Examining the Effects of Online Shopping on Last-Mile Freight

By Nicole Rupersburg

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and editor who covers business development & entrepreneurship, arts & culture, and food & travel for national audiences. She is the project editor and lead writer of Urban Innovation Exchange and Creative Exchange.

This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREFs Global Mobility Research program.


Meeting of the Minds talked with Dr. Alison Conway on the subject of the recent webinar, “Does Online Shopping Create Urban Congestion?” Dr. Conway will present with University of Gothenburg’s Michael Brown during the April 18th live webinar, during which she will walk us through her research on urban freight and sustainable urban logistics. Dr. Conway is Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at City College of New York and Associate Director for Education at University Transportation Research Center (UTRC). She holds a master’s degree (2005) and Ph.D. (2009) in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Since moving to New York in 2009, her research has focused primarily on last-mile freight issues and the challenges that occur at the delivering endpoint.


On which types of freight is your research focused?

We’re narrowing in on e-commerce and residential deliveries. Before the Internet and e-commerce existed, the traditional mode of shopping was to take your car to the retail store. The supply chain just moved goods from the warehouse to the retail store; that was their endpoint before you, the customer, came into the store to purchase them. But very quickly, over the last decade, that model has been replaced.

Now a huge amount of goods purchased online has the freight going straight to residential buildings instead of retail stores. Curb space and zoning regulations were not designed with that type of movement in mind. In New York, zoning codes haven’t been updated in 50 years. We have apartment buildings in New York with 1,000 units; if every person in those buildings is getting two packages per week, that’s 2,000 packages going to each building each week, but with no requirement for a space to be available for deliveries out front.


What are some of the last-mile freight issues you are examining in your research?

Some of the challenges include roadway infrastructure, lack of available parking, curb management, alternate modes of delivery, and interactions with non-motorized travelers. We are trying to determine how we can better accommodate freight while maintaining the benefits we’re seeing to other types of improvements to the streets, including everything from the addition of dedicated bike lanes to increased numbers of bus shelters.


How are you gathering data to understand how the increased freight traffic impacts residential areas?

We’re looking at different variables, such as how drivers behave, what’s being delivered, how often deliveries are made, whether online shopping deliveries are made at different times than traditional freight deliveries, and what kind of vehicles are being used.

At this point, no one has been able to quantify the increase in vehicle traffic due to online shopping, but we do know it’s increasing. With the growth of express deliveries, such as one- and two-hour and one- and two-day deliveries from Amazon Prime, the delivery system is even less efficient because distributers aren’t aggregating goods for one large delivery in one truck. Instead, retailers promise specific time frames for delivery, which increases vehicle traffic and reduces efficient use of those vehicles.

There is one positive aspect to this situation, which is: when delivery sizes become smaller, delivery vehicles can become smaller. With smaller delivery size, delivery bikes and even handcarts become feasible options for the last mile of delivery. As the load sizes for deliveries become smaller, it makes those green modes of transportation more competitive. If you’re delivering one small package that doesn’t require a large truck, it’s much less efficient to use a truck than a bicycle.


What are the main policy barriers to progress on freight issues?

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of awareness around the increased burden of freight traffic on residential streets. Delivery vehicles have to compete for limited available parking; their increased presence creates increased traffic congestion; and there is increased conflict with non-motorized traffic and pedestrians. There is a lack of education on this, from the general public to even the highest-level decision makers in the transit world.

Urban freight falls in an outlier, public/private space in which the public makes the decisions on when and how things move based on what options they choose for shipping, but there is no public policy on freight planning regarding when and how things move, like dedicated short-term parking spaces for delivery vehicles or set windows of time for deliveries.

Another core challenge is public perception of online shopping and the lack of awareness in terms of how this affects neighborhoods and urban traffic flow. The same person who rides a bike because they want to be green may not think twice about ordering two-hour Amazon Prime delivery, simply because they’re not aware of the issues.


How are you gathering your data, and what are your initial findings?

I literally sent students to sit curbside in front of eight residential buildings for a day to monitor everything being delivered to those buildings. This isn’t producing a significant data set, but we can characterize the significance of these movements of freight to consumers in terms of frequency of deliveries, the time it takes to make each delivery, how many deliveries are going to a single building in a single day, and the method of delivery used for the final destination – be it a freight truck, a smaller vehicle, a bicycle, or a hand cart.

The buildings we monitored were in different areas of New York City: the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. When we looked at the vehicles being used to make deliveries to these buildings, they changed depending on the Borough. The Bronx and Queens are less densely developed, even though the buildings are a comparable size. There, trucks and step vans were used to make the deliveries. In more densely developed parts of the city we started to see a different mix of vehicles: goods were arriving by handcart from vehicles we couldn’t see, or from a local store. We also started seeing smaller vehicles being used to make those deliveries. More research needs to be done to understand the relationship, but the density of the built environment affects the way goods are moving.


How do we begin to address this issue? Is this a public policy issue?

There are multiple things that need to change to address urban freight logistics. Policy is a piece of it. The freight industry itself has been trying to develop more efficient last-mile solutions because that aspect of deliveries is very expensive for the carriers. For example, if a delivery goes out and there is no one to receive it, it has to go back to the warehouse and then back out for delivery again the next day. Now they have to deliver twice, or the customer has to go to the warehouse to pick it up. There are a lot of unhappy stakeholders in that situation.

Particularly with e-commerce, we need to see a change in the public perception in terms of understanding the consequences and downstream effects. That includes policy makers understanding the activity on the street and making potential changes to parking and land use regulation to generate more effective policies and programs.

A potential next step could be urban consolidation centers; many places in Europe have regulations on certain size trucks during certain hours, which increases the cost of operating the truck, making consolidation centers more favorable.

The freight industry is looking at solutions like delivery lockers, such as Amazon Locker, and pickup points in neighborhoods. The industry itself is trying to develop those types of solutions, so they do not need to be legislated. But there is also a policy piece in terms of curb regulation; the temporary distribution of delivery vehicle movements doesn’t follow traditional commercial trips, and they’re happening in places that didn’t plan for commercial activity on the street. Cities need more dedicated commercial space where goods can either be consolidated for last-mile delivery, or delivery vehicles have dedicated short-term parking space.


What’s in store for the future of urban freight delivery? Will drones replace street freight traffic in the coming years?

There are definitely applications for drones, but I think it’s a small piece of solution to this problem. With the density of demand right now, I’d rather see trucks on the street than envision a city sky filled with delivery drones. But in more rural environments, drones can take shorter and more direct flight paths, and therefore increase efficiency.


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  1. Given that most delivery trucks are diesel powered, is data being gathered on urban air quality impacts of this massive change in how we shop? If not, please start now

    • This is definitely an important question, and you are absolutely right to point out that vehicle types are critical, but net emissions impacts are difficult to quantify since online shopping changes the way both people and goods travel.

      If online shopping fully replaces a store trip, then there might be a net emissions GAIN from reduced passenger car trips. See this study from UW regarding groceries: http://www.washington.edu/news/2013/04/29/grocery-delivery-service-is-greener-than-driving-to-the-store/

      However, there is not necessarily a 1-1 relationship for all types of shopping. For example, shoppers might travel to a store to view goods, but then order online to avoid carrying the goods home or to obtain a better price. In that case, the trips are multiplicative. Further complicating the matter is how online shoppers use their new found free time. Do they make extra discretionary trips in their personal cars?

      This is definitely an area ripe for more research.

  2. This is an inspiring interview. I care about the impact of delivery on traffic flow. Are there some evidence or data about the impact of the density of built environment on delivery speed ? Are there some data about the density of demand? Can you recommend some literatures or sources ? Thanks.

  3. Could companies address the issue (before drones) to delegate allocated times to each zone to ensure efficiency for all customers in that area getting parcels on same delivery and the company only to have one distribution vehicle in that area at any one time. Time accuracy for customers so they can ensure they receive item first time.
    I know this is not far from what happens now but higher accuracy and information = more efficient system.

  4. Have you seen any effects on waste volumes? It is imaginable that especially packaging waste volume would increase due to more packaging material being used. If waste volumes grow, that would either lead to a need for larger waste rooms/bins or more frequent collection. That would in turn impact trafic flows, accessibility etc.

  5. Independent studies done for Envac pneumatic waste collection systems have shown that moving to pneumatic tube waste collection from truck based collection can reduce garbage truck miles travelled and emissions by 80%. http://www.envacgroup.com


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