The Great Blizzard of 1888 dumped more than 20 inches of snow on New York City, blowing down the thick web of power lines that were strung overhead. The city was plunged into darkness, and communications were disrupted for days while the dangerous live wires lay in the snow. The outage resulted in a city regulation to bury all cables in New York, a measure that was soon adopted in many other big cities.
Although the analogy certainly isn’t exact, I wonder if something similar may happen as cities deal with the explosion of delivery vehicles weaving a tangled web in their streets to fulfill Americans’ growing propensity for ordering everything they can off the internet. Industry people call this “the last mile,” the final journey of a small package from some sort of central hub to a business or residential address.
This may not yet be a significant problem in suburbs, but denser central cities are dealing with growing challenges of double-parked delivery vans, blocked bike lanes and greater traffic congestion in general as delivery trucks make their way from stop to stop. One recent day, I counted four of UPS’ distinctive brown trucks within a few blocks of my Brooklyn apartment. Add to that the vehicles from FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service and Amazon’s own growing fleet of delivery vans.
For public officials, trying to figure out what to do about this raises all sorts of questions. What infrastructure should be invested in, what regulatory structures should be created, what levels of enforcement are needed?
I would advise local governments to take a tip from Cole Porter and experiment; as the song lyric goes, “it will lead you to the light.” Maybe that means encouraging companies to set up their own smaller distribution hubs, or perhaps establishing public ones that competing companies could use, like the freight equivalent of bus terminals. It means being open to drones, robots or whatever new technology might supplant some of those trucks.
And those new suburban downtowns that want to be denser and more urban? As they plan, they should think about freight systems for small packages, starting with simple things like designating loading and unloading spaces that move the delivery vans out of the traffic flow.
So far, for the most part, cities have worked incrementally to find ways to mitigate the trouble caused by deliveries. In New York, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has asked freight companies to set up more smaller distribution centers around the city, so that delivery vehicles travel shorter distances.
In Toronto, the local and provincial governments contracted with Sidewalk Labs, a company owned by Google (and for which I’ve done some consulting work), to flesh out a master plan for a new urban community on vacant waterfront land, something my Governing colleague John Buntin wrote about in these pages last month. The plan includes central storage hubs, where packages could be dropped off and then robotically zipped through small tunnels to their addresses.
This may sound like science fiction, but so did driverless cars until recently. Yet researchers for UPS envision locker-equipped autonomous vehicles “that can drive to a neighborhood … and park for the day to allow local residents to retrieve their purchased goods.”
Another solution is to deliver via cargo bikes, which UPS is now doing in Seattle; Hamburg, Germany; and other cities. For all the talk of robots and drones, it’s a bit of a back-to-the-future moment: UPS got its start in Seattle in 1907 delivering messages by bicycle. That’s something to keep in mind for public officials looking for answers to urban problems. High-tech solutions aren’t necessarily the only way to address them.