To the surprise of no one who knows me, I am a loyal consumer of my City Councilman Brad Lander’s fantastic email newsletter. And in the December 2020 edition, Brad shared that a local Brooklyn pop-up food pantry, Camp Friendship, was looking for some volunteers. One of the biggest needs was for people to serve as delivery drivers (I live in Brooklyn, where 56% of households don’t have a car), so I signed up. Without really thinking about it, I’d stumbled upon an opportunity to get a glimpse into the work of commercial drivers—the very people the Coord team thinks about day in and day out as we work with cities to design and implement Smart Zone programs.
Over the past six months or so, I’ve had a few different types of driving tasks. Each of these tasks has let me experience a different driving, parking and loading context.
- Pick up food donation boxes from a variety of (kind and generous!) bars in the neighborhood, then transport them to Camp Friendship.
- This approximates the “outbound delivery” experience, in which a driver picks up food or other goods from a retailer in a busy commercial area as a first step on its way to the customer.
- Pick up bags of groceries and prepared food from Camp Friendship, and then bring them to a half dozen or so individual residences.
- This step approximates the consumer drop-off experience: getting those goods to the varied and dispersed individual consumers’ residences.
- Pick up an enormous carload of groceries from the grocery store (thanks Wegmans!), then transport it to Camp Friendship
- This is closest to the “truckload” experience, since the entire load is picked up at one place and dropped off in a second place.
Amateur delivery driver with an enormous load of mac ‘n cheese, pasta and sauce.
Driving in New York City is challenging, even more so when you need to stop at a long list of unfamiliar places with very limited parking. I’d like to share a few takeaways for companies like ours and cities trying to create safe and navigable streets in an e-commerce world:
Lesson #1: Time Is of the Essence
One of my first takeaways from the outbound delivery experience was that for quick pop-ins to retailers, I didn’t want to take a lot of time paying for parking on a parking payment app. When I am driving in a personal capacity and making a single stop at the grocery store for 60 minutes, clicking around a parking app to enter my zone number and select an amount of time is no big deal. But when I’m making stop after stop for pickups that last maybe 2 minutes, it doesn’t feel as worth it to properly use my parking app. On the other hand, I wasn’t always sure how long a particular pickup might take. Would it end up taking ten minutes rather than two? Was it worth risking a ticket to save time? I was torn, and this was without the additional financial, employer and ratings pressures that real on-demand and other delivery drivers regularly face.
This insight, along with feedback Coord has received from professional delivery drivers, caused us to enable Smart Zone booking with a single tap. Drivers using Coord’s app have never needed to enter a zone number. Now they also don’t need to select an amount of time in advance or worry about extending their time if they didn’t guess right the first time. They can just use a single tap to start their time and another when they’re leaving. And if the driver forgets to tap when they’re leaving, the Coord Driver app ends the booking automatically.
Lesson #2: Is It Bigger Than a Breadbox?
My willingness to take the time and effort to find a curbside spot rather than double-park was closely tied to the size of my load. In the consumer drop-off experience, each load is light (and my time inside is highly unpredictable), so it is always worth finding a place to pull over. However, in the truckload experience, the norm when dropping off at the food pantry is to double-park since there is an entire vehicle full of heavy boxes to load into the building. The road is just wide enough that most vehicles can still get through, but it’s a struggle. (And highly anxiety-inducing for someone like me who hates double-parking!)
A flurry of cheery volunteers loads my car up with bags to drop off at people’s apartments.
This differentiated location-sensitivity can create an opportunity for cities looking to better manage commercial loading. “Prime” loading locations in commercial areas can be priced accordingly, keeping them open for deliveries that really need that proximity. Less-prime loading locations (e.g., loading zones around the block from major destinations) can be less expensive, making them an attractive option for people with a lighter load. Of course, some neighborhoods don’t need high-touch loading space management like Smart Zones, and really just need adequate loading space and techniques to help drivers find it. NYC’s Neighborhood Loading Zone program is a good example of a meaningful no-tech policy that creates safe spaces to pull over.
Lesson #3: I’ll Take My Usual (Loading Spot)
For stops I’ve made multiple times, I’ve learned a bit about the area and where there’s going to be a good place to pull over (even if it’s past my destination). However, it’s harder the first time you go to a stop. You really don’t know how far you’ll have to drive before you’ll be able to find a spot to pull over. If I keep going, will I find a spot to pull over pretty soon? Or am I risking getting farther and farther away from my stop, potentially causing me to need to loop back and contend with the same traffic all over again?
This speaks to differences in information among drivers with regular routes and those who are sent to new places all the time. Drivers sent to new places all the time are more likely to need additional information and context to help them find a place to unload (e.g., from technologies that provide availability information or at least regulation information). Drivers with regular routes usually know where their first choice place to stop is, but might benefit from information about what to do if that space is full when they arrive. Is there another free spot nearby? Or is there a free spot near my next stop, so I should go make that delivery first and then come back?
Lesson #4: Geometry Matters
This one might be obvious for most mobility professionals, but the width of the street matters a lot. The challenges of finding a place to load on narrow streets are the biggest. On streets with a single travel lane, double-parking is a non-starter, unless you are brave enough to face the unforgiving wrath of your fellow motorists. On streets with multiple travel lanes in both directions, blocking a travel lane creates safety hazards and impedes traffic, but is not quite as bad. So if you’re a city figuring out where to start your efforts to improve loading zone availability or discoverability, neighborhoods with narrow streets are likely a good place to start.
Lesson #5: Loading Zones Are the Bees’ Knees
When there is adequate space to pull over, this amateur delivery driver breathes a big sigh of relief. For my “truckload experience” pickups at Wegmans, there is a large loading zone right in front of the store that I am allowed to use. Employees even help me load up my car so I’m not there too long.
Unlike most grocery stores in Brooklyn, Wegmans has a parking lot and customer loading zone.
Whoever designed the store’s parking lot might have had to weigh the tradeoff of reserving this land for a loading zone, when they might have been able to squeeze in a few extra parking spots with a different layout. But I’m sure glad they thought to make space where people can make shorter stops, especially for loads that are far bigger than a breadbox.
An important disclosure to make is that, for my consumer drop-off shifts, I’ve always worked with a co-pilot. This means one person can focus on the logistics of the delivery (Do I need to call ahead? Where’s the entrance to this building?) while the other person focuses on routing and finding a safe place to pull over.
My co-pilot enjoying this luxurious waiting spot - a rare find on our route!
Having one person stay with the car also opens up more places to pull over, such as in front of fire hydrants, since that person can always move in a pinch. Most delivery professionals do not have co-pilots, and my guess is that this would be costly for the companies they work for and increase the costs of deliveries. On the other hand, the community as a whole is often bearing some of this expense in the form of chaos on our streets. So whether it’s through a better allocation of space, better technology, or a different approach to staffing deliveries, there are a lot of opportunities to improve conditions for delivery drivers and the communities they serve.