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How is COVID-19 changing urban deliveries?

Juliette Coia, Urbanism Next Center

Image of bicycle delivery worker

Photo by Carl Campbell on Unsplash

While COVID-19 has limited various forms of personal mobility, it does not appear to be limiting goods delivery, especially in urban areas. Rather, the goods delivery industry has expanded remarkably.

Because of social distancing recommendations and fear of contracting the virus, the demand for e-commerce and urban food and meal deliveries has increased dramatically as of March 2020. Some estimate that COVID-19 brought e-commerce five years of growth in just five months. Further, meal-delivery services began attracting many new customers at the start of the pandemic, and sales, reportedly, have more than doubled from 2019 to 2020.  In contrast to the halted demand for AV passenger pilot projects, increased demand for meal delivery has attracted renewed interest from public and private partners, which continue to fund urban delivery pilots and deployments during the pandemic. These delivery modes feature contactless design and are suitable for local meal and grocery delivery.

E-bikes and e-cargo bikes for urban deliveries gained popularity in 2020. With many dining rooms closed to the public, more people are choosing to have meals delivered directly to them, and e-cargo bikes and e-bikes are particularly effective at this kind of delivery. Moreover, e-cargo bikes are able to take advantage of tactical urbanism projects created during the pandemic, which include temporary road closures intended to facilitate walking, biking, and outdoor eating.

As examples, the City of Miami, the City of Boston, and the Brazilian food company iFood initiated e-cargo bike pilots during the summer of 2020, all citing increased demand for local deliveries as a primary motivator. 

In addition to e-cargo bikes and e-bikes for urban deliveries, AVs are also experiencing more demand. In contrast to passenger AVs, most AVs designed for goods delivery do not have an operator inside the vehicle. Users can open up the vehicle by typing a code, using a bluetooth-enabled device, or by communicating with an off-site operator, thereby allowing deliveries to be completed without any person-to-person contact. Public and private partners continue to find new opportunities to test the use cases of these autonomous delivery vehicles, including meal delivery on college campuses--e.g., delivering dining hall meals to students--and to fulfill local grocery deliveries for at-risk populations. Some companies have even worked to find use cases to assist healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. 

For instance, the Mountain View-based company Nuro partnered with healthcare workers in Southern California to deliver supplies including personal protective equipment (PPE), linens, and food in two field hospitals that treated COVID-19 patients. Similar small-scale deployments of AVs popped up at medical facilities around the world including at the Mayo Clinic in Florida (partnership between NAVYA, the Mayo Clinic, and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority) and at the Siriraj Hospital in Thailand (partnership between Huawei, Siriraj Hospital, and the Thailand National Broadcasting, Telecommunication).

It is natural to wonder what will happen to these pilots and tactical urbanism projects as conditions change. Will these changes stick? Urbanism Next explores challenges related to COVID-19 responses and to the pandemic itself on the Urbanism Next website and in two new reports on COVID-19—Impacts on Cities and Suburbs: Impacts to the Urbanism Next Framework and Impacts Across Multiple Sectors