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Ecommerce and Logistics Sprawl: A Spatial Exploration of Last-Mile Logistics Platforms

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Publication: Journal of Transport Geography
Volume: 112
Publication Date: 2023

The rise of ecommerce helped fuel consumer appetite for quick home deliveries. One consequence has been the placing of some logistics facilities in proximity to denser consumer markets. The trend departs from prevailing discussion on “logistics sprawl,” or the proliferation of warehousing into the urban periphery. This study spatially and statistically explores the facility- and region-level dimensions that characterize the centrality of ecommerce logistics platforms. Analyzing 910 operational Amazon logistics platforms in 89 U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) between 2013 and 2021, this study estimates temporal changes in distances to relative, population centroids and population-weighted market densities. Results reveal that although some platforms serving last-mile deliveries are located closer to consumers than upstream distribution platforms to better fulfill time demands, centrality varies due to facility operating characteristics, market size, and when the platform opened.

Ecommerce has transformed the “consumption geography” of cities. These transformations have major implications for shopping behaviors and retail channels, last-mile operations and delivery mode choice, the management and pricing of competing uses for street and curb space, and the spatial ordering and functional role of logistics land uses. In the latter case, researchers have observed a diversification of logistics platforms to more efficiently serve home delivery demand. These platforms range from “dark stores” and “microfullfilment centers” that fulfill on-demand deliveries and omni-channeled retail without a consumer facing storefront, multi-use urban distribution centers that convert unproductive sites (e.g., abandoned rail depots) to more lucrative land uses, and “microhubs” that stage transloading between cargo vans and e-bicycles suited for dense urban neighborhoods.

Logistics spaces play an important role in improving urban livability and environmental sustainability. Planning decisions scale geographically from the region-level to the curb. Facilities such as urban consolidation centers and loading zones can mitigate common delivery inefficiencies, such as low delivery densities and “cruising” for parking, respectively. These inefficiencies generate many negative externalities including climate emissions, air and noise pollution, congestion, and heightened collision risks, especially for vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists. Limited commercial data has made it difficult, however, to observe spatial patterns with regards to ecommerce logistics platforms.

Using detailed proprietary data, this paper explores the evolving spatial organization of ecommerce logistics platforms. Given the company’s preeminence as the leading online retailer in the U.S., the paper presents Amazon as a case study for understanding warehousing and distribution (W&D) activity in the larger ecommerce space. Utilizing proprietary data on Amazon logistics facilities between 2013 and 2021, this research explores the geographic shape and explanatory dimensions of ecommerce within major U.S. metropolitan areas. In the following section, this study defines the state of research related to broader W&D land use and its implications to ecommerce’s distinct consumption geography. Afterwards, two methodologies for measuring logistics centrality are tested: a temporally relative barycenter-based metric, the prevailing method in literature, and another GIS-based, population-weighted service distance metric. The two measurements reveal nuances between facility- and region-level differences in the spatial organization of ecommerce platforms, which has yet to be fully researched. After presenting results from an exploratory regression analysis, this study discusses implications for future urban logistics land use and transport decisions.

Recommended Citation:
Fried, T., & Goodchild, A. (2023). E-commerce and logistics sprawl: A spatial exploration of last-mile logistics platforms. Journal of Transport Geography, 112, 103692.

Ecommerce and Environmental Justice in Metro Seattle U.S.

Publication: Laboratoire Ville Mobilite Transport (City Transportation Mobility Laboratory), Paris
Publication Date: 2022

The central research question for this project explores the distributional impacts of ecommerce and its implications for equity and justice.

The research aims to investigate how commercial land use affects people and communities. In 2018, U.S. warehouses surpassed office buildings as the primary form of commercial and industrial land use, now accounting for 18 billion square feet of floor space. Warehouses have experienced significant growth in both number and square footage, becoming the predominant land use in the U.S. Warehouse expansion has strategically sprawled from port areas to suburbs in order to get closer to populations and transportation access.

The research findings reveal a correlation between warehouse locations and lower-income communities, resulting in increased exposure to air pollution and triple the traffic associated with ecommerce. Conversely, higher-income populations experience the least exposure, despite making more than half of their purchases online compared to their lower-income counterparts.

Factors such as race and proximity to highways and warehouse locations emerge as stronger predictors of the volume of freight activity through ecommerce than individuals’ income levels or the number of orders placed. Going forward, there is an opportunity for retailers and distributors to take into account the health implications of warehouse placement, and governments can provide best practices to facilitate municipal coordination, particularly where local authorities may be unaware of the impacts.

Authors: Travis Fried

An Evaluation of Logistics Sprawl in Chicago and Phoenix

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Publication: Journal of Transport Geography
Volume: 88
Publication Date: 2018

This paper evaluates whether or not there is a sprawling tendency to the spatial patterns of warehouse establishments in the Chicago and Phoenix metropolitan areas. The trend of warehouses to move away from the urban centers to more suburban and exurban areas is referred to as “Logistics Sprawl”. To measure sprawl, the barycenter of warehousing establishments was compared to the barycenter of all other industry establishments in the region between the years of 1998 and 2013 for Chicago; 1998 and 2015 for Phoenix. This shows that logistics sprawl is a behavior experienced by warehouses in the Chicago area, but not in the Phoenix area. This paper discusses if logistics sprawl is a national trend or a regional behavior by comparing these results to the previous case studies of the Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Seattle metropolitan areas.

Authors: Dr. Anne Goodchild, Melaku Dubie, Kai C. Kuo
Recommended Citation:
Dubie, Melaku, Kai C. Kuo, Gabriela Giron-Valderrama, and Anne Goodchild. (2018) An Evaluation of Logistics Sprawl in Chicago and Phoenix. Journal of Transport Geography, 88, 102298–.

Logistics Sprawl: Differential Warehousing Development Patterns in Los Angeles and Seattle

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Publication: Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board
Volume: 2410
Pages: 105-112
Publication Date: 2014

The warehousing industry experienced a period of rapid growth from 1998 to 2009. This paper compares how the geographic distribution of warehouses changed in both the Los Angeles and Seattle Metropolitan Areas over that time period. These two west coast cities were chosen due to their geographic spread and proximity to major ports as well as their difference in size. The phenomenon of logistics sprawl, or the movement of logistics facilities away from urban centers, which has been demonstrated in past research for the Atlanta and Paris regions, is examined for these two areas. The weighted geometric center of warehousing establishments was calculated for both areas for both years, along with the change in the average distance of warehouses to that center, an indicator of sprawl. We find that between 1998 and 2009, warehousing in Los Angeles sprawled considerably, with the average distance increasing from 25.91 to 31.96 miles, an increase of over 6 miles. However in Seattle, the region remained relatively stable, showing a slight decrease in average distance from the geographic center. Possible explanations for this difference are discussed.

Authors: Dr. Anne Goodchild, Laetitia Dablanc, Scott Ogilvie
Recommended Citation:
Dablanc, Laetitia, Scott Ogilvie, and Anne Goodchild. "Logistics sprawl: differential warehousing development patterns in Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington." Transportation Research Record 2410, no. 1 (2014): 105-112.