With online shopping on the rise, cities look to address congestion impacts of deliveries

With more people moving to urban areas and doing more shopping online, delivery vehicles are becoming a serious concern in traffic congestion. The Federal Highway Administration says 947,000 hours of vehicle delay can be attributed to delivery trucks parked curbside in dense urban areas.

The U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast predicts a truck freight increase by roughly 27 percent between 2016 and 2027. With such looming statistics suggesting more traffic in areas with severe congestion in the first place, many cities and agencies are looking into various methods to decrease congestion from the high demand for deliveries.

Perhaps part of the problem, however, is that much of this thinking is scattered and still pretty far from being standardized across geographies. Much of the conflict is in mixed (urban) environments, where trucks occupy curb space, and often double park in bicycle lanes and segments of traffic lanes, causing congestion and dangerous circumstances for people walking and biking.

Here is a general look at what’s happening throughout the world of delivery management:

Off-peak deliveries

Trucks waste time and fuel delivering during rush hour, all while increasing existing congestion, especially through double parking. Thus, off-peak deliveries would be more efficient, saving drivers and companies more time and money, as well as benefiting everyone with less congestion. The International Transport Summit 2016 Summit, the New York City DOT’s Urban Freight Initiatives, and the USDOT’s Smart City Challenge all discuss off-peak, or overnight deliveries as a feasible solution to congestion caused by delivery vehicles.

In fact, in the District of Columbia,  DDOT launched an effort in 2015 to encourage deliveries overnight, offering financial incentives for companies that do. The U.S. DOT, as well, announced a pilot for overnight deliveries to relieve congestion.

Multimodal options

The use of cargo bikes is gaining traction as a way to provide delivery service in a less disruptive manner. One model can be found in Freewheel Cargo, a Seattle-based delivery company that uses cargo bikes. It has companies deliver to its central distribution center, or it picks up products itself, then bikes those goods to their locations.

In Bologna, Italy, a Van Sharing Consortium manages deliveries for companies through a van-sharing system. The city, through electronic booking for parking and low-emission vehicles, seeks to reduce congestion, decrease environmental impact, and optimize deliveries. The success of the Consortium is a bit in question, though as time progresses, it shall become clearer whether or not companies are utilizing this option.

In London, a 2016 study from Inrix showed that since 2012, the city’s congested roads experienced an 8 percent increase in delivery vans. As a result, several companies emerged hoping to solve the issue. A particular one, Shutl, links companies with the optimal delivery option (bicycle, motorcycle, car, van) to provide the fastest, most effective delivery to the customer.

UPS is trying out alternative methods to improve urban delivery. As the world’s largest package delivery company, it could benefit from and contribute toward initiatives decreasing delivery congestion. In Brussels, UPS is testing deliveries by bikes, and in Hamburg’s city center it is experimenting with trike and electric vehicle deliveries from designated containers. In the U.S., the company is signing up neighborhood stores to serve as drop-off or pick-up locations for deliveries, cutting its number of overall trips.

Public-private partnerships

A session at the International Transport Forum’s 2016 Summit suggests the non-distinctly transportation-oriented solution of public-private partnerships, such as Seattle’s Urban Freight Lab.

There, congestion due to delivery vehicles is getting so bad that the city partnered with the University of Washington in a proactive effort to improve freight delivery, resulting in UW’s Urban Freight Lab. The partnership brings together UW researchers with participating freight providers and retailers, from UPS to Costco, to learn from their experiences.

Urban Freight Lab’s project, Final-50-Feet, seeks to reduce dwell time and reduce the amount of failed first deliveries in order to decrease costs, make more efficient use of curb space, ensure equitable access to deliveries, and decrease congestion.

Central delivery stops

Some other London companies are approaching the matter from a different angle. Instead of a widespread multimodal approach, CollectPlus and Doddle spurred efforts to consolidate deliveries into a central pick-up location. They decrease the number of trips being made for deliveries by providing delivery pick-ups and drop-offs in stores.

Another one of the UW Urban Freight Lab’s ideas is to create centralized drop-off lockers. Through providing a central location for customers to pick up their items, the initiative would succeed in both the overarching goals of the Final-50-Feet research project: reducing vehicle dwell time (only one place to dwell, not 100) and reducing failed first deliveries (to none).

A concept expressed in the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge presentation proposed drop boxes or safes at locations where recipients were not available to pick up goods. While not centralized, this would still decrease the number of failed first deliveries and traffic from return trips.

Curbside regulations

In Bologna, Italy’s Urban Freight Delivery Plan, the city piloted an electronic parking-slot booking service to optimize goods delivery. Designated pull-in areas will have a booking-in-advance option for the companies involved in the city’s Van Sharing Consortium.

UW’s Urban Freight Lab is considering ideas such as curb space management with different pricing and restrictions.

In the city’s 2015 report, Urban Freight Initiatives, New York proposed the development of delivery windows through curb regulations. Curb regulations would seek to balance passenger and commercial vehicles, so delivery trucks wouldn’t have to double park.

illegal private/personal deliveries and double parking issues at the expense of the public : castro, san francisco (2013)

Sidewalk robots

One more futuristic possibility is that of rolling, box-like delivery robots joining pedestrians on sidewalks, currently a reality in the District of Columbia. Postmates and Starship are test-running delivery robots that would provide quick hyper-local deliveries via sidewalks. The question of their success, considering the trips they’ll be replacing or creating, and the issues that may arise with human interactions, is yet to be answered.


Will they replace trips that delivery cars would have otherwise taken, or will they induce delivery trips that people would have otherwise never taken to go get food down the street? How will they share public space with pedestrians and impact the accessibility of often-narrow sidewalks?

Russell Cook, director of operations at Postmates, says the company sees the robots not replacing deliveries, but completing deliveries that otherwise wouldn’t have been placed. So far, humans appear to be reacting positively to them – typically staring a bit or taking some pictures. Most pass by, unphased.

A changing industry

In the end, most of the above tactics boil down to freight-centered TDM strategies. They either reduce demand (central delivery shops), redistribute demand (delivery routes, multimodal approaches, off-peak deliveries, and curb regulations), or use more general tactics to achieve these two objectives (public-private partnerships). The sidewalk robots, however, may induce demand, providing service to the person down the block who otherwise wouldn’t have left to go get pho.

Photos: Top, a DHL courier in Leeds, UK (Laurence, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, a common sight of a double-parked delivery vehicle (torbakhopper, Flickr, Creative Commons). Bottom, a Starship delivery robot publicity still (Starship Technologies).

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2 Comment(s)

Zsolt Urban

This is a critical issue in transportation, and an excellent summary of the possible solutions. One of the most unwelcome latest trend is that some delivery companies are using ever larger trucks (semis) to deliver a relatively small volume of product (eg. groceries to a restaurant).



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