The National Academies

NCHRP 23-13(06) [Active]

Assessing the Equity and Workforce Mobility Implications of the Expansion of E-Commerce and Direct-to-Consumer Delivery Services
[ NCHRP 23-13 (Transportation Research Related to COVID-19) ]

  Project Data
Funds: $250,000
Staff Responsibility: Trey Joseph Wadsworth
Research Agency: Canete Medina Consulting Group, Inc.
Principal Investigator: Isabel Canete-Medina
Effective Date: 12/20/2022
Completion Date: 10/20/2024

With increases in online retail and app-based services combined with declines and changes in traditional brick and mortar retail operations, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries have grown in recent years. As more consumers stayed at home due to the pandemic, the importance of e-commerce grew considerably, particularly food delivery. While e-commerce growth has slowed since the height of the pandemic, the growing use of direct-to-consumer deliveries remained. The changes in retail, operations, and services come with additional opportunities and challenges for consumers, communities, and the workforce with significant associated effects on transportation needs and use.
During the pandemic, some of the workforce involved in direct-to-consumer deliveries were elevated to "essential workers." E-commerce workers may include individuals with mobility and access challenges who have to commute to the new employment locations (such as fulfillment centers). The mobility and access challenges may include not owning a vehicle, access to transit options that match with shift times, or the ability to maintain a private vehicle that may be necessary to participate in the delivery services associated with direct-to-consumer operations.
For consumers, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries have greatly expanded access to a wider range of merchandise for discretionary and non-discretionary purchases. This is particularly important in terms of equity for consumers who live in rural areas far from brick and mortar retailers, in urban areas with inadequate access to retail and services (e.g., grocery stores, pharmacies, etc.), individuals with disabilities living in areas not covered by paratransit services, or the growing numbers of older people who may experience mobility challenges to access physical retail locations (e.g., no personal vehicle or ability to drive, unfamiliarity or discomfort with transit or ride-sharing arrangements). However, this increased access to goods and services is contingent upon having a computer and broadband or smartphone with data plans, and a debit or credit card.
At the community or local level, e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries are creating additional challenges for planners. For example, “ghost kitchens” or “dark stores” are being opened in former retail space. While these facilities offer expanded services and employment opportunities, they can pose new challenges, such as (1) reducing neighborhood vibrancy with a transition away from traditional brick and mortar operations, or (2) presenting additional curbside management and congestion issues. Workers picking up deliveries with delivery vehicles may double-park or couriers may congregate on sidewalks with bicycles where capacity may be limited.
Taken together, communities, consumers, and the workforce have new transportation needs that must be considered by state departments of transportation (DOTs), local and regional transportation authorities, and their partners as these agencies consider the opportunities and challenges of e-commerce and the direct-to-consumer delivery environment. Mobility and access needs and gaps simultaneously limit the economic opportunity for workers and make it difficult to fill important positions at these e-commerce centers of employment. Further, the growth in e-commerce and the decline of brick and mortar retail has impacts on property tax revenue for public agencies, including transportation infrastructure owners and operators who may rely on that revenue source to support capital or operating expenses. Research is needed to develop a toolkit to assist DOTs and their partners to objectively understand these rapidly evolving patterns, trends, and changes to be proactive and resilient to pivot when necessary, and ensure equitable outcomes for their communities, consumers, and the workforce.
The objectives of this research are to develop for state DOTs and their regional and local partners:
  1. An objective understanding of (a) the full spectrum of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries with definitions, frameworks, and a taxonomy; and (b) an understanding of how and, to what extent, the rise of direct-to-consumer delivery services has created opportunities and challenges for workers and consumers in urban, suburban, and rural contexts, with emphasis on low/fixed-income, minority communities, individuals with disabilities, and the elderly; and
  2. Development of a toolkit with approaches and case studies that demonstrate how to proactively address the challenges and opportunities presented by the expansion of e-commerce and direct-to consumer deliveries. The toolkit and case studies should be quantitatively and qualitatively driven to increase equitable access and mobility for the workforce and consumers, including effective practices, partnerships, plans, policies, programs, strategies, funding options, or service delivery.

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