In its annual consumer survey this year, UPS found that “avid online shoppers” in the U.S. are buying more things online than in brick-and-mortar stores for the first time in the survey’s five-year history. That growth in online sales has corresponded with more delivery vehicles on the road, more often each day.
In a city such as Seattle, where the population is also rapidly growing and streets and sidewalks are increasingly crowded, freight delivery becomes a complex and expensive proposition for companies and a potential source of conflict for other road users. Those issues of efficiency and safety are at the heart of the University of Washington’s new Urban Freight Lab.
Launched earlier this month, the Lab is researching ways to improve the efficiency of urban deliveries and better use the limited curb space that freight, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians all compete for. It is part of the university’s Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center (SCTL). Researchers are working with the Seattle Department of Transportation and Costco, Nordstrom and UPS.
“A lot of companies are struggling to respond to the growth of urban deliveries and figure out how to make money in this new paradigm,” says Anne Goodchild, a UW civil engineering professor and SCTL director. “We see ourselves as a research institution as filling a need to help the private sector to be cost effective and adaptable and also help the city better share a scarce resource.”
Lab researchers will observe deliveries and measure things such as how long it takes for a truck to find parking and how long it takes to unload goods. Goodchild says they’ll take measurements in a variety of settings and at both residential and commercial buildings. That data will help them build a computer model to simulate thousands of scenarios and potential solutions.
For retail partners, the Lab is looking for ways to help them make their deliveries more efficient. For the DOT, the research will be used in service of improving efficiency, reducing congestion caused by deliveries and reducing conflict between freight and other road users.
Goodchild says she can imagine the city potentially making changes to the pricing of loading zones or location of loading zones or establishing stricter times and locations for when and where carriers do deliveries.
Beyond efficiency, Goodchild says, “one of the motivating factors for some of this research is about protecting road users. The city could say ‘let’s make more load zones to make deliveries quicker.’ Often moving into load zones requires a truck crossing a bike lane.”
Seattle has no shortage of examples of freight delivery drivers hitting and killing bicyclists and pedestrians. But the conflict between freight and pedestrians and bicyclists extends beyond the threat of injury and death. The need for freight mobility and accommodation of large delivery vehicles shapes street design, which can often lead to compromises in bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Accommodating freight on the redesigned waterfront required more and wider lanes, which lead to a “highway-like” surface road that made streets advocates unhappy.
Goodchild says some of the problem comes from trying to first and foremost accommodate cars on city streets.
“Really what we want to do is reduce single occupancy vehicles on the road. We want more room for bikes, pedestrians, transit and freight. We must have a way to move goods in and out of the city in order to make it livable. We must provide efficient ways for people to move around … . These are the things most compatible with a livable city that people enjoy,” she says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Cascade Bicycle Club Senior Policy Director Blake Trask. (Disclosure: I’ve done contract writing for Washington Bikes, a nonprofit Trask worked for that has since merged with Cascade.)
“Freight and walking and biking have a lot more in common than you might think,” he says. “If we’re looking to improve the efficiency of people, goods and services, high-quality bike, pedestrian, transit and freight networks are one of the best ways to get there.”
Editor’s Note: This article was corrected to reflect that the UPS study’s statistic referred to people “who make two or more purchases online in a typical three-month period.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.