Week after week, studies emerge, quantifying the well-known increase of traffic congestion, especially in urban areas. At the same time, e-commerce has exploded, causing higher demand for delivery services.
The trend has led some people to blame online retail and delivery companies for worsening traffic congestion. But the uptick in deliveries isn't universally considered a primary culprit for urban traffic.
"The actual cause of traffic in cities is single-occupancy personal vehicles, it is not commercial vehicles," said Tom Madrecki, director of urban innovation and mobility at UPS. "When people are in traffic, they tend to blame the thing that’s in front of them … But you're never in traffic, you are traffic."
Loading zones ease delivery drivers' work in commercial areas, but urban residential neighborhoods present a challenge, especially one-way or narrow streets that don’t have adequate room for passing. The only realistic place for drivers to stop in these situations is in a bike lane — if the street has one — or in the middle of the street because “there aren't loading zones in these areas, generally,” Madrecki said. "So you’re going to block traffic."
"When people are in traffic, they tend to blame the thing that’s in front of them… But you're never in traffic, you are traffic."
Director of Urban Innovation and Mobility, UPS
Logistics companies bear a financial burden with more deliveries in cities. UPS, for example, used to primarily provide business-to-business services, but the growth of e-commerce has led to an approximate 50-50 split of deliveries to businesses and to residential customers. Although business deliveries generally consist of multiple packages, “You don’t have the same delivery density” for residences, Madrecki said. "It costs more when you have individual address delivery and it’s just one package going to that address."
To cut down on costs and truck idling time, logistics companies have devised other solutions to increase delivery density and decrease drivers’ time traveling to and from their vehicles for individual stops.
Several companies have experienced success with installing clusters of secure storage lockers in a fixed location — such as a convenience store — so drivers only have to stop once to drop off many packages. A similar option is to forge an agreement with a ground-level small business in a residential building — such as a barber shop or hardware store — to allow drivers to drop off packages, with the understanding that the business proprietor guards the items until residents claim them.
Delivery handcarts are also being piloted in very dense cities such as London. An innovation that UPS launched in Europe, and that also has been tested in Pittsburgh and Fort Lauderdale, FL, is the zero-emissions, electric-assist delivery bike, referred to as the e-trike. Although the e-trike is "the cool solution, what I’m really cautious about is that it’s definitely not some silver bullet," Madrecki said.
"It's easy to oversimplify things. Bikes are cool and drones are cool, [but] the future probably isn't that," Madrecki said. "While the technology piece is important ... we need to think about the policies and how we manage our curbsides ... The future is a range of solutions depending on what works best in each neighborhood."
UPS and other logistics companies have been working with cities to "have that policy conversation about what a curbside is," Madrecki said. "A lot of cities don't have a good handle about what is on their curbside.” Logistics companies and city leaders alike promote better curb space management as a solution.
"Curbside management is a hyper-local challenge. Any strategies for managing curb space are going to be most effective when they are made on essentially a block-by-block basis and based solidly on information or data pertaining to the needs of the area and current curb usage," said Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District in Washington, DC.
Delivery trucks, bike lanes, parking spaces and ride-share services all play into the curbside ecosystem. As part of a curbside space pilot program, Washington, DC's Department of Transportation partnered with the Golden Triangle BID to devise solutions in a portion of Dupont Circle that experiences heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic. During the pilot, daytime curbside parking spaces are converted to ride-share pick-up/drop-off zones on weekend nights. The program aims to boost safety and lessen traffic tie-ups from vehicles stopping in travel lanes.
The late-night pilot addresses different problems other than issues related to daytime deliveries and loading, but it "does help to provide some perspective on the overall benefits of curbside management," Agouridis said. "We believe it is useful in understanding the broader issues ... This is a subject we are hearing more and more about these days from various stakeholders."
Fort Lauderdale is another city that implemented designated ride-share zones as part of its six-month plan to boost safety — through its Vision Zero program — and mobility along the popular commercial stretch of Las Olas Boulevard. The plan includes new daytime delivery loading zones to discourage double parking and unloading in travel lanes. Some of those zones transition to parking spaces from 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Plus, the city added new bike lanes — many of which are protected — that the UPS delivery employees have been using as part of the e-trike pilot program.
The city is examining the "impacts of truck traffic from a citywide perspective to identify areas where trucks should be and what measures will assist with balancing the needs for all modes of transit, whether it is people biking, walking, driving or using public transit," said Monique Damiano, public information specialist for the City of Fort Lauderdale.
In the coming years, Fort Lauderdale will work with the Florida Department of Transportation to begin installing its Advanced Transportation Management System (ATMS) in the city's busiest corridors. It will include technologies like fiber optic communications networks, closed-circuit TV cameras, digital dynamic message signs, microwave vehicle detection systems, and Bluetooth sensors to change traffic signals based on real-time conditions.
"The ATMS may not be the be-all and end-all solution to roadway congestion, but it could help relieve the impacts of crashes on the roadway [and] freight movement," among other impediments, Damiano said.
In the meantime, Fort Lauderdale is among the cities and logistics companies working together to redefine and advance ideas for curbside space in the interest of improving safety, mobility and city functioning.
"Finding ways to better manage and enforce the curbside is a really important component to addressing congestion challenges," said Madrecki.