Jason Lawrence / Flickr

A growing class of cargo vans enables smarter intersection design.

Lately Paul Supawanich, an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates in San Francisco, has been noticing ads for commercial delivery vehicles in popular magazines. That's strange enough, in a way, but what's even odder is that these aren't your typical 30-foot trucks. He's seen ads for the Chevy City Express, a 15-foot cargo van, and the Nissan NV Cargo series, with 15- and 20-foot models. At half the size of their bulky predecessors, these new options seem perfectly suited for tight city streets.

"It was like, wow, things have changed," says Supawanich (a past CityLab contributor). "Something's different."

To Supawanich, that seemingly wonky difference in vehicle size could lead to major benefits for pedestrian safety. Whereas big trucks need gigantic intersections to take a turn, going from outside lane to outside lane, smaller cargo vans can hug a corner using much less space. Such a fleet shift could help city street designers implement any number of pedestrian-friendly elements: shorter crosswalks and more median islands, for instance, or curb-extenders that slow down the speed of traffic.

"If a 15-foot van becomes the norm in cities, it really does change things," says Supawanich. "It allows the city to say, yeah, we can accommodate our deliveries, but we can make streets safer for the people walking in them."

FedEx is among the businesses that now use a Nissan Cargo series van for city deliveries. (Nissan)

Smaller is "definitely a trend" in delivery vehicles, says Peter Bedrosian, Senior Manager of Product Planning for Nissan Light Commercial Vehicles. The 15-foot NV200, for instance, began as a compact delivery option to handle the narrow streets of Europe and Japan. Around 2006, says Bedrosian, Nissan began wondering if businesses in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major American cities might have a similar need, and tested for demand.

The company found two main groups of interested customers. One consisted of small business owners who'd been doing deliveries out of a minivan or a sedan—awkwardly folding down the seats to make room—because they lacked an affordable cargo option. The other consisted of big cargo fleet owners who found it cost-effective to swap out some of their standard 30- or 40-foot trucks for nimble cargo vehicles capable of responding to a small, quick client request.

"We did talk to businesses that operate in condensed urban areas," says Bedrosian. "They were really having a tough time maneuvering within the city. They wanted a vehicle that could easily get into the city and out."

Michael Bunce, Vice President of Nissan Commercial Vehicles, believes these smaller cargo vans may sell upwards of 75,000 units in the United States this year. "We're getting to the point where we're going to be more successful in the U.S. than in Europe," he says. And of course Nissan isn't the only downsized delivery vehicle in its class: along with the Chevy City Express, there's the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and the Ford Transit, to name a couple.

The trend toward smaller cargo vans hasn't gone unrecognized by planners like Supawanich. The Federal Highway Administration suggests having traditional 30-foot trucks in mind when designing residential and local city streets and intersections. But in its latest design guide, the National Association of City Transportation Officials recommended preparing for a 23-foot vehicle in such situations. The City of Chicago has followed suit; its latest street guide (with Nelson\Nygaard as lead consultant) also introduced a 23-foot delivery van for neighborhood streets.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials now recommends designing city residential streets for a 23-foot delivery vehicle that can make tight turns. (NACTO)

The upshot of that update, in the words of the NACTO guide, is an intersection better suited "for the most vulnerable street user rather than the largest possible vehicle." The new guideline gives designers the option of extending curb corners at intersections, which serves two big pedestrian safety benefits: shortening crosswalk distance, and forcing all cars to turn at closer to "crawl" speed. Larger trucks can be re-routed or, as they become more rare in the area, be permitted to use oncoming lanes to turn.

Curb extensions can reduce speed of passenger cars, improving pedestrian safety. (NACTO)
The Chicago street design guide demonstration pedestrian upgrades at intersections designed for smaller delivery vehicles (left), and shows how large trucks can still turn there if necessary. (City of Chicago)

For now, says Supawanich, it's up to cities to determine which streets are being used by smaller cargo vans (a fine task for Big Data if ever there were one) and adjust intersection design accordingly. The fact that businesses are choosing to go smaller on their own only helps matters, he says, given how much sway they tend to have with local policymakers. Slower curb corners also harmonize with a wider push made by cities like New York to reduce vehicle speeds and emphasize street safety at large.

"At the end of the day, if you're a street designer in New York or any major city, your goal is to figure out how to make it that people are turning more slowly at intersections for the benefit of pedestrians," says Supawanich. "When you see the ability to use a smaller-designed vehicle, it gives you that latitude."

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