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A UPS delivery person rides an electric cargo bike with the UPS logo down a lively street in Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
UPS is testing electric cargo bikes in Seattle as part of a program to reduce the impact that deliveries have on cities.

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Delivery trucks are hurting cities. Can making them smaller help?

A chilling Amazon investigation shows the importance of “rightsizing” vehicles on our streets

In January, Ellen Kennedy’s 9-month-old daughter Gabrielle was killed by an Amazon delivery driver. The driver had rented a 25-foot box truck to make deliveries and was driving on a street with a 35 mph speed limit when he rear-ended Kennedy’s Jeep. According to a ProPublica story, the force of the crash was so strong that the baby died even though she was properly secured in a car seat.

Amazon’s relentless quest to deliver packages by the next day—and now, the same day—has caused 60 crashes and at least 10 deaths since 2015, including the death of Gabrielle Kennedy, according to two separate investigations published last week by BuzzFeed and ProPublica.

The deaths were a result of Amazon’s Last Mile program, where the company contracts with third-party services to move orders from its extensive network of warehouses to customers’s doorsteps. About half of Amazon’s packages reach their destination this way, helping the company avoid legal repercussions when untrained drivers are forced to rent large vehicles that are not designed for busy urban streets to dispatch packages as quickly as possible.

Last year, truck-related fatalities like the one that killed Gabrielle went up 9 percent nationwide, according to a 2018 report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center. Large trucks only make up 4 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet, but are responsible for 7 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 12 percent of car driver and passenger fatalities.

“From waste disposal and utility trucks to delivery vans, large vehicles provide many of the basic services our communities depend on,” says Tom Maguire, sustainability director of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, in the NACTO report. “While large vehicles are a small fraction of vehicles on our streets, they are disproportionately involved in fatal crashes.”

Allowing large vehicles in cities creates a vicious circle, notes the NACTO report, as accommodating trucks becomes a reason to build wider streets that are more dangerous for all users. Larger vehicles are also more difficult to maneuver, meaning many trucks must double-park on city streets to make deliveries, blocking bike lanes and sidewalks, which has contributed to recent cyclist and pedestrian deaths.

A bright red futuristic-looking delivery truck for the UK’s Royal Mail service is seen inside a white warehouse.
Last year, the Royal Mail debuted smaller electric delivery trucks that are optimized for safety and efficiency on crowded urban streets.
Royal Mail via Designboom

Some cities, like San Francisco, are pushing to downsize or “rightsize” large vehicles by choosing models that are smaller, safer, and more efficient. The smaller vehicles—which are already ubiquitous in European countries—are less likely to kill or injure people due to their size, but also thanks to design elements like cab placement, high-visibility windows, and hood shape, they’re specifically intended to protect vulnerable street users.

These types of vehicle choices could make a huge difference in cities as Americans’ use of online delivery services skyrockets.

Every day, one in eight Americans is delivered something they bought on the internet, a number that’s expected to double within five years. There are a lot of studies about Uber and Lyft’s impact in crowded cities, but the growing number of U.S. deliveries and the price of that added congestion is rarely addressed in conversations about increasing emissions, traffic, or deaths—all issues that can be curbed by smaller delivery vehicles.

While it’s relatively easy for cities to downsize their own fleets of emergency response and waste collection vehicles, it’s harder to mandate those requirements for private delivery vehicles. But legacy delivery companies are already taking their own steps to make cities safer.

Take UPS, which delivers some of Amazon’s packages. (FedEx recently canceled its Amazon deal.) The century-old company—which started as a bike courier service—has custom-designed its vehicles to be lightweight and responsive, and equipped them with algorithmic navigation systems that optimize delivery routes for efficiency and safety (including making few left turns). Now, in addition to switching over to electric trucks, UPS is also steering its fleet towards smaller electric vehicles, like a new electric cargo bike program it launched in Seattle.

“This pilot will help us better understand how we can ensure the delivery of goods while making space on our streets for transit, bikes, and pedestrians,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan at the launch. “We are eager to learn how pilots like these can help build a city of the future with fewer cars, more transit, and less carbon pollution.”

In comparison, last year, Amazon bought 20,000 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans to build out its Last Mile program. These vans don’t require a commercial drivers’ license, but their design and weight make them similar to SUVs, which are known to be deadlier to pedestrians. They’re also powered by fossil fuels—the electric version of the Sprinter is not yet available in the U.S. (Amazon did buy some EVs for its German operations.)

Yet Amazon has pledged to reduce emissions. Its “Shipment Zero” program aims to make 50 percent of all its shipments—although not 50 percent of its emissions—net-zero by 2030. According to a blog post by Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, the company employs more than 200 scientists, engineering, and product designers in operations “dedicated exclusively to inventing new ways to leverage our scale for the good of customers and the planet.”

A tiny blue delivery robot with the Amazon Prime logo is seen on the sidewalk in front of a suburban house.
Amazon’s Scout delivery robot is being heralded as one of its “last-mile” solutions.

Earlier this year, Amazon debuted one of those solutions—a tiny delivery robot named Scout. The autonomous, six-wheeled vehicle scoots along sidewalks and bike lanes to drop off Amazon Prime deliveries. Scout is being tested in neighborhoods outside Seattle and, as of August, in Irvine, California.

It’s certainly adorable. But it’s hard to see how Scout—which looks like it could hold maybe six shoeboxes, top—could be any more efficient than a human on a bike. As the testing of autonomous vehicles in cities has demonstrated, it’s more likely that these robots are introducing new problems to already-crowded urban streets while overlooking more obvious delivery solutions. (Amazon shut down its bike courier program in 2016 and now talks a lot about delivery drones.)

But Amazon is pioneering one solution that could help take the “last-mile” out of the equation entirely: a smart locker system used in its Whole Foods stores and elsewhere, and a newer counter pickup service at Rite-Aid pharmacies. Amazon can use traditional logistical methods to get packages to these hubs, and customers can simply retrieve their goods at destinations they’re already visiting (hopefully using their own low-impact modes). This keeps vehicles off residential streets, reduces congestion in urban centers, and eliminates extraneous emissions. This should be Amazon’s overall goal.

Delivery challenges are certainly not unique to Amazon, but as one of the biggest and wealthiest companies on the planet—it now has a 38 percent share of all e-commerce—the corporation has an outsized opportunity to affect change. A new bill poised to become law in California would require companies like Amazon to classify workers as employees, offering a radical overture for transforming the way it makes deliveries.

So Amazon, how about cutting your customers a deal? If we can wait a day or two for our package, can you give us peace of mind in knowing we’re picking a safe, sustainable, responsible delivery method? Instead of getting me to join Amazon Prime, let me join as a Shipment Zero member—a delivery service that guarantees not only zero emissions, but also zero added congestion, and zero traffic deaths. I’d choose it over next-day any day.

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