glass bottle. City dwellers, with their density of retail options within close walking distance, often had newspapers and perishables delivered daily, but in the earlier decades of the 20th century, home delivery of purchased goods was typically something arranged after a trip to the store, where shoppers tried on or tested out the clothes and furniture they wanted, and then scheduled what they couldn’t carry back by hand or in taxis or streetcars to be dropped off later. It was for this very purpose that UPS was founded in 1907 in Seattle. Overall, though, bulk deliveries predominated. These were deliveries of large retail goods to stores in shopping districts, where some thought had been given to how streets would accommodate trucks.
In recent years, urban dwellers have managed to flip the script. Since the beginning of this decade, online retail sales in the U.S. have grown by about 15 percent every year. So consider a UPS driver like Greenleaf 110 years later: On any given weekday, he’s one of an average of 241 drivers making deliveries on D.C.’s streets, delivering products like clothes, books, food, and household goods—stuff that shoppers could easily pick up on their own at area stores. (Often, he’s dropping off boxes of toiletries to residents in an apartment building with a pharmacy or a grocery store on the same block.)