Urban Freight Challenges with the Rise of E-Commerce

This piece was originally written by Tory Gibler for Planning Methods (PLAN 720) in November 2018.

Have you purchased a product online and had it shipped to your home in the last year? It’s a good bet you have, given that online shopping is a large and growing portion of all US retails sales. It’s always a challenge for planners to predict the countless events that might shape the global market and how these changes may affect individual urban areas. Even with all the forecasting techniques available, it’s unlikely that any planner thirty years ago could have seen Amazon coming or envisioned the rapid growth of online shopping and how this would affect urban freight delivery demand.

Freight, sometimes called goods movement, refers to the multimodal movement of shipped goods. The last mile of freight can be delivered in a semi-truck, a lightweight step through truck for more dense areas, and even smaller vehicles. Even if planners had predicted the growth of online shopping and product home delivery, it may not have made much of a difference. Typically, the movement of people is the top priority in transportation planning, leaving freight as merely an afterthought. The general lack of consideration for freight in planning has resulted in built environments that are not well suited for freight, despite its importance to society and the economy. Almost every good, food item, or supply one can buy was delivered with freight as part of a huge global supply chain and logistical process that is often invisible to everyday folks. And with the growth of online shopping, even more individual packages are being delivered to homes every day. This increase in deliveries has created several new challenges for both providers and city planners, including noise, congestion, pollution, changes to urban design, and safety risks.

For the deliverer, the main difficulties are with the last mile of the delivery route, aptly referred to as ‘last mile challenges.’ Typically, trucks start their journeys in rural or suburban distribution warehouses, set outside of the city center where land is cheaper. From there, freight heads toward the denser urban area, where the last mile of the route is often the most difficult and expensive. Last mile challenges arise because of convergence with passenger traffic on roads, route optimization difficulties in a denser environment, outdated and aging road, bridge, and tunnel infrastructure, slower speeds, smaller roads, tight intersections, and lack of space for parking, unloading, and turning.

Of particular interest for transportation planners is the increasing conflict between freight delivery and the movement towards ‘complete streets’ design, especially around access to curb space. Complete street policies aim to create streets that are safe and accessible to all users and modes, such as pedestrians, people on bikes, cars, and freight, regardless of age or ability. As more road space is converted into designated bicycle and bus lanes, there is not only a reduction in vehicular parking but also reduced curb access for freight delivery. As a multimodal focused transportation planning student and a person living without a car who relies on my bicycle and buses to move me around the Triangle, I’m all about adding bicycle and bus lanes, and reducing parking. However, it’s important to keep freight delivery in mind when converting these spaces.

Docked bike share, bike lane, and double-parked delivery truck in San Francisco, Photo credit: waltarrrrr on Flickr Creative Commons.

Although most US cities don’t have the same density constraints as New York City, reviewing New York’s curb access challenges is helpful for other urban areas when looking to convert curb space. This will be particularly important in the future with increased ride-hailing drop off needs, bike share and e-scooters parking on sidewalks, and the rise of autonomous vehicles in the years to come.

Parking and curb access is so limited in NYC, that illegal or double parking is a common practice. UPS and FedEx received $2.8 million in double parking citations in the first quarter of 2013 alone, though, whether they are paying their full citations is another discussion. Limited unloading space means these illegal and double-parked delivery trucks often park in a lane of traffic, bus lane, or bicycle lane, leading to increased congestion and potential for crashes. Parking and curb access is a premium in NYC, but often vehicular parking has lower turnover resulting in the less efficient use of a subsidized city good.

There are solutions to these challenges that have proved effective, such as New York’s Off-Hours Delivery (OHD) program, which shifts freight delivery to occur between 7:00pm-6:00am. This program has succeeded in reducing congestion, though it has imposed new costs on retailers who must receive deliveries during off-business hours. There are also potential nighttime noise issues for residents near these deliveries. Additionally, this solution addresses business to business routes but does little for home deliveries. Regulation improvements, though, such as updating current zoning requirements for commercial and residential areas provide another solution. Removing portions of passenger vehicle parking for freight could pose challenges for residents, but would also push many to seek out other forms of more sustainable commuting. Better incorporation of freight delivery into complete street policies is another recommendation.

As online shopping will only continue to grow, this will have large impacts on urban areas. Cities need to ensure they are considering freight and thinking through delivery solutions. By addressing urban freight challenges cities will work to reduce pollution, energy consumption, noise, congestion, and risk of conflicts and crashes.

* * *

Featured Image: Double-parked UPS delivery truck in a bike lane in New York City, Photo credit: Richard Drdul in Flickr Creative Commons.

About the Author: Tory is a first-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning with a concentration in Transportation Planning. A passionate advocate for accessibility in transportation, she actively promotes access and multimodal transportation as a volunteer and former board member of the Raleigh bicycle advocacy group, Oaks & Spokes, and as a Graduate Research Assistant at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. Tory received her undergraduate degree in Nonprofit Management and Fundraising from Indiana University. In her free time, she enjoys bicycle camping.


Wang, X. (Cara), and Y. Zhou. 2015. “Deliveries to Residential Units: A Rising Form of Freight Transportation.” U.S. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies 58: 46–55.

Morris, A.G. 2009. “Developing Efficient Freight Operations for Manhattan’s Buildings.” The Stephen L. Newman Real Estate Institute, Baruch College.

Rodrigue, J.-P., G. Giuliano, and L. Dablanc. 2017. “The Freight Landscape: Convergence and Divergence in Urban Freight Distribution.” The Journal of Transport and Land Use 10 (1): 557–72.

Allen, A., M. Piecyk, M. Piotrowska, F. McLeod, T. Cherrett, K. Ghali, and Austwick M. (n. d.) 2017. “Understanding the Impact of E-Commerce on Last-Mile Light Goods Vehicle Activity in Urban Areas: The Case of London.” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment 61, Part B: 325–38.

Rahman, A., and D. Haake. 2017. “Urban Freight Challenges.” Institute of Transportation Engineers 88 (9): 14–17.

Conway, A, X Wang, Q Chen, and J Schmid. 2016. “Final Report: Freight Costs at the Curbside.” City University of New York. University Transportation Research Center.