Benjamin Gillies has a master’s degree in city planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, where he focused on transportation planning. He co-owns a transportation company in Winnipeg.
As more Canadians shop online, the rise in package deliveries has been staggering. In 2012, Canada Post left 153 million parcels on our doorsteps. By 2018, that number had almost doubled to 296 million. Private carriers enjoy a similar trend and, with e-commerce sales projected to increase another 40 per cent in the next five years, the result will be more delivery trucks on the road.
Studies show these vehicles are responsible for between 15 per cent and 35 per cent of urban carbon emissions and traffic. They exacerbate gridlock in unique ways, as a lack of loading-zone space leads drivers to double-park in travel, bike, or bus lanes – causing back-ups and safety concerns. Deliveries are even spreading to sidewalks, with “autonomous bots” (think of machines similar to Star Wars droids) operating in U.S. cities. Starship Technologies has bot trials running in nine states – their services are especially popular for delivering food on university campuses – but FedEx, Amazon and Postmates are all testing prototypes. Moving at 15 kilometres an hour on the sidewalk, these self-driving machines raise issues regarding pedestrian safety and congestion, but few policy makers have begun to consider these effects.
Transportation officials have traditionally given relatively little attention to what delivery trucks need, instead focusing on human commuter requirements. Rather than developing a comprehensive strategy, cities tended to place loading zones in an ad hoc manner when pressed by businesses, so in many neighbourhoods supply does not reflect demand. Research has found it can therefore take delivery drivers up to an hour to find a place to stop, which is why many double-park and accept a ticket as a cost of business. Given today’s skyrocketing growth, however, cities must adopt a more robust, pro-active approach to managing the delivery industry to reduce traffic and improve road safety.
Providing sufficient loading-zone space is the most effective measure municipalities can take to lower delivery congestion, but most do not even know where their zones are. A first step should be to ask delivery companies for drop-off data, identify hotspots such as shopping districts or high-rise towers, and look at where they ticket trucks for double-parking. They can then map existing loading zones to determine where they need to add space to accommodate this demand. They can also consider pilot projects such as the one in Washington that allowed delivery drivers to reserve space in a loading zone using a smartphone application, rather than circling the block.
Many communities prohibit deliveries outside business hours citing noise concerns, but as companies adopt electric vehicles, now is also an opportune time to review these policies. Research shows night-time delivery could cut freight congestion by almost two-thirds in some areas; Peel Region in Ontario found that relaxing off-peak delivery rules reduced gridlock as trucks operated when fewer cars are on the road.
In Europe, delivery companies employ a range of vehicles including small lorries and bicycles. Canadian governments should consider how they can encourage a similar shift. Provinces can modify highway traffic acts to permit electric-assist cargo bikes, which make it easier for drivers to climb hills, while cities can provide space for cargo bike parking and for trucks to distribute packages to bike couriers. As truck size significantly influences intersection design, a shift to smaller vehicles will allow cities to incorporate more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure – such as curb extensions called bump-outs and islands that make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street safely – meant to reduce collisions.
Finally, city officials must manage new technologies. There are many benefits to a shift from large trucks to smaller delivery vehicles, but an army of self-driving bots flooding sidewalks is not acceptable either. While a number of U.S. states have policies in place welcoming these robots, San Francisco has restricted their use. Communities need to determine their own best path, but will need to regulate for speed, safety and privacy. It is better to begin this conversation now, rather than waiting until bots have arrived before addressing these issues.
Canadian cities were not designed for today’s massive delivery demand. From street design, to traffic codes, to space allocation, however, policy makers have a number of tools at their disposal to mitigate its effects. While it has not commanded the same attention as transit, bike lanes, or mixed-use development, better delivery management is a critical component in the rise of vibrant, safe and sustainable urban communities.