For those of us trying to get around a city, delivery trucks can often feel like the enemy. But as much as we curse their double-parked existence, we rarely stop to consider how we as consumers — and the packages we expect delivered in an instant — are part and parcel (pun intended) of the problem.
With online shopping on the rise, companies and transportation experts are actively working on optimizing the last mile of delivery. But the “final 50 feet” — the part of the delivery process that happens after the truck is parked, yet before the package is received — has received scant attention. This is why Anne Goodchild, the founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center at the University of Washington, has made it a prime area of her research.
Sidewalk Talk spoke to Goodchild about her efforts to map Seattle’s curbs, how delivery lockers could change our cities, and why the next big innovations in delivery may look a lot like those of the past.
There is very little existing data on curb usage. How is your research filling in that gap?
The city of Seattle has great data that represents all of its public infrastructure that it’s responsible for — curbs, roads, etc. — but they had no idea how many private loading bays there were in the city. If we think that a truck has the choice of either using the private loading bay or using the street, and we might want to encourage them to use the off-street facility, we need to know where they are. We had to walk around measuring things and mapping the system.
We’ve used a variety of methods. Looking, watching the curb, human observers, using video data from the curb — not to penalize one person, or one company, but to really look at, “Is the way we allocate the curb now working for people? Is it producing the best result for residents and companies trying to operate there?” We say the system doesn’t work that well. Well, how do I know that? What’s my measure?
Then we’ve been looking at behavior. Before we did this work, we really didn’t know what usage looked like in terms of commercial vehicles at the curb. How long do they stay there? How much curb do they need? Do they use passenger load zones? Do they park in the middle of the street? As users of the infrastructure, we assume those delivery trucks are always parking in the bike lane. We need to understand when that happens and where before we can make recommendations for how we might fix that.
We also looked at how much time delivery drivers spend in buildings and came up with solutions for how to reduce that time. We did some simulations to try to estimate the impact of solutions.
Then in the last year we’ve done more on-the-ground testing of solutions. For example, we put a locker system in a building downtown and measured how long it took to deliver to it.
So one of the reasons that a package needs a signature is for a secure handoff; there’s risk with leaving that package with someone else or in a place we don’t know is secure. With a locker system, there’s confidence that even though the delivery person and the receiver aren’t in the same place at the same time, they’ll be able to exchange this package with certainty. And so it frees the delivery driver from needing to be in the same place at the same time as that receiver.
With the locker, the driver can come when it’s efficient and when he has the ability to do so, and he can confidently leave the package in a place that it will be maintained and it won’t be crushed, it won’t be stolen, it won’t get wet. And the receiver can come when it’s convenient for them.
The other thing that it does — and we have data that demonstrates this — it reduces the amount of time that the truck is waiting outside. The locker provides a smaller number of places that the driver has to go. It can be easier to signpost and get to. If we put those lockers right next to the entryway, it’s much faster for the driver to get to and from the vehicle, and that reduces the amount of time that the truck sits idle on the street.
So from a carrier’s perspective, lockers reduce the cost of delivery. From a city’s perspective, they reduce travel demand and dwell time. From a receiver’s point of view, they increase the confidence that you will get your delivery on time. Everyone has a slightly different perspective, but it’s positive for all of them.
So lockers are a great solution. And there shouldn’t just be Amazon or UPS lockers, but [common carrier] lockers that are accessible to everyone in the building. We would do so much better if, for every building over three stories, we had a reliable delivery system right there on the first floor.