Observed in Manhattan: online shopping leads to more traffic

A graduate student in Manhattan argues that more online shopping leads to more traffic issues on the dense island:

Consider it this way: people around the world seem to have a travel time budget of a little over an hour each day. Before the rise of e-commerce, part of that time would have been spent in the service of purchasing goods. But if that budget remains fixed, then people today may simply buy something online, then hop in a car and go visit a friend across town. In that scenario, personal travel stays constant while commercial travel increases — a net gain of people and goods on the road…

Woodard’s case studies of the Gehry and three other residential apartments in Manhattan found the answer to those questions may very well be yes. Surveying the buildings for several hours at a time in the middle of the day, Woodard found that, on average, delivery trucks stayed parked for 21 minutes at a time, and two-thirds of them were double-parked. Extrapolating the data over a full day, in the case of the Gehry, that means delivery trucks alone occupy road space that’s not a true parking space for seven full hours…

Though Woodard’s case studies were never supposed to paint an exhaustive portrait of the urban e-commerce problem, they do underscore how little is known about it. One study from way back in 2004 estimated that delivery trucks cause nearly a million hours of vehicle delay each year, but the stunning grown in online shopping since then (and the fact that companies like Amazon are reluctant to release their data) makes any precise estimate difficult. Many experts consider this process of moving freight that final mile to be one of the biggest forgotten problems facing modern cities.

At the core of the problem is street parking. In a dense urban area like Manhattan, where few buildings have the luxury of freight docks or loading zones, delivery trucks have little choice but to park at the curb. That leaves passenger vehicles and delivery trucks to duke it out for precious street-parking space, which in turn leads to double-parking, which in turn leads to general congestion.

Interesting question and findings. How much do they apply beyond Manhattan, a dense place?

One issue not addressed here: how much do commerce companies bear responsibility for this congestion? Shopping online is often viewed as cheaper and more convenient but this analysis suggests there are some hidden costs that someone has to pay for. Roads are public goods paid for with tax dollars. If they are causing more congestion, could they bear some of this cost?

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