A student from the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab tracks delivery time of packages to occupants of the Seattle Municipal Tower. The lab partnered with the Seattle Department of Transportation to pilot test a common-carrier smart locker system in the building. (Courtesy University of Washington)

Outside the box truck: Innovations in delivery that could change our cities

In this Sidewalk Talk Q&A, researcher Anne Goodchild explains how simple ideas like lockers and cargo bikes could make our neighborhoods more “lovely, green, quiet, and livable.”

For those of us trying to get around a city, delivery trucks can often feel like the enemy. But as much as we curse their double-parked existence, we rarely stop to consider how we as consumers — and the packages we expect delivered in an instant — are part and parcel (pun intended) of the problem.

With online shopping on the rise, companies and transportation experts are actively working on optimizing the last mile of delivery. But the “final 50 feet” — the part of the delivery process that happens after the truck is parked, yet before the package is received — has received scant attention. This is why Anne Goodchild, the founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington, has made it a prime area of her research.

Sidewalk Talk spoke to Goodchild about her efforts to map Seattle’s curbs, how delivery lockers could change our cities, and why the next big innovations in delivery may look a lot like those of the past.

There is very little existing data on curb usage. How is your research filling in that gap?

The city of Seattle has great data that represents all of its public infrastructure that it’s responsible for — curbs, roads, etc. — but they had no idea how many private loading bays there were in the city. If we think that a truck has the choice of either using the private loading bay or using the street, and we might want to encourage them to use the off-street facility, we need to know where they are. We had to walk around measuring things and mapping the system.

We’ve used a variety of methods. Looking, watching the curb, human observers, using video data from the curb — not to penalize one person, or one company, but to really look at, “Is the way we allocate the curb now working for people? Is it producing the best result for residents and companies trying to operate there?” We say the system doesn’t work that well. Well, how do I know that? What’s my measure?

Then we’ve been looking at behavior. Before we did this work, we really didn’t know what usage looked like in terms of commercial vehicles at the curb. How long do they stay there? How much curb do they need? Do they use passenger load zones? Do they park in the middle of the street? As users of the infrastructure, we assume those delivery trucks are always parking in the bike lane. We need to understand when that happens and where before we can make recommendations for how we might fix that.

We also looked at how much time delivery drivers spend in buildings and came up with solutions for how to reduce that time. We did some simulations to try to estimate the impact of solutions.

Then in the last year we’ve done more on-the-ground testing of solutions. For example, we put a locker system in a building downtown and measured how long it took to deliver to it.

Why lockers?

So one of the reasons that a package needs a signature is for a secure handoff; there’s risk with leaving that package with someone else or in a place we don’t know is secure. With a locker system, there’s confidence that even though the delivery person and the receiver aren’t in the same place at the same time, they’ll be able to exchange this package with certainty. And so it frees the delivery driver from needing to be in the same place at the same time as that receiver.

With the locker, the driver can come when it’s efficient and when he has the ability to do so, and he can confidently leave the package in a place that it will be maintained and it won’t be crushed, it won’t be stolen, it won’t get wet. And the receiver can come when it’s convenient for them.

Amazon Locker in New York City. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The other thing that it does — and we have data that demonstrates this — it reduces the amount of time that the truck is waiting outside. The locker provides a smaller number of places that the driver has to go. It can be easier to signpost and get to. If we put those lockers right next to the entryway, it’s much faster for the driver to get to and from the vehicle, and that reduces the amount of time that the truck sits idle on the street.

So from a carrier’s perspective, lockers reduce the cost of delivery. From a city’s perspective, they reduce travel demand and dwell time. From a receiver’s point of view, they increase the confidence that you will get your delivery on time. Everyone has a slightly different perspective, but it’s positive for all of them.

So lockers are a great solution. And there shouldn’t just be Amazon or UPS lockers, but [common carrier] lockers that are accessible to everyone in the building. We would do so much better if, for every building over three stories, we had a reliable delivery system right there on the first floor.

What problems do common carrier lockers solve?

If you buy a package from Nordstrom, and you want to have it delivered to a locker, you can’t specify the locker. The retailer will select the carrier. Some of the carrier’s lockers may be convenient, and some won’t be. There’s an inefficiency and a lack of power as a consumer to really manage the delivery.

A common carrier locker should improve the experience for a consumer. I think we can have a positive impact on the transportation system by putting them in public places, putting them in places where people already visit, and perhaps reducing redundancies. But, it’s not done right now. We have this principle that competition, even in delivery of mail or the delivery of packages, is healthy, and pushes down costs, and improves the service that we receive as users of that system.

So to what extent would we want to support consolidation in the direction of single provider? The Postal Service was the consolidated mail carrier, because we wanted everyone in the country to have equal access to news. As a democracy, it was important that, wherever you lived in the country, you could get information about what was going on in the country. Everybody pays the same price for a first class stamp, even though it certainly doesn’t cost the same amount to service all of those people.

There may be a role, too, for the public sector to provide something like a common carrier locker to communities that are underserved. There are neighborhoods right now where you can’t get deliveries because the theft rate is so high. Could a common carrier locker improve access to those goods in those communities?

You imagine these common carrier lockers as being publicly operated then?

Probably the best analogy there would be the contracts that cities award for garbage and recycling pickup. I don’t imagine that the city would manage the lockers themselves, but that they would award a contract to a third party to do so.

Did any results from your locker study jump out at you?

In the case where we did this implementation in the Seattle Municipal Tower, we reduced the [truck] dwell time by 78%. And we had no failed deliveries after we implemented the locker. We anticipated a benefit, but it’s important to actually do it because there can be obstacles that you didn’t anticipate in your model.

For example, it took us a lot longer than we expected to get things in place, partly because you have to get the building’s permission. That was a new stakeholder that we had to bring into our conversations. We found that group was very receptive, because they’re really struggling with the volume of packages they have to manage now. But, they haven’t typically been a group that has been engaged in freight research.

And then also just requirements. Have you thought through: what if a package doesn’t get picked up? What if it’s ice cream and it melts and it’s in a locker? Who’s gonna go clean up that locker?

UPS truck making a delivery in Seattle. Courtesy Flickr User Zane Selvans.

How will new delivery systems change the shape of our cities?

It’s really only in the last 30 years that we’ve seen the logistics industry use a single vehicle, the box truck, and say, “Well, the world needs to fit my box truck!” That’s not true at all, and I think that cities need to say that. I don’t like it when I see planning to make every community accommodate a semi truck. The freight system can accommodate the environment, rather than the other way around.

If you look at the postal service, they use quite a range of vehicles to serve different environments, right? The postal worker, in some neighborhoods, has a dolly. In others, Jeeps or bikes. That isn’t a new idea. In very dense urban environments, like Seattle, companies are already starting to look for other solutions, like cargo bikes or electric bikes.

In New York, they’ll bring in a truck very early in the morning, when it’s easy to find parking, and then just leave it there all day like a mobile depot. You can fill a 16-foot truck and deliver to a half mile radius from there. The person actually doing the delivery from the truck is walking or maybe biking. Pushing those nodes into the city, we call that creating delivery density. In a way, lockers are also serving that role. They’re not just reliable receivers, but they create a little bit of density.

In the US, people largely use their cars for that final mile of the delivery system. You drive your 3,000 pounds of metal to the grocery. You buy your three bags of groceries and you drive it all home. If we want people to not use their cars so much for shopping, and shopping is a huge percentage of the trips people make, then we need to figure out how we’re getting goods to them, and in a way that really makes them happy.

Even if we saw an increase in delivery, what if that meant that a much larger percentage of people could live car free? Overall, for a city, that would be an improvement. Things like automated vehicles and robotics support that idea that we could share cars. I hope that that means that we can live more densely. We can pack more things into those parking lots that we don’t need anymore. We should be figuring out how to create delivery services that are quiet and emissions free and compatible with urban living. I don’t want to plan all of our cities for semis. I don’t want to plan for that in every neighborhood, because we do want walkability. We do want pleasant neighborhoods. I want that.

That means we do need to be thinking about what does logistics look like in those lovely, green, quiet, livable neighborhoods? Right now we’re doing a fairly bad job at planning for it.

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