An Amazon order starts with a tap of a finger. Two days later — or even in a matter of hours — the package arrives.
It seems simple enough.
But to deliver Amazon orders and countless others from businesses that sell over the internet, the very fabric of major urban areas around the world is being transformed. And New York City, where more than 1.5 million packages are delivered daily, shows the impact that this push for convenience is having on gridlock, roadway safety and pollution.
Delivery trucks operated by UPS and FedEx double-park on streets and block bus and bike lanes. They racked up more than 471,000 parking violations last year, a 34 percent increase from 2013.
The main entryway for packages into New York City, leading to the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey, has become the most congested interchange in the country. Trucks heading toward the bridge travel at 23 miles per hour, down from 30 m.p.h. five years ago.
While the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber has unquestionably caused more traffic, the proliferation of trucks has worsened the problem. As a result, cars in the busiest parts of Manhattan now move just above a jogger’s pace, about 7 m.p.h., roughly 23 percent slower than at the beginning of the decade.
Neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn, are being used as logistics hubs to get packages to customers faster than ever. At least two million square feet of warehouse space is being built in New York, including what will be the largest center of its kind in the country. Amazon added two warehouses in the city over the summer.
The immense changes in New York have been driven by tech giants, other private businesses and, increasingly, by independent couriers, often without the city’s involvement, oversight or even its awareness, The New York Times found.
Officials are racing to keep track of the numerous warehouses sprouting up, to create more zones for trucks to unload and to encourage some deliveries to be made by boat as the city struggles to cope with a booming online economy.
The average number of daily deliveries to households in New York City tripled to more than 1.1 million shipments from 2009 to 2017, the latest year for which data was available, according to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems.“It is impossible to triple the amount,” said José Holguín-Veras, the center’s director and an engineering professor at Rensselaer, “without paying consequences.”
Households now receive more shipments than businesses, pushing trucks into neighborhoods where they had rarely ventured.
And it could be just the beginning. Just 10 percent of all retail transactions in the United States during the first quarter of 2019 were made online, up from 4 percent a decade ago, according to the Census Bureau.
Amazon is now moving toward one-day delivery rather than two days for its Prime customers and plans to spend $1.5 billion this quarter, which includes the holiday season, to reach that goal.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the impact of its deliveries on growing congestion in New York.
Other companies, including FedEx and UPS, said they were using technology and taking other measures to make deliveries less burdensome on clogged streets.
New York City officials say they have taken steps to better manage truck traffic on the streets.
“In this period of tremendous growth in the city’s population, jobs, tourism and e-commerce, our congested streets are seeing ever more trucks,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner. “The city is experimenting with enforcement and creative curb management initiatives to address this growing challenge.”
Whatever the impact on roadways, the public obviously loves internet shopping. And these services can also be especially valuable for older and disabled people who have difficulty getting to brick-and-mortar stores.
Nick Kittredge, an executive at Prologis, the largest operator of warehouses and distribution centers in the United States, said much of the recent growth had occurred because of orders for items like perishable goods and clothing.
“Same-day delivery is the true expectation, and for some, even within an hour or two-hour time frame,” Mr. Kittredge said.
Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a professor of global studies and geography at Hofstra University, said the changes on New York City’s streets underscored the trade-offs created by the internet economy.
“People love convenience, but they don’t like truck traffic, congestion and air pollution,” Mr. Rodrigue said. “We’re still adapting to it. It’s going to be a painful adaptation, but we have no choice.”
Trucks, trucks and more trucks
As the delivery armada has ballooned, so, too, have the complaints.
Four delivery companies — FedEx, FreshDirect, Peapod and UPS — accumulated just over 515,000 summonses for parking violations in 2018, totaling $27 million in fines, according to the city. In 2013, those same companies received roughly 372,000 summonses and paid $21.8 million.
“It’s kind of a game of whack-a-mole,” Mr. Kallos said. “They operate somewhere until we get complaints and then they move.”
Images and videos of delivery trucks blocking bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks are easy to find on social media. In some neighborhoods, Amazon’s ubiquitous boxes are stacked and sorted on the sidewalk, sometimes on top of coverings spread out like picnic blankets.
“They are using public space as their private warehouse,” said Christine Berthet, who lives in Midtown Manhattan. “That is not acceptable. That is not what the sidewalk is for.”
The total number of trucks on tolled crossings into New York City and within the five boroughs rose about 9.4 percent in 2018, to an estimated 35.7 million, from 32.6 million in 2013, according to transit data.
That increase in traffic has made the interchange of Interstate 95 and New Jersey Route 4, about a half-mile from the George Washington Bridge, the country’s most gridlocked stretch of highway for trucks, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.
“There is just not enough room for all the trucks that need to make deliveries, the cars that need to get past them and the people who live here,” Mr. Kallos said.
Trucks are also contributing to greenhouse gas emissions at a time when New York City is rushing to significantly reduce the release of heat-trapping gases.
From 1990 to 2017, carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles and trucks in the New York City area grew by 27 percent, making the region the largest contributor of driving-related carbon dioxide emissions in the country.
Online and delivery companies acknowledged the increased congestion, but emphasized that they play a vital role in the local economy and are seeking to reduce their footprint.
UPS has reduced the number of trucks on city streets by consolidating packages based on scheduled delivery times and destinations, and has equipped drivers with technology to choose the most direct routes, according to Leo Gonzalez, a UPS official who testified at a city hearing this year.
Still, drivers often cannot find legal parking because of a lack of available curbside space, especially in Manhattan, company officials said. There are not enough loading zones, and they are often taken up by idling vehicles.
“Making deliveries in urban environments poses additional challenges to any company that makes deliveries, whether it’s transportation companies like UPS or food and beverage suppliers,” Kim Krebs, a UPS spokeswoman, said.
Similarly, FedEx and FreshDirect said they were open to collaborating with cities to address the parking problem. Peapod said it regularly reviewed New York City rules with drivers to help them drive safely and avoid violations.
Jonathan Lyons, a FedEx spokesman, said, “Parking limitations in congested metropolitan areas create challenges, but we always strive to comply with local traffic regulations as we meet our daily customer service commitments.”
Warehouses move closer to homes
As the internet economy grows, so, too, does the importance of what is known as last-mile package delivery — the final step in the increasingly competitive and costly process of moving items to customers’ homes as quickly as possible.
In New York, at least five warehouses, are in the works. Over the summer, Amazon opened a last-mile warehouse in the Bronx and another in Queens. It has also looked at leasing additional facilities for last-mile deliveries in Brooklyn.
The push to place warehouses closer to shoppers is an enormous shift. For years, retailers and e-commerce companies have largely served New York City from warehouses in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania and industrial parks in northern New Jersey.
They emerged during the age of the Sears and J.C. Penney shopping catalogs and continued to thrive in the early days of online shopping, when five- to seven-day delivery times were the norm. Even today, many same-day or overnight deliveries follow that route, crossing into New York via bridges and tunnels.
Still, “it became apparent that if New York City is going to be a competitive city in the world economy, it’s going to need logistics fulfillment centers as close to the consumer as possible,” said Dov Hertz of DH Property Holdings, a real estate development company with plans for three last-mile warehouses in Brooklyn.
Their warehouses in Red Hook, as well as a multistory warehouse to be built in the South Bronx, are going up in Opportunity Zones, which were created as part of the 2017 tax law and offer significant tax benefits to projects in economically distressed areas.
The program has been criticized for giving tax breaks to wealthy people who invest in the zones, while not significantly helping struggling neighborhoods.
Developers of these warehouses have pledged to create thousands of jobs and reduce the wave of delivery trucks entering New York City.
But the plans have set off worries about potential health effects in the largely working-class areas targeted for last-mile warehouses. The South Bronx, which already is home to many warehouses, has some of the highest asthma rates in the country.
Rafael Salamanca Jr., a City Council member whose district includes the South Bronx, said he had mixed feelings about the area becoming a warehouse hub. While warehouses have provided jobs, and pledges from Amazon to hire local residents, they have also increased the number of diesel-spewing trucks on the roads.
“There are 15,000 trucks daily in and out of the Hunts Point community,” Mr. Salamanca said, referring to a section of the South Bronx that is home to one of the nation’s largest food distribution centers.
The developers of the warehouses say they are trying to address environmental concerns.
Andrew Chung, the chief executive of Innovo Property Group, which is building the multistory warehouse in the South Bronx, said the distribution center would have electric charging stations with the goal of eventually shifting to a mostly electric delivery fleet.
“In two to three years, everything is going to be electric, all the delivery vans and most of the trucks,” he said. “It makes sense and it’s environmentally conscious.”
Buildings field blizzards of packages
New York has long been a vertical city, but many of its buildings were designed to accommodate envelopes, not a daily torrent of boxes.
These days, buildings have been forced to become mini logistical centers.
At one Midtown Manhattan condominium, the first wave of about 100 packages a day arrives by 9 a.m. and the deliveries do not let up until night. Each one is checked in and placed in a storage room, and an email alert is sent to the resident. Another email confirms when the package is picked up.
Other buildings without storage space resort to piling boxes in their lobbies. One Brooklyn building kept packages in a locked cage with the doorman guarding the key. A Manhattan building facing Central Park placed two plastic shelving units in the entryway to store residents’ packages, but boxes still spill over onto the floor.
About 15 percent of New York City households receive a package every day, according to the Sustainable Urban Freight Systems center at Rensselaer. That means a complex with 800 apartments would get roughly 120 packages daily.
“What percent of your deliveries are truly urgent — 5 percent or 2 percent?” said Mr. Holguín-Veras, the Rensselaer professor. “We as customers are driving the process and to some extent creating these complications.”
Last year, a study comparing online shopping habits in Manhattan and Paris — two large metropolises grappling with the consequences of the e-commerce boom — found that New Yorkers out-ordered Parisians. Nearly three-quarters of the Manhattan residents surveyed had shopped for groceries online compared with just over half of Parisians.
More New Yorkers were also willing to pay extra to get their items faster.
“It’s now cheaper and easier to order anything online than it is to go to the store,” said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, who worked on the study.
How cities are coping with the deluge
In Paris, freight trucks enter the city at night and deliver packages to smaller warehouses near homes. In the morning, bikes and electric vans haul them to people’s doorsteps. Some neighborhood convenience stores and flower shops double as pickup spots for packages.
In Hamburg, Germany, trucks deliver containers full of packages to a drop-off site. From there, fleets of electric tricycles carry the packages to homes. UPS uses electric delivery vans in London.
New York has sought to shift more truck deliveries to nights and weekends, when streets are emptier. About 500 companies, including pharmacies and grocery stores, deliver goods from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., under a voluntary city program.
Other cities have followed suit, such as São Paulo, Brazil, and have found that nighttime deliveries speed up unloading times and reduce congestion and pollution.
Over the summer, New York City introduced a pilot program in residential areas to try to reduce double-parking by turning curbside parking spots into temporary neighborhood loading zones from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
Transportation officials have expanded loading zones in commercial areas in recent years, creating about 2,300 new zones around the city last year. This month, officials gave trucks and buses priority on a major crosstown artery.
The city is also investing $100 million to divert more freight to the water and rail lines, and to entice shippers to use marine terminals and waterways to bring in goods.
The city’s efforts were a good start, Ms. Kaufman of New York University said, adding that much more needs to be done to keep up with a soaring online economy that is straining the roadways and delivery systems.
More far-reaching measures were needed, she said, such as applying additional charges for same-day deliveries and even creating a system of “congestion pricing for online deliveries,” in which large apartment or office buildings would have designated delivery days. To get packages sooner, residents and companies would have to pay extra.
“We’ve entered an entirely new way of buying goods and services, but our infrastructure is only adapting incrementally,” Ms. Kaufman said. “We need to completely rethink how we use our streets if we want to maintain our current shopping and delivery habits.”