An Amazon order starts with a tap of a finger. Two days later — or even in a matter of hours — the package arrives.Put another way, the mass transit vehicles get reserved spaces, while the mass parcel delivery vehicles have to make do as best as they can, on roads that are not rationed by price.
It seems simple enough.
But to deliver Amazon orders and countless others from businesses that sell over the internet, the very fabric of major urban areas around the world is being transformed. And New York City, where more than 1.5 million packages are delivered daily, shows the impact that this push for convenience is having on gridlock, roadway safety and pollution.
Delivery trucks operated by UPS and FedEx double-park on streets and block bus and bike lanes. They racked up more than 471,000 parking violations last year, a 34 percent increase from 2013.
While the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber has unquestionably caused more traffic, the proliferation of trucks has worsened the problem. As a result, cars in the busiest parts of Manhattan now move just above a jogger’s pace, about 7 m.p.h., roughly 23 percent slower than at the beginning of the decade.Gosh, that Manhattan traffic was moving at all of about ten or eleven m.p.h. at the beginning of the decade, which was also during that era of macroeconomic torpor we call the Obama recovery.
Neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn, are being used as logistics hubs to get packages to customers faster than ever. At least two million square feet of warehouse space is being built in New York, including what will be the largest center of its kind in the country. Amazon added two warehouses in the city over the summer.
I wonder if anybody remembers that, years ago, the Brooklyn shore, as well as its New Jersey counterpart, was railroad freight yards, car float docks, and lighter terminals. "Officials are racing to keep track of the numerous warehouses sprouting up, to create more zones for trucks to unload and to encourage some deliveries to be made by boat as the city struggles to cope with a booming online economy." Everything old is new again, including household deliveries. "Households now receive more shipments than businesses, pushing trucks into neighborhoods where they had rarely ventured."
That must be contemporary box trucks and parcel vans, there has been a United Parcel Service (today's UPS) running brown parcel cars for my entire conscious existence; those might be bigger today, although I've seen some shrinkage of the size of the delivery vans of late, and I'm also old enough to remember milk delivery trucks (some of which, I'm told, had a most unforgiving clutch, but perhaps that was one way that the drivers could leave 'em idling and run to the milk box to swap out the empty bottle for a full bottle, and hope the lady of the house had rinsed out the empty first) bringing fresh milk daily or a few times a day. Those milk trucks were a source of despair to people of a technocratic and coordinating bent, as you'd have Golden Guernsey and Gehl and Sealtest trucks roaming the same neighborhood each day, and perhaps there's some of that same thinking about Fed Ex and UPS and Amazon and the Postal Service in like manner roaming those neighborhoods, and yet, that's why people who study logistics make the big bucks, making sure those vans carry a remunerative load of milk or general merchandise and get where they're going in a timely fashion.
There are people thinking systematically about the incentives and the opportunity costs.
“Right now, yes, absolutely: More traffic is induced on net by the online purchasing behavior that we’re seeing,” Anne Goodchild, a civil and environmental engineer who directs the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington, told Wired.On the other hand, those four people are making use of a shared parcel van, and the net effect might be fewer trips to the mall or big-box store, although in a thickly settled area with narrow streets, there's going to be some congestion. Your tract-house neighborhood probably handled all those milk trucks at the same time that Dad was driving off to work (that being the way we rolled in those days) without the manifestations of road rage we see today. Note, though, that echo of the "duplicative service" argument in that concluding paragraph. Meanwhile, the people to whom Freight Waves speaks would likely complain that congestion pricing or other permits for residential deliveries are further impositions on the knights of the stroad.
If your single online order replaces a trip to the mall, there is probably no gain in congestion. But if four people in your neighborhood order online and that brings four different trucks into the neighborhood, which must stop in areas that are not designed for truck parking, thereby slowing other traffic, or even blocking the street, then congestion worsens, the experts say.
In the end, online ordering and the expected two-day or less delivery windows is actually increasing the number of vehicles on the road, and making them less efficient as they drive from neighborhood to neighborhood, day after day.
There's other research in progress.
[Rensselaer Polytechnic transportation scholar José] Holguín-Veras’s particular expertise is understanding why our favorite means of avoiding online shopping — is making gridlock worse. After all, when we buy on the net and virtualize our carts, aren’t we all avoiding driving? Shouldn’t that make traffic better?Because "unlimited free shipping" often comes bundled with a membership, we might be seeing a variation on the effect of an entry fee and no additional cost that is present at some amusement parks and all-you-can-eat buffets. It's possible to qualify for the free shipping by making a list and buying a lot at one time, and there's generally a tariff under which the conventional shipping is cheaper and slower, exactly as any railroad traffic man would tell you.
In a word: No, Holguín-Veras says. We create a truck trip each time we click that enticingly convenient “Buy” icon. And we click that button a lot. The old way of shopping lists and a single car trip to the mall or the market to make multiple purchases is fading away. Now we are lured by unlimited free shipping — and next-day and same-day delivery — to impulse-buy one item at a time, spread out over many days and many separate truck deliveries.
Perhaps, if the policy makers really want to decongest their roads, they ought look at ways to make the expedited free shipping less attractive either to the online merchants or to the shopper.
Goodchild says consumers can do their part, too, by easing up on the single-item same-day and one-day deliveries when buying online. Instead, she says, make a list and purchase multiple items at a time, then choose the shipping option that allows sufficient time for those items to be combined and delivered in one shipment.Unprecedented? Contrasted with the Pacific Railroad? The mobilization for a two-ocean war?
Now for the bad news: At the moment, there are few compelling financial reasons for companies or consumers to make any of these traffic-fixing changes. In fact, the incentives are so out-of-whack that online retailers are willing to lose money on free shipping just to keep up with the competition. If Amazon offers it, so must Walmart, Nordstrom, Macy’s and Target. The true cost of free shipping and peak-hour deliveries — bad traffic, more smog, greenhouse gas emissions, wasted resources — is not reflected in our online shopping carts.
It will take an unprecedented level of cooperation between the private sector, government, labor and consumers to fix this mess with meaningful financial incentives — and leadership at the top that makes it a national priority. We can still have our convenience with a few tweaks that, in the long run, will be better for our economy, our commutes, our health and our climate.
A mess? Contrasted with secession? The great credit contractions of the late 1920s or mid-2000s?
Perhaps the way forward is to rely less on leadership at the top and more on emergence.