E-commerce is clogging American cities with real delivery trucks

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/04/30/e-commerce-is-clogging-america.html


I can’t help thinking I’m getting shorted a bit on my 60 tons of stuff per year.


“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.”

Well gee wiz, if only people weren’t using a century old technology, they wouldn’t be seeing century old problems now, would they?


If it were not for the trucks, people would be going shopping personally, mostly in private cars and trucks, clogging the streets even more. I don’t think there’s much of a difference so far.


Must be this progress-thingy I keep hearing about so much.


A ton+ a week? Good grief; I could accept that a typical homo Cetus americanus might manage to eat their own weight each week but what on earth is the other 1500 lb? Does everyone get a new couch delivered every week plus a hundred copies of the latest Trump ghost-written fantasy list of ‘achievements’?


That has to be a miscalculation or typo.

For example, taking the total weight of goods delivered in a bustling metropolis like Chicago and dividing it by the number of people that live there.

Which of course includes businesses (who get inventory delivered), many of which have employees that commute in to the city.


Exactly this. How many personal shopping trips in cars does each of those trucks eliminate? In a city like NYC, where most people don’t drive, this could increase gridlock, but in most American cities, I doubt it.


In cities like New York? Where the vast majority of residents don’t have trucks or cars? And density makes walking or public transit to do your shopping more practical? The exact situation that is changing do to increased shipping? The exact shifting circumstance that is the definitional root of the problem described?

I also find it hard to believe that people routinely go shopping in panel vans and box trucks that require CDLs to legally operate.

The essential problem here is that a freight infrastructure designed for long distance and sprawl or light density environs has suddenly ramped up in a huge way for short, last mile situations in dense environments.

An urban environment has different needs. In the suburbs the mail man works out of a small to large truck. In cities like NY the mail man largely still delivers on foot with a wheeled cart or messenger bag. But the mail man can’t deliver your new mattress on a hand cart. So the trucks we already know don’t work in that setting are heading in anyway. It’s hardly the only problem with urban package delivery. Problems of building access and security make shopping online in a lot of big cities a beast.

The vans and trucks involved are typically much larger and heavier than private cars and trucks. You can see it on NYC streets. They do not physically fit in the city’s infrastructure. It’s not uncommon to see a UPS van block out an entire one way street for quite a long time. Their added weight and suspension dynamics cause more wear on the roads. And they pump out far more emissions than consumer vehicles. Diesel emissions. Which corrode cement and brick walls (another thing you can see physically happening around NY).

Not many New Yorkers have cars. The number I heard the other day is a little over a million cars for a population of 8+ million. And those are typically used to leave the city rather than move around it.

The trucks might eliminate some driving. But you’ve got to eliminate enough to overcome the added negatives from large commercial vehicles. And then you’re still stuck with the practical space problems. Which will still cause congestion. Block a major through way with a tractor trailer and you cause a traffic jam one way or another. It doesn’t matter if that thing replaced 3 cars or if there’s more than one big rig.


The answer to the parking part is simple: every block should have at least 1 designated “loading zone” spot for delivery trucks. The problem for dense cities is people get hysterical when you mess with their free street parking.


Maybe if they could work hyperloop into the name?


The cities I’ve lived in already have that (as well as sections carved out for buses and the like) on most major commercial blocks. The issue is when the roadway is rather narrow, and the truck is rather wide. If it doesn’t fit in the designated stopping zone it still blocks traffic. And when that space is already occupied when a second or third truck arrives. They have to park in the driving lane (what double parked likely means in this context), occupy street parking, or otherwise block traffic. Circling till the loading zone clears still causes congestion, and impractically impacts efficiency of the driving route.

I’ve been seeing a much larger number of smaller, narrow wheel base, European style vans on the streets of NY and Philadelphia the last 5 years or so. Mercedes commercial vans, Ford Transits that sort of thing. They fit much better. Larger trucks dump freight in the outskirts where roadways and density can accommodate them. Or they’re at least sequestered from more active parts of the city. The vans distribute it in the last mile context. But that requires more vehicles, more drivers, and more trips. So it costs more. It’d probably help more to bar the big trucks from the densest parts of a city, to force adoption of the van approach.


NYC’s tube system is largely still in place! Parts of Philly too. I’ve even worked places that still actively used them! Unfortunately they can’t really push a package heavier than a pound or two. Or much larger than a tube of tennis balls.


There’s the difference in infrastructure for personal shopping, too - stores require parking spaces, which take up a significant amount of land area in the typical American city. The problem is, the infrastructure hasn’t changed - we’ve got a bunch of empty retail spaces still surrounded by empty parking lots.

Although how many cities are there like New York, at least in the US? In other countries, that way of living is far more common (and where e-commerce presumably hasn’t taken off the way it has here, necessarily), but I don’t know many cities have that dynamic in the US. Living in California, there are none - San Francisco used to be a bit like that, but I think that’s less true now.

Although the question is: what’s the current century’s technology we need to building infrastructure for? Personal autonomous vehicles? Shared autonomous vehicles? New mass transportation? Nested delivery vehicles (where drones pop out of the truck for the last-mile)? Flying drone deliveries? Local manufacturing made possible by new fabrication techniques?


Yes, a commercial street is different animal. I’m talking about your typical 40 ft wide residential city street where people are getting their Amazon deliveries. There’s a commercial street near me that is one side parking and 2 lanes, the side without parking usually has several trucks per block forcing cars and bikes into oncoming traffic. The police & Parking consider this business as usual.

In terms of this particular dynamic? Most of the Northern East Coast cities I’ve been to. In terms of the densest city centers. Philly, Boston certainly. San Francisco fit the bill enough to run into these problems. Though in those cities it is isolated to the central main part of the city. They have much less dense suburbs and exurbs much closer in than NYC so the situation is much less extreme. Outside of certain Southern Cities I’ve been to. And really sprawly places like LA and Phoenix every city has some part that mirrors the situation in NYC. NYC is just a particularly extreme case because its most of NYC that’s like that. Even the outer boroughs where having a car is far more usual and practical.

Its always been an issue in nearly every city I’ve been too. Trucking and freight. The bigger pressure in the past has been deliveries for businesses. Restaurants, retail stores etc. That stuff is largely still there, but you’ve bolted on additional large vehicles to bring more home delivery of bulky goods in. And the roadways can not be expanded or re-routed to accommodate the new traffic patterns. There are huge ass, occupied buildings in the way.

Its less common there. But I’ve lived on streets with them. Same issue exists more trucks than they can accommodate, larger trucks than the road can handle. And 40 FT is pretty wide by the standards of a lot of cities. Including American ones. Anyplace particularly old tends to have large sections of very narrow streets. You take a delivery truck with like a 10ft wheel base. And toss it on a one way residential street that’s like 25ft wide. You gonna have problems regardless of how much loading space you knock out.


Not in my experience in the NYC area. The Jersey City and Hudson County street grids is just as old as NYC, and most streets are wide enough for parking both sides, plus a double park with room for a car but not a truck to slide by. The same is true for most places I’ve ever visited in Brooklyn & Queens.

Hmm, this is one of those really thorny economic issues

On one hand you have:

I. Combined deliveries could greatly reduce the amount of traffic.
II. The coordination of deliveries can provide massive economies of scale.
III. Greater flexibility in terms of delivery time

On the other:

i. A larger number of items bought and sold resulting in more travel (this variety would be impossible before)
II. Changes in incentives is a delivery men paid more or less than you.

I would note that online delivery has amazing potential to respond to incentives in a way individuals cannot.

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When I go shopping I tend to buy more than one thing. And I do not always go by car. When I order something for delivery it comes alone, and by vehicle.

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Many streets in NYC are narrow enough to only allow parking on one side. And occasionally not allow parking at all. Most of those streets are one way, and definitely not major through fares of any kind. Quite a few of them are only a few blocks long. The street I lived on in Brooklyn was one such street. About 25 foot wide roadway. One block long. Only parking on the one side. That neighborhood it was about every other street that was like that. Though most of them were longer. Effectively any part of NYC that is very old. Dating to the 17th/18th century. Where there really isn’t a grid. Or the grid is disturbed/confused by older roadways. Because they predate NYC being a city and were not planned as such. Will have high concentration of very narrow streets. Lower Manhattan (where some of the streets are even still cobble stone). Some parts of the Harlem area. Older neighborhoods in Brooklyn close into Manhattan. The lower Bronx. A handful of areas in Queens. Having driven a Chevy Suburban through Manhattan (some one was moving) I can tell you its not uncommon to run into places where even a full size SUV is just not gonna fit in a safe and sensible matter. That thing had a 10’ish wheel base. And most commercial vehicles are wider. The older areas of places like Philly and Boston are even more loaded with narrow, weird, curvy and oddly angled streets (and cobble stone).

There’s your operative wording there. Grid. NYC is not and was not a single city that grew up in a sensible way with much attempt at Urban planning along the way. You’ve got multiple villages, towns, and individual cities that grew up with multiple levels and approaches to urban planning at various times in its history. Bolted together with much more modern infrastructure. When we cite neighborhoods in NY we’re often using the older names of the municipalities that existed there. Often with simple empty space between them. Greenwich Village was an actual village surrounded by farms. Red Hook was a separate entity from Gowanus. And so forth.

Most colonial era US cities have a similar but less extreme history. A central, older portion sans grid. With narrow, winding, curved, or bizarrely angled streets. And later outgrowth around it with a grid and wider streets. NYC is just multiple instances of that, deliberately connected at much later dates.

The absolute width of the gap between buildings (side walks!). Or even the roadway itself isn’t nearly as important as actual lane size too. I’ve seen sub 20ft with NY roads (though that’s not common) With parking on one side. The actual derivable lane is incredibly narrow. There are also plenty of very wide. Bi-directional. Multi lane roads in NYC where the lanes themselves are very narrow and easy for vehicles stopping on either side to disrupt. Parking on both sides, bus and bike lanes eat up that space fast. You end up with 2 quite narrow lanes in each direction. Anything butting out into the right lane more than a few inches drives other vehicles over to the left. Collapsing all that traffic into a single rather narrow lane. BOOM congestion.

I’ve lived in the NYC area for most of my life. There are TONS of wide, grid based, American style roads everywhere. But there’s also plenty of narrow, strange roads all over. Often concentrated in certain areas. Especially residential ones. But they’re also scattered around the map in really unexpected ways. There was very a narrow roadway with some bars and restaurants we used to hang out at. I think near Battery Park city. It had a maybe 8ft one way lane. It could have been made wider, VERY wide side walks on either side. And that’s a younger grid based part of the city. Bout a block long, cutting one of the larger blocks in the area in half.