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Humans and technology

New York City is drowning in packages

Online orders, which ramped up with the start of the pandemic, are still clogging city streets.

July 12, 2022
city swamped by packages concept
Ms Tech | Envato

Amazon, Hello Fresh, Stitch Fix. Click a button, and it’s there in three to five days—perhaps even one. Packages, packages, and more packages—goods from all over the world, delivered after just a couple of clicks. But this height of consumer convenience has been complicating urban life for years, giving rise to increased theft and traffic, package waste, and a landscape of struggling local businesses. Some cities, especially in Europe and Japan, are implementing regulations that dramatically curtail package-related stress. But not New York City—not yet.

Three years ago, more than 1.8 million packages were delivered to the Big Apple on a typical day, according to data collected by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems. Just a few months into the pandemic, however, that number had increased to nearly 2.3 million. And that’s only counting your typical e-commerce packages, says José Holguín-Veras, the center’s director. Altogether, with groceries and prepared food, total daily deliveries stacked up to more than 3.7 million, the center estimates. That’s nearly enough to deliver one item each to half the people in New York every day. Two years into the pandemic, in March 2022, the number had barely dropped, to just under 3.6 million. People, Holguín-Veras surmises, simply got used to ordering everything to their door. 

“It makes logical sense,” Holguín-Veras says. After all, the pandemic upended how we move through the world, especially when it comes to shopping and eating out. But e-commerce comes with significant costs that are not reflected in the purchase price. For instance, a recent study found that New York ranks as the most traffic-congested city in the US. Freight delivery plays a significant role in the problem: a November 2021 report estimates that delivering more than 2 million e-commerce parcels a day requires some 7,800 freight vehicles, each occupying city streets and roads for eight hours. That’s a total of more 60,000 vehicle-hours each day.

Noticing the increase in e-commerce delivery traffic, then-mayor Bill de Blasio allocated $38 million in the November 2021 budget to shipping these packages via the “blue highway”––by ferry instead of by truck. “One of the best ways to fight climate change is to get away from a society and economy dominated by big trucks,” he said in late 2021. “[A]nd that’s just the truth in New York City and America today: the reign of the 18-wheeler. It’s supreme; it’s everywhere, and it’s a danger to our future.” 

Other attempts to reduce delivery-truck congestion have popped up. There are cargo bikes, for example, and a potential $3 surcharge on every “nonessential” package delivered. Lockers are also a key player; they help tackle the “last mile” problem—or the last leg of the delivery process—by centralizing drop-off locations to save the door-to-door toil. Amazon-exclusive lockers live in 7-Elevens, Rite-Aids, Whole Foods markets, and Chase Banks. Retailer-agnostic locker services, such as Stowfly, also exist. The company’s lockers can be found at a range of locations including smaller mom-and-pop stores. Stowfly CEO Sid Khattri says the approach solves two problems at once: centralizing e-commerce delivery while helping local businesses “make extra income and get foot traffic at a time when physical retail is dying.” 

It’s helpful to step back and put the parcel problem in historical context, says David Vega-Barachowitz, an associate at WXY, an architecture firm in New York City. The city’s package problem is not just about congested streets or inefficient distribution of resources, he says. Rather, it’s another crisis of convenience, akin to when, in the 1950s, suburban shopping centers began competing with city downtowns. “We live in a city whose main pitch is the ability to walk out your door, get a carton of milk, go to a bookstore, go to a movie, etc.,” he says, “and convenience culture is threatening all of that.”

Arthur Getman, who was director of analytics at the New York City Department of Transportation and is now at Replica, agrees. “A lot of people coming to New York bring the mentality of the ‘American Dream,’” he says, but here’s the problem: that dream is largely based in suburbia. The city just doesn’t have the space for that—for everyone to have their house, their lawn, their car, and their stuff. With its public transportation, bike lanes, sidewalks, parks, and apartment buildings, New York City is made to share.

As everyone from city planners to apartment building managers copes with the rise of e-commerce, Holguín-Veras, after poring over the data for years, can’t help but ask: “Of all the purchases made, what percent of those are truly urgent?”

Sarah Simon is a freelance multimedia journalist based in New York City. 

This story has been updated to reflect Arthur Getman's present affiliation.

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