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In the Brooklyn neighborhood where Matthew Haag, a reporter for the Metro desk, lives, the hot spot on Saturday morning is the local post office. The line there starts early and stays long until it closes at 1 p.m. Almost everyone in the winding queue is holding a pink receipt, indicating that they have a package waiting for them.
There, the sheer volume of e-commerce deliveries in New York City is apparent.
Almost everyone there picks up something from an online retailer, most often in a tan cardboard box sealed with dark tape emblazoned with Amazon’s logo. Packages are shoved into every nook and cranny of the post office, falling off shelves and overflowing into piles on the floor. After all, the location opened in 1952, when most mail arrived in envelopes with stamps that cost three cents.
Winnie Hu, a reporter who covers transportation in the New York area, has also experienced the seemingly endless deluge of deliveries. In Midtown Manhattan, where she lives, trucks and vans unload along the curb outside her building at all hours. Packages are stacked and sorted right on the street. Cars and cyclists have to steer around them. Dogs try to sniff the boxes, or worse.
On a neighboring block in Midtown, boxes are piled high on the sidewalk, creating an obstacle course for parents, children and anyone else trying to get by. The delivery workers are so focused on moving the boxes that they do not look up.
The signs of the online delivery boom are in front of us all the time. But how has it changed the fabric of the city? What are the consequences of one- and two-day delivery? How must New York City change to handle the growing demand?
With those questions in mind, Metro editors Diego Ribadeneira and Clifford Levy asked us to measure the impact — to examine how online shopping has affected everything from highway and street congestion to air pollution to even what kinds of warehouses are being built. As reporters and city residents — as well as online shoppers — we were especially intrigued since we were looking at the way we lived.
One of the first people we called for the story was José Holguín-Veras, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. He has been tracking the growth of online delivery and devising solutions for cities, like shifting business deliveries to overnight hours.
For years, he released his findings about e-commerce and did not hear anything from journalists. “I get phone calls all the time now,” Mr. Holguín-Veras said. “While we are talking, I got an email from another reporter.”
The professor gave us an eye-opening statistic that underscored the enormous growth of online deliveries. The number of deliveries to residential properties in New York City tripled from 2009 to 2017, with at least 1.1 million packages delivered every day.
It’s a staggering amount — and online shopping is only in its infancy, accounting for just shy of 11 percent of all retail sales in the United States. With that many packages out for delivery every day, it became obvious that New York City, where infrastructure was set in concrete long before online shopping existed, was struggling to keep up.
Delivery companies like FedEx and U.P.S. are paying tens of millions of dollars in parking violations every year in New York City. Average speeds for cars in Manhattan below Central Park are declining. More trucks are crossing the city’s bridges than ever before.
And the highway interchange near the George Washington Bridge, the major thoroughfare connecting warehouses in New Jersey and New York City, is now the most congested section of highway in the country.
“It is impossible to triple the amount,” Mr. Holguín-Veras told us, “without paying consequences.”
There are more stories to come: The Metro desk will continue reporting on the ways that e-commerce is changing life in New York City. For us, hitting the Amazon order button will never be the same again.
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