E-Commerce, Urban Delivery, and Congestion

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

If you’ve placed an Amazon order recently that included more than one item, you might recall that when you got to the checkout options you were given the choice of combining your items into the fewest number of shipments or having each item ship as soon as it is available…which could mean more shipments overall. However, if you’re a Prime member and all your items are Prime, those items will most likely all ship for free. That means that you could choose to receive each item in your order as soon as it’s available to ship without paying anything extra for the additional shipments. As a result, there’s really no incentive to choose the fewest number of shipments option, unless maybe you don’t want to have manage collecting so many packages for one reason or another—you don’t have a secure space for packages to be left, for instance. But that aside, there are few incentives to combine shipments (and delay gratification) if there’s no cost to the consumer. And who doesn’t want to receive their order ASAP? (If I can get those crumpet rings delivered a day sooner than the frying pan is available, that’s one day sooner I’m eating crumpets, right?)

The reality, of course, is that we are paying for those extra shipments, one way or another. Online shopping may have freed us from having to take a trip to the store, but all those items we purchased still have to find a way to our doorstep. A big question is whether we are, on the whole, driving less now that we’re not running the same number of errands to shop. Professor José Holguín-Veras, director of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, argues that seems unlikely and that online shopping is making traffic worse—and that comes with all kinds of costs. He was recently interviewed by Edward Humes for Time Magazine, and the numbers quoted are striking: “The number of freight deliveries per person in America has doubled over the last decade, Holguín-Veras says, with almost all of that growth attributable to internet buying. From 1963 to 2009, the U.S. per capita rate of deliveries of all kinds of freight — commercial and residential — remained remarkably stable, declining a small fraction over those five decades to .12 daily deliveries per American. That’s slightly over one freight trip a day for every ten people in the country. Between 2009 and 2017, that figure rose to an average of 2.5 freight trips for every ten Americans. At current growth rates, that number will double again by 2023.”

With the volume of deliveries increasing, the pressure is on carriers to deliver packages in as efficient and timely a manner as possible. However, that can be really tough to do, especially in dense areas: “According to Anne Goodchild, director of UW’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center in Seattle, research shows about 80–90% of delivery drivers’ time in urban areas is spent on foot, searching for the right apartment or office, riding up and down elevators and haggling at reception desks where employees don’t want to be responsible for the flood of boxes. And all the while, their trucks are blocking lanes and slowing traffic.” The Urban Freight Lab, part of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center, refers to this as the “final 50 feet” of urban delivery and is exploring different ways to manage these hurdles by experimenting with common carrier locker systems and other solutions.

But there are some big picture questions about the impacts of e-commerce that require more examination—like what are the net impacts on the number of trips and vehicle miles traveled of online ordering? And what role does land use play in managing the cumulative impacts of more freight overall? We’ll be digging into these questions at the upcoming Urbanism Next Conference May 7-9 in Portland. (Full session and workshop details will be available on our website next week and registration will be open soon.) If you’re interested in these issues we certainly hope you’ll join us!

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