Jose Holguín-Veras would like you to guess how many deliveries are made in Manhattan every day.
"Between 200- and 300,000 per day," he answers. That's a lot of double-parked cargo vans and honking box trucks clogging city streets during business hours.
For the last dozen years, Holguín-Veras, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, has been trying to shift the burden of those deliveries to quieter nighttime streets. In a series of trials, he has evaluated the potential benefits of having New York's restaurants, shops and offices receive their goods between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., while most of us are in bed.
It's an appealing thought, from an efficiency standpoint, and the results [PDF] are impressive. In a 2010 test period during which 25 "receivers"—industry slang for any business getting a shipment—opted to take deliveries at night, average truck speeds rose from 3 mph (daytime) to 8 mph (nighttime). The average length of each stop decreased by 72 percent. With little traffic to contend with, trucks made deliveries on time, and there were no parking tickets. Conducting off-hours deliveries is about 30 percent cheaper, the report concluded.
A slightly larger program, called deliverEASE, has been up and running since 2011. With funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, deliverEASE has offered $2,000 stipends to receivers like Whole Foods, Gristedes, CVS, and the Grand Central Partnership that commit to off-hours delivery.
This sort of targeted effort can be more effective than you might expect, because some receivers are much worse for traffic than others. "Grand Central Terminal is a dot on the map," Holguín-Veras says. But with a hundred businesses inside, it receives between 300 and 400 deliveries per day. All in all, Manhattan has 56 buildings that produce between four and eight percent of its truck-hauled freight traffic.
It may be hard to visualize how 300,000 daily deliveries contribute to Friday traffic in New York City, but Holguín-Veras says even a six percent reduction in that number—the sum of those 56 buildings—would have a noticeable impact on traffic and emissions. If 30 percent of deliveries occurred at night instead of during the day, the savings would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And that doesn't include the related benefits to those who try to navigate the city during the daylight hours.
Many citizens, though, care more about sleeping through the night than getting stuck in traffic during the day. The beeping and clacking of nighttime deliveries provoke complaints in nearly every city. New York, with its numerous mixed-used neighborhoods, will not be immune from a sort of NIMBY effect standing in the way of maximum delivery efficiency.
Holguín-Veras maintains that the issue is overblown. "That is a myth," he exclaims. "The truckers are so interested in making this work they will do whatever it takes to ensure that these things do not become a problem."
In the twelve years since he's been studying the issue, Holguín-Veras has learned that a focus on supplier behavior (i.e. high tolls) is not the right tactic. "Truckers are the weakest element in the supply chain. They simply swallowed the tolls," he says.
Instead, his programs have taken the issue directly to receivers, who have the power to make off-hours deliveries happen... overnight.
But the government can't offer $2,000 to every small or large business in the country, so a long-term shift to midnight freight will require other incentives. Naturally, Holguín-Veras has some ideas. First, receivers need to be made aware of the cost and reliability benefits of off-hours delivery. Second, they need to trust suppliers to make late-night deliveries on their own, to avoid incurring the cost of an all-night employee supervisor. (Thirty percent of businesses already trust their suppliers to do this, he says.)
Perhaps most importantly, Holguín-Veras thinks, consumers need to take responsibility for the issue. He envisions a notification system like the one that the NYC Department of Health uses to display the grades from restaurant inspections, with large letters in every restaurant and shop window.
"If we had a ratings system," he says, "customers like you and I could decide to patronize places that used sustainable delivery methods. I'm basically raising hell about doing that. Let's use the power of the consumer to change the behavior of the companies."
I asked if any city had tried to create such an incentive for off-hours deliveries.
"Julius Caesar mandated night deliveries in Rome," he responds. "The whole thing collapsed due to opposition of receivers and Roman citizens."
Top image: Flickr user IntangibleArts