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University of Washington studies future of urban package delivery with lockers and street sensors

University of Washington studies future of urban package delivery with lockers and street sensors
University of Washington studies future of urban package delivery with lockers and street sensors
October 2, 2020   //   

By Gregory Scruggs

October 2, 2020 — Fed up with porch pirates snatching your packages? Missed yet another delivery that requires a signature because you couldn’t hear the delivery person knock over your umpteenth video meeting of the day? Property manager at your apartment or condo building sending yet another nagging note to pick up packages because the mailroom is full?

The newly installed bright blue Belltown Lockers tucked into a parking lot at Fourth Avenue and Bell Street in Seattle may offer a safe haven for your deliveries — and chart the future of urban package delivery.

The lockers, which arrived in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood in late August, come courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy, which awarded the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab $1.5 million over three years to study how new technology might improve the energy efficiency of goods delivery in dense urban areas. Now two years into the study, the UW lab, which focuses on supply chain and transportation logistics in cities, has something for the public to try out so that researchers can study consumer behavior and package delivery patterns.

To participate, sign up for free as a locker customer, and the next time you order a package for delivery from any courier, set the address as “Republic Parking Locker, 314 Bell St., Seattle, WA 98121.” (REEF Technology, the Miami-based company behind the ghost kitchen craze, owns the lot.) When the package arrives, you will receive a notification on your phone. You can then use your phone to unlock the appropriate locker and retrieve the package. (Two lockers already exist in private buildings; a second public locker was recently approved for sidewalk installation at 2nd and Lenora.)

At the same time, as delivery trucks drive through Belltown and park at commercial vehicle loading zones, like the one closest to the lockers, newly installed sensors under the pavement will detect the vehicle’s presence and dwell time, then communicate that data to the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Urban Freight Lab to study delivery vehicle travel patterns.

“The big idea is trying to increase the density of deliveries, and by doing that, reduce the amount of driving around for those deliveries,” said Anne Goodchild, University of Washington civil and environmental engineering professor and founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center. “If right now a package delivery person is delivering ten items to ten different addresses, they make a tour of ten spots. If they deliver to a single location, then it reduces driving, parking, and impact on the neighborhood.”

The lockers are the first U.S. deployment for Parcel Pending by Quadient, which already manages similar lockers in Australia, France, and especially Japan, which has a mature business and consumer culture of package delivery and pick-up that includes infrastructure like public lockers and convenience store counters.

With the dramatic rise in online shopping driven by the pandemic, Parcel Pending believes the time is right for new options for package delivery in U.S. cities. “With increased package volume, our solution creates incredible efficiencies for couriers and it also creates benefits for consumers who are now able to receive their product when and how they want it and in a contactless method,” said Kate Reidel, Parcel Pending’s senior vice president for business development.

The lockers come with security features like double reinforced steel and a vinyl wrap to deter graffiti. Nothing on the exterior of the structure signifies which individual lockers have packages inside. Customers are only informed which locker to open when they arrive to pick up their package. The first confirmed delivery occurred on Sept. 16. As of earlier this week, 40 people had signed up to use the Belltown Lockers, and four deliveries had been made.

Belltown Lockers follows a common carrier model, where each delivery company pays per use rather than absorbing a fixed or upfront cost. While companies like Amazon have created their own vertically integrated package delivery lockers, Parcel Pending believes that not every e-commerce company wants to invest in that kind of infrastructure. Amazon has also branched out into common carrier lockers in residential buildings through its Amazon Hub system, but it Amazon Lockers are only for its own packages.

“While major carriers have attempted to build their own network of lockers, it’s not as sustainable of a model as what we’re proposing here because of the volume of deliveries. [With our model], no single party bears the entire expense for the system,” Reidel said.

The likelihood of avoiding missed deliveries is another incentive. “Separating the receiver and delivery person reduces the number of failed trips, which are a complete waste of emissions and driver time,” Goodchild said.

Other new infrastructure as a result of this study is less apparent to the naked eye. In mid-September, SDOT dug up 34 commercial vehicle load zones in Belltown and installed sensors from St. Louis-based IoT company Fybr. The sensor device is a small magnetometer with a microprocessor that can measure how long a vehicle stays parked in that space, then send that information via 900 MHz radio to a nearby gateway communication device. The gateway then relays the data to a server via a secure connection on a cellular modem.

“We are trying to improve the reliability of urban goods and package delivery to Seattle’s businesses and residents,” SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson wrote via e-mail. “These improvements can also help address traffic congestion and roadway safety.”

The Urban Freight Lab hopes to use this data to create an app for delivery drivers so that they can see in real time which commercial load zones are available, and spend less time circling the block looking for parking — or worse, double-parking in a bike lane. Once those data are communicated in real time, the lab believes it can reduce so-called “parking seeking” by 20%.

Ultimately, the hope is that this data will allow SDOT to make more informed decisions about how to allocate scarce curb space. For example, if lockers prove popular and the app streamlines deliveries, maybe fewer commercial load zone spaces are necessary. That could free up curb space for new uses, like the popular streateries that have sprung up all over the city to expand restaurant capacity outdoors.