E-Commerce to Change Face of City Downtowns

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Portland city planners launch studies to find out how the rise of online ordering will impact land use and the transportation network.

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For several years, B-line Urban Delivery has delivered food products by electric-assist cargo bikes to Portland’s supermarkets and restaurants. Working out of the Redd on Salmon food hub in the city’s Central Eastside, the company serves local food vendors that do not have the scale to use large distributors.

The cargo bikes are an effective means of transporting goods within a few miles’ radius of the company’s base in the Redd building. The bikes can make deliveries faster than B-line’s sole delivery truck, which the company uses to deliver products to businesses in Portland’s outlying suburbs like Tigard and Beaverton, says Phil Ross, director of sales and marketing for B-line.

Cargo bikes like those that belong to B-line could soon be a lot more visible on Portland streets. Larger carriers like DHL, UPS and FedEx are piloting cargo bike deliveries all over the country. UPS did a cargo bike delivery pilot with Portland State University in 2019 before the pandemic put a stop to the project.

Cargo bikes are well suited for the so-called last-mile delivery of packages. With more of us ordering products online — a trend that accelerated during the pandemic — the nature of urban freight has been transformed. More small trucks are doing more frequent, short-haul deliveries in dense urban areas. This has led to an increase in congestion, lane blockages from illegal parking and more pollution from diesel trucks.

The rise of e-commerce has Portland city planners researching ways to make the last-mile delivery of packages more efficient and environmentally sound. Metro, the Portland metro area’s regional government, recently launched a study into how freight enters the region to help it make policy decisions on changes to land use and transportation.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation is updating its freight master plan to take account of the changes in urban freight.

Emissions-free cargo bikes are one example of modes of transport that the city is researching as a solution to cutting down pollution from freight transportation. Cargo bikes are also less of a public-safety hazard than large diesel trucks driving in dense city centers.

Electric vehicles and delivery robots could also become more ubiquitous in future. Large carriers have their own carbon emissions reduction goals that will necessitate a sea change in the way these businesses operate.

The pandemic could have long-lasting impacts on the logistics sector. City planners are looking at the possibility of changing zoning to allow underused commercial space, such as retail and office buildings, to be used as micro-hubs for the short-term storage of goods. Small logistics hubs close to population centers are critical for cargo bikes to become feasible as riders need to pick up goods close to where they need to be delivered.

Changes in land-use zoning and a transportation network that restricts access to diesel trucks could be a game changer for the future look and feel of Portland and other cities. It could portend safer, cleaner and less congested streets.

There are already calls for the increase in space given over to pedestrians during the pandemic to be maintained as the economy recovers and life gets back to normal. This could be the opportunity city planners need to push for changes that keep delivery trucks out of the city center.

Read more about how the rise of e-commerce is changing the face of cities in “The Last Mile Home,” the cover story in the May issue of Oregon Business.  

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