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More Online Shopping Means More Delivery Trucks. Are Cities Ready?

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Publication: The Conversation
Publication Date: 2016

Two converging trends — the rise of e-commerce and urban population growth — are creating big challenges for cities. Online shoppers are learning to expect the urban freight delivery system to bring them whatever they want, wherever they want it, within one to two hours. That’s especially true during the holidays, as shipping companies hustle to deliver gift orders on time.

City managers and policymakers were already grappling with high demand and competing uses for scarce road, curb, and sidewalk space. If cities do not act quickly to revamp the way they manage increasing numbers of commercial vehicles unloading goods in streets and alleys and into buildings, they will drown in a sea of double-parked trucks.

The University of Washington has formed a new Urban Freight Lab to solve delivery system problems that cities and the business sector cannot handle on their own. Funders of this long-term strategic research partnership include the City of Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and five founding corporate members: Costco, FedEx, Nordstrom, UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service.

The core problem facing cities is that they are trying to manage their part of a sophisticated data-powered 21st-century delivery system with tools designed for the 1800s — and they are often trying to do it alone. Consumers can order groceries, clothes, and electronics with a click, but most cities only have a stripe of colored paint to manage truck parking at the curb. The Urban Freight Lab brings building managers, retailers, logistics and tech firms, and city government together to do applied research and develop advanced solutions.

Moving more goods, more quickly

We have reached the point where millions of people who live and work in cities purchase more than half of their goods online. This trend is putting tremendous pressure on local governments to rethink how they manage street curb parking and alley operations for trucks and other delivery vehicles. It also forces building operators to plan for the influx of online goods. A few years ago, building concierges may have received a few flower bouquets. Now many are sorting and storing groceries and other goods for hundreds of residents every week.

In the first quarter of 2016, almost 8 percent of total U.S. retail sales took place online. Surging growth in U.S. online sales has averaged more than 15 percent year-over-year since 2010. Black Friday web sales soared by 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Online shoppers’ expectations for service are also rising. Two out of three shoppers expect to be able to place an order as late as 5:00 p.m. for next-day delivery. Three out of five believe orders placed by noon should be delivered the same day, and one out of four believe orders placed by 4:00 p.m. or later should still be delivered on the same day.

City living and shopping is still all about location, location, location. People are attracted to urban neighborhoods because they prefer to walk more and drive less. Respondents in the 2015 National Multifamily Housing Council-Kingsley Apartment Resident Preferences Survey preferred walking to grocery stores and restaurants rather than driving by seven points. But this lifestyle requires merchants to deliver goods to customers’ homes, office buildings or stores close to where they live.

Smarter delivery systems

SDOT recently published Seattle’s first draft Freight Master Plan, which includes high-level strategies to improve the urban goods delivery system. But before city managers act, they need evidence to prove which concepts will deliver results.

To lay the groundwork for our research, an SCTL team led by Dr. Ed McCormack and graduate students Jose Machado Leon and Gabriela Giron surveyed 523 blocks of Seattle’s downtown (including Belltown, the commercial core, Pioneer Square and International District), South Lake Union and Uptown urban centers in the fall of 2016. They compiled GIS coordinates and infrastructure characteristics for all observable freight loading bays within buildings. Our next step is to combine this information with existing GIS layers of the city’s curbside commercial vehicle load zones and alleys to produce a complete map of Seattle’s urban delivery infrastructure.

In our first research project, the Urban Freight Lab is using data-based process improvement tools to purposefully manage both public and private operations of the Final-50-Feet space. The final 50 feet of the urban delivery system begins when a truck stops at a city-owned curb, commercial vehicle load zone or alley. It extends along sidewalks and through privately owned building freight bays, and may end in common areas within a building, such as the lobby.

One key issue is failed deliveries: Some city residents don’t receive their parcels due to theft or because they weren’t home to accept them. Could there be secure, common drop-off points for multiple carriers to use, attached to bus stops or on the sidewalk?

The most pressing issue is the lack of space for trucks to park and deliver goods downtown. It may be possible to use technology to get more use out of existing commercial vehicle load zones. For example, trucks might be able to use spaces now reserved exclusively for other uses during off-peak hours or seasons.

To analyze the fundamental problems in the urban logistics system, our research team will create process flow maps of each step in the goods delivery process for five buildings in Seattle. We will collect data and build a model to analyze “what if” scenarios for one location. Then we will pilot test several promising low-cost, high-value actions on Seattle streets in the fall of 2017. The pilots may involve actively managing city load zones and alleys to maximize truck use, or changing the way people use freight elevators.

By using information technologies and creative planning, we can make receiving online goods as efficient as ordering them — without clogging our streets or losing our packages.

Recommended Citation:
Goodchild, A., & Ivanov, B. (2016, December 20). More online shopping means more delivery trucks. Are cities ready? The Conversation.

Supporting Comprehensive Urban Freight Planning by Mapping Private Load and Unload Facilities

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Publication Date: 2023

Freight load and unload facilities located off the public right-of-way are typically not documented in publicly available databases. Without detailed knowledge of these facilities, i.e. private freight load and unload infrastructure, cities are limited in their ability to complete system-wide freight planning and to comprehensively evaluate the total supply of load and unload spaces in the city. To address this challenge, this research describes the development and application of a data collection methodology and a typology of private freight load/unload facilities for their inventory and documentation in dense urban centers.

The tools developed in this research are practice-ready and can be implemented in other cities to support research, policy and planning approaches that aim to improve the urban freight system. Assessment of the degree of harmonization between the current delivery vehicle dimensions and infrastructure they service is a crucial step of any policy that addresses private freight load/unload infrastructures. This includes providing: the adequate access dimensions, capacity to accommodate the volume and vehicle type, and an effective connecting design between the facilities and the public right-of-way.

A case study in Downtown Seattle found more than 337 private freight facilities for loading/unloading of goods but that translates into only 5% of the buildings in the densest areas of the city had these facilities. Alleys were found to play a critical role since 36% of this freight infrastructure was accessed through alleys.

This research results in the first urban inventory of private freight load/unload infrastructure, which has been shown to be a valuable resource for the City of Seattle that can be used to better understand and plan for the urban freight system.

Recommended Citation:
Machado León, J., Girón-Valderrama, G., Goodchild, A., & McCormack, E. Supporting Comprehensive Urban Freight Planning by Mapping Private Load and Unload Facilities (2023).

Data Stories from Urban Loading Bays

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Publication: European Transport Research Review
Volume: 9
Publication Date: 2017

Freight vehicle parking facilities at large urban freight traffic generators, such as urban retail malls, are often characterized by a high volume of vehicle arrivals and a poor parking supply infrastructure. Recurrent congestion of freight parking facilities generates environmental (e.g. pollution), economic (e.g. delays in deliveries), and freight and social (e.g. traffic) negative externalities. Solutions aimed at either improving or better managing the existing parking infrastructure rely heavily on data and data-driven models to predict their impact and guide their implementation. In the current work, we provide a quantitative study of the parking supply and freight vehicle drivers’ parking behavior at urban retail malls.

We use as case studies two typical urban retail malls located in Singapore, and collect detailed data on freight vehicles delivering or picking up goods at these malls. Insights from this data collection effort are relayed as data stories. We first describe the parking facility at a mall as a queueing system, where freight vehicles are the agents and their decisions are the parking location choice and the parking duration.

Using the data collected, we analyze (i) the arrival rates of vehicles at the observed malls, (ii) the empirical distribution of parking durations at the loading bays, (iii) the factors that influence the parking duration, (iv) the empirical distribution of waiting times spent by freight vehicle queueing to access the loading bay, and (v) the driver parking location choices and how this choice is influenced by system congestion.

This characterization of freight driver behavior and parking facility system performance enables one to understand current challenges, and begin to explore the feasibility of freight parking and loading bay management solutions.

Authors: Dr. Giacomo Dalla Chiara, Lynette Cheah
Recommended Citation:
Dalla Chiara, G., Cheah, L. Data stories from urban loading bays. Eur. Transp. Res. Rev. 9, 50 (2017).

The Final 50 Feet of the Urban Goods Delivery System: Completing Seattle’s Greater Downtown Inventory of Private Loading & Unloading Infrastructure (Phase 2)

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Publication Date: 2020

This report describes the Urban Freight Lab (UFL) work to map the locations of all private loading docks, loading bays, and loading areas for commercial vehicles in Seattle’s First Hill and Capitol Hill neighborhoods and document their key design and capacity features, as part of our Final 50 Feet Research Program.

Taken together with the UFL’s earlier private freight infrastructure inventory in Downtown Seattle, Uptown, and South Lake Union, this report finalizes the creation of a comprehensive Greater Downtown inventory of private loading/unloading infrastructure. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) commissioned this work as part of its broader effort with UFL to GIS map the entire Greater Downtown commercial load/unload network, which includes alleys, curbs and private infrastructure.

The research team could find no published information on any major U.S. or European city that maintains a database with the location and features of private loading/unloading infrastructure (meaning, out of the public right of way): Seattle is the first city to do so.

By supporting and investing in this work, SDOT demonstrates that it is taking a high-level conceptual view of the entire load/unload network. The city will now have a solid baseline of information to move forward on myriad policy decisions. This commitment to creating a private load/unload infrastructure inventory is significant because infrastructure is often identified as an essential element in making urban freight delivery more efficient. But because these facilities are privately owned and managed, policymakers and stakeholders lack information about them—information critical to urban planning. By and large, this private infrastructure has been a missing piece of the urban freight management puzzle. The work represented in this section fills a critical knowledge gap that can help advance efforts to make urban freight delivery more efficient in increasingly dense, constrained cities, like Seattle.

Without having accurate, up-to-date information on the full load/unload network infrastructure—including the private infrastructure addressed here—cities face challenges in devising effective strategies to minimize issues that hamper urban freight delivery efficiency, such as illegal parking and congestion. Research has shown that these issues are directly related to infrastructure (specifically, a lack thereof). (4) A consultant report for the New York Department of Transportation found that the limited data on private parking facilities for freight precluded development of solutions that reduce double parking, congestion and other pertinent last-mile freight challenges. (5) The report also found that the city’s off-street loading zone policy remained virtually unchanged for 65 years (despite major changes like the advent and boom of e-commerce.)

Local authorities often rely heavily on outside consultants to address urban freight transport issues because these authorities generally lack in-house capacity on urban freight. (6) Cities can use the replicable data-collection method developed here to build (and maintain) their own database of private loading/unloading infrastructure, thereby bolstering their in-house knowledge and planning capacity. Appendix C includes a Step-by-Step Toolkit for a Private Load/Unload Space Inventory that cities, researchers, and other parties can freely use.

The method in that toolkit builds—and improves—on the prior data-collection method UFL used to inventory private infrastructure in the dense urban neighborhoods of Downtown Seattle, Uptown and South Lake Union in early 2017 (Phase 1). The innovative, low-cost method ensures standardized, ground-truthed, high-quality data and is practical to carry out as it does not require prior permission and lengthy approval times to complete.

This inventory report’s two key findings are:

  1. Data collectors in this study identified, examined, and collected key data on 92 private loading docks, bays and areas across 421 city blocks in the neighborhoods of Capitol Hill, First Hill, and a small segment of the International District east of I-5. By contrast, the early 2017 inventory in Downtown Seattle, Uptown, and South Lake Union identified 246 private docks, bays and areas over 523 blocks—proportionally more than twice the density of private infrastructure of Capitol Hill and First Hill. This finding is not surprising. While all the inventoried neighborhoods are in the broad Greater Downtown, they are fundamentally different neighborhoods with different built environments, land use, and density. Variable demand for private infrastructure—and the resulting supply—stems from those differences.
  2. A trust relationship with the private sector is essential to reduce uncertainty in this type of work. UFL members added immense value by ground-truthing this work and playing an active role in improving inventory results. When data collectors in the field found potential freight loading bays with closed doors (preventing them from assessing whether the locations were, in fact, used for freight deliveries), UPS had their local drivers review the closed-door locations as part of their work in the Urban Freight Lab. The UPS review allowed the researchers to rule out 186 of the closed-door locations across this and the earlier 2017 data collection, reducing uncertainty in the total inventory from 33% to less than 1%.

This report is part of a broader suite of UFL research to date that equips Seattle with an evidence-based foundation to actively and effectively manage Greater Downtown load/unload space as a coordinated network. The UFL has mapped the location and features of the legal landing spots for trucks across the Greater Downtown, enabling the city to model myriad urban freight scenarios on a block-by-block level. To the research team’s knowledge, no other city in the U.S. or the E.U. has this data trove. The findings in this report, together with all the UFL research conducted and GIS maps and databases produced to date, give Seattle a technical baseline to actively manage the Greater Downtown’s load/unload network to improve the goods delivery system and mitigate gridlock.

The UFL will pilot such active management on select Greater Downtown streets in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington, to help goods delivery drivers find a place to park without circling the block in crowded cities for hours, wasting time and fuel and adding to congestion. (7) One of the pilot’s goals is to add more parking capacity by using private infrastructure more efficiently, such as by inviting building managers in the test area to offer off-peak load/unload space to outside users. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under the Vehicles Technologies Office is funding the project.

The project partners will integrate sensor technologies, develop data platforms to process large data streams, and publish a prototype app to let delivery firms know when a parking space is open – and when it’s predicted to be open so they can plan to arrive when another truck is leaving. This is the nation’s first systematic research pilot to test proof of concept of a functioning system that offers commercial vehicle drivers and dispatchers real-time occupancy data on load/unload spaces–and test what impact that data has on commercial driver behavior. This pilot can help inform other cities interested in taking steps to actively manage their load/unload network.

Actively managing the load/unload network is more imperative as the city grows denser, the e-commerce boom continues, and drivers of all vehicle types—freight, service, passenger, ride-sharing and taxis—jockey for finite (and increasingly valuable) load/unload space. Already, Seattle ranks as the sixth most-congested city in the country.

Recommended Citation:
Urban Freight Lab (2020). The Final 50 Feet of the Urban Goods Delivery System: Phase 2, Completing Seattle’s Greater Downtown Inventory of Private Loading/Unloading Infrastructure.