Is the Boom in Home Delivery Condeming Cities to More Gridlock?

The future of traffic?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Deliveries are the new traffic.

As Amazon, Uber, Instacart, and a host of other companies compete to bring books, milk, and everything else to your doorstep, millions of personal shopping trips are being converted into freight traffic. Apartment-building mailrooms have begun to look like warehouses, and residential streets hum with truck engines. Businesses, too, have adapted to delivery-on-demand. New York City restaurants, says Rich Barone, a vice president at New York’s Regional Plan Association, have begun to reduce in-house inventory capacity in favor of receiving three or four deliveries per day. “It’s cheaper to use the supply system as a just-in-time warehouse,” Barone says.

All that spells trouble for urban traffic, according to a new report on the future of freight from the RPA. Leaders in New York say the delivery-induced congestion is already here. And over in Los Angeles, Edward Humes writes, “The rise of e-commerce and the allure of next-day and same-day delivery, for all its convenience to consumers, has hit transportation like a tidal wave.”

And so, even as startups entice consumers with a cascade of home-delivery options, the RPA suggests trying to discourage home delivery.

The home-delivery pessimists see it like this: Personal travel (your trip to the grocery) is being supplanted by freight travel (FreshDirect’s trip to you), and cities’ tools for reducing traffic are focused on the movement of people rather than goods. Improvements like bus corridors and bike lanes do little for freight; in fact, they can impede its progress. In car-centric places, one Saturday trip to the mall has evolved into 10 separate home deliveries, at different times on different days. In urban places, errands once run on foot are now carried out by vehicles. Finally, trucks have an outsized effect on congestion: In the U.S., according to research from Texas A&M, trucks represent only 7 percent of urban travel but account for 18 percent of congestion cost (wasted fuel and time).

So how do we allay the coming shipocalpyse? One idea is to encourage the use of local receiving centers, like pickup points or automated parcel systems. Local businesses can sign up to be pickup points for neighbors, offering a safe, flexible, local point for getting your online purchases. In France, according to a MetroFreight report from last year, more than 20 percent of internet orders go to a pickup point. Automated parcel systems, located in gas stations or subway stops, allow consumers to pick up packages 24 hours a day. In both cases, you can be sure not to miss the arrival of your package. But the chief benefit falls to the shipping company, which can make bulk drop-offs.

In the U.S., for the moment, the incentives are lined up in favor of door-to-door delivery. Gas is cheap, road use is underpriced, and labor laws have yet to cover the part-time workers who ferry goods around for startup delivery companies.

While local, pedestrian-friendly distribution points would unquestionably make the system more efficient for suppliers, not everyone is sure that the rise of delivery is so bad for traffic. The optimists see it like this: A large number of inefficient shopping trips, taken mostly by a single person in an automobile, are now compressed into one stop on the route of a truck serving dozens of other households. What’s more, as package volumes grow, trucks deliver more product per mile. In support of this theory, Joe Cortright of City Observatory has shown that U.S. urban truck travel remained basically flat between 2007 and 2013 even as Amazon’s North American sales quintupled.

Ultimately, the relationship between home delivery and traffic will come down to two things. The first is whether shipping companies will bundle their packages with enough efficiency to produce a cumulative decline in vehicle miles traveled. The second, and perhaps determining, issue is whether those companies will be made to bear the societal costs of truck traffic, like congestion (e.g. through daytime delivery charges or anti-idling laws) and environmental pollution (e.g. through higher gas taxes or low-emission zones).

It’s reasonable to assume that a few shipping companies should be able to streamline the movement of goods to homes, where millions of consumers had once clogged the roads on errands. But if that ease of purchase and access compels us to buy more and more stuff at all hours of the day, we may just wind up replacing car traffic today with truck traffic tomorrow.