Death by a thousand trucks: Managing urban freight congestion

By Mary Ebeling

As urban residents place orders for online goods with increasing frequency, the challenge of managing urban freight deliveries grows. City street networks—designed for transit, walking, and biking—are unable to handle this level of freight traffic. Cities, freight haulers, and developers will need to develop new policies and land use strategies to manage this inflow of truck traffic as the retail economy continues to shift to an online/delivery paradigm.

Deliveries in urban environments pose unique challenges. Competing for space, trucks often park in bike lanes, double-park on the street, or otherwise stop in undesirable locations. Freight haulers consider the resulting tickets a business expense. For example, UPS and FedEx negotiate an agreement whereby the companies pay all of their tickets annually at a reduced per-ticket cost.

Cities are experimenting with a variety of initiatives as they attempt to balance a finite amount of street space and delivery needs. The policies and practices adopted by the leaders will hopefully help other cities wrestling with similar challenges.

Potential policy remedies include:

  • Develop a “Freight Master Plan” for your city. This plan could incorporate the strategies noted below, as appropriate to a particular city. A good example from Seattle identifies freight corridors to help direct infrastructure investments related to freight mobility while meeting other city goals such as complete streets.
  • Require developers to leave alleys passable to divert delivery traffic to alleys.
  • Encourage delivery by bike or walking. UPS is currently testing the viability of bike deliveries in specified cities. To make delivery by these modes more practical and safer, a city will need to review and develop policies that will improve this infrastructure. Providing designated parking areas for trucks to offload to a hand truck or bicycle, improving bike infrastructure network, and signal timing will further increase the viability of delivery by bicycle.
  • Adopt a policy requiring that deliveries occur at non-peak hours or create “delivery windows” that provide a time and designate loading zones for deliveries.
  • Require developers to include secure space for packages to be dropped off at residential buildings. This would allow multiple packages to be delivered to the same building instead of trying to deliver the packages directly to the apartment or condo, and possibly not being able to complete the delivery. Putting this policy in place could reduce dwell time for delivery trucks and dramatically reduce the number of missed deliveries. Reducing missed deliveries will reduce traffic congestion by reducing truck traffic by an estimated 10 percent.
  • Limit the size of delivery trucks entering the city.
  • Begin or continue monitoring the work of research centers like the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington. This lab is actively working on practices to manage urban freight traffic.

Is online shopping and delivery a substitution for private auto trips to a store, thereby reducing overall vehicle miles traveled in the city? The jury is still out on that. If deliveries replace pedestrian, bicycle, or transit trips that would otherwise occur to purchase the same item, we have increased VMT. If deliveries offset trips that would otherwise occur by private vehicle we may get fewer vehicle trips and overall reduced VMT.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.