How Online Shopping Is Making Congestion and Pollution Worse

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fedex lane

It might take a few cars off the road, but it is adding a whole lot of trucks.

A few years ago, in his book Door to Door, Edward Humes wrote about the wonders of how the stuff we order online moves:

Every time you visit the Web site for UPS or Amazon or Apple and instantly learn where in the world your product or package can be found and when it will thump on your doorstep, you have achieved something that all but the still-living generations of humanity would have declared impossible or demonic.
But now Humes writes in Time that it is not all so magical and wonderful when you get down to the actual act of delivering all these packages that go thump.
We create a truck trip each time we click that enticingly convenient “Buy” icon. And we click that button a lot. The old way of shopping lists and a single car trip to the mall or the market to make multiple purchases is fading away. Now we are lured by unlimited free shipping — and next-day and same-day delivery — to impulse-buy one item at a time, spread out over many days and many separate truck deliveries.

This has caused a huge spike in deliveries in cities that were not designed for this. Professor José Holguín-Veras tells Humes, “If we all keep on buying as we are year after year, without regard to the impact, we are doomed."

UPS in the bike lane, Davenport Road

UPS in the bike lane, Davenport Road/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Humes notes that the drivers of these trucks making deliveries often park illegally; I make a sport of taking photos of delivery trucks in bike lanes. This is a huge factor in traffic congestion.

The result: trucks, which represent 7% of total traffic, account for 28% of the nation’s congestion, according to the latest Urban Mobility Scorecard from the Texas A&M; University Transportation Institute. That cost the economy about $160 billion in 2014 in terms of fuel waste, pollution and lost time, up 9% since 2009. During that same span, the amount of time Americans spent collectively stuck in traffic rose 600 million hours while fuel waste due to congestion rose 700 million gallons.
lockers and mailboxes

Lockers and mailboxes in Malmo/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There are many things that could be done to reduce this. Buildings and houses could be designed with proper lockers so that drop-offs were a lot quicker; I loved these ones that I saw in Malmö, Sweden, where every locker and maibox could be instantly reprogrammed to the person in the building depending on size needed.

UPS e-bike delivery

© UPS (Pictured: Chairman & CEO David Abney)

Derek has also written about electric delivery bikes that could reduce the pollution and parking issues.

But perhaps the biggest change would be to eliminate overnight or same-day deliveries, so that packages could be organized more logically, delivering multiple packages to one destination or neighbourhood. It's really the "I WANT IT NOW" attitude that is driving all these trucks. As Humes notes, "The true cost of free shipping and peak-hour deliveries — bad traffic, more smog, greenhouse gas emissions, wasted resources — is not reflected in our online shopping carts."

apple watch delivery

Watching my Apple watch cross the world via UPS/Screen capture

Indeed, when you actually look at the full picture, it is not sustainable. I recently followed the progress of my Apple Watch from China to my doorstep, as it bounced from Suzchou to Anchorage to Louisville to Buffalo to Toronto, and was shocked at how many places it went. Had I decided to hop on my bike and just go buy it at the Apple store where they probably got them on a pallet that came pretty much in a straight line, it would have probably emitted a whole lot less carbon. And that is what I am doing from now on.