By Phuong Le
In this city where residents can get practically anything delivered to their doorsteps — often within hours — trucks, bikes, cars and buses regularly jostle for space on Seattle’s streets.
The rise in e-commerce and on-demand delivery has put increasing pressure on fast-growing cities like Seattle to rethink how they manage traffic congestion, as well as curbs, sidewalks, parking and other infrastructure.
On Wednesday, the city of Seattle teamed up with the University of Washington to improve how goods are delivered in the city — solutions they hope can be used in other cities across the country.
Seattle pledged $285,000 over the next three years to the UW’s new Urban Freight Lab, which will test more efficient methods to deliver goods that are ordered online and delivered to large residential or retail and commercial buildings. Costco, Nordstrom and UPS are also founding members.
Researchers will examine possible strategies such as centralized drop-off lockers or managing curb space with different pricing or restrictions.
Metropolitan areas across the globe have been testing other ideas, such as using three-wheeled cargo bicycles or electric vans or setting time restrictions for commercial deliveries. In New York, a pilot project studying off-hour freight deliveries paid dozens of grocery stores and retailers to take deliveries between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. instead of normal business hours.
“We’re a growing city, so as we get denser, the congestion increases,” said Scott Kubly, Seattle’s transportation director. “There’s been so much change in the last 10 years in how goods move and how people shop that it’s really creating a level of urgency around this.”
About 170,000 truck trips are taken on the city’s road network every day, according to city officials.
“We’ve had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online,” and getting more goods delivered to their home, said Anne Goodchild, the UW professor of civil and environmental engineering who directs the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. “This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.”
Driver Jim Jackola, who delivers to bars and restaurants in Seattle, said he often must double-park or park in the street’s center-turn lane when he can’t find curb parking in certain dense neighborhoods. He’d like the city to consider designating curb parking solely for freight deliveries.
“It’s more and more challenging,” Jackola said.
Meanwhile, companies are trying out their own strategies to improve urban delivery.
UPS has been trying out alternative methods in Europe, including using bikes in Brussels, and tricycles and electric vehicles that make deliveries from four containers parked in Hamburg’s city center. In the U.S., UPS has been signing up thousands of neighborhood stores to serve as secure drop-off or pickup locations. The service is designed to cut down on delivery trips, as well as potential package thefts.
On a recent afternoon, a UPS truck pulled up to Eat Local, a store on Queen Anne that sells gourmet frozen meals, and delivered 15 packages that couldn’t be delivered to customers’ home. Store employees scan the packages, which are stacked along the staircase for UPS customers to pick up.
Greg Conner, Eat Local’s founder, said he agreed to be a UPS access point to provide a convenience to the neighborhood while also introducing new people to his store. “Some absolutely love it. Others are like, ‘Why isn’t this sent to my house?’ ” he said.
Others companies are enlisting the help of cargo bicycles to get food or other products around the city’s urban core.
“If you’re trying to get a product to market in a truck or van, it’s a challenge both to fight traffic to get to location or find a place to park,” said Dan Kohler, CEO and owner of Freewheel Cargo. He said his cyclists increasingly deliver wholesale products such as coffee and produce to businesses that want a more efficient and pollution-free way to do it.
While freight carriers and others can come up with their own strategies to manage their operations, they can’t control city streets or other public space, UW’s Goodchild said.
The Urban Freight Lab is unique in that it brings together the public and private sector to find solutions that companies can’t solve on their own, she said.