The National Academies

NCHRP 23-13(06) [Pending]

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
Contract Time: 22 months
Staff Responsibility: Trey Joseph Wadsworth

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.
Accomplishment of the project objective(s) will require at least the following tasks.
The proposer is encouraged to propose and sequence tasks in the manner in which they think are most effective to complete the research with two project phases. The proposal shall identify project milestones and deliverables for each proposed task (such as technical memorandums or summary reports, etc.). A demonstration of the requisite skillsets and expertise of the research team shall include the following focus areas at a minimum: (1) freight transportation planning and strategies (including supply chains and logistics), (2) workforce development and commutation services, and (3) diversity, inclusion, and equity considerations.
A distinct and well-crafted engagement strategy shall be developed and presented in the proposal to achieve the research objectives. The strategy shall identify methods, approaches, and a proposed list of stakeholders. Methods may include interviews, focus groups, surveys, peer exchanges, virtual workshops, or other methods targeted at key stakeholders in e-commerce and direct-to-consumer delivery services, as well as DOTs, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), private industry, and non-governmental organizations (e.g., food recipient programs). The proposer should be creative and inclusive in devising how to bring together participants from a diversity of backgrounds and geographies. Engagement activities shall be identified and executed in association with proposed research tasks as appropriate. Results from proposed engagement activities shall be analyzed and presented in the specific task deliverables.

The elements of the Phase I research tasks envisioned to meet the first research objective are described below. Proposers are encouraged to consider these elements in their proposed research plan as they present their research approach.


  • Develop definitions, frameworks, and the taxonomy of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries including, but not limited to, typologies of varied delivery vehicles, delivery locations, facilities, or discretionary and non-discretionary purchases.
  • Conduct a robust literature review of the evolution of e-commerce and direct-to-customer deliveries considering research objectives. This review will include, but will not be limited to, relevant work by trade associations, trade publications, supply chain and industrial real estate business reports, and academic and non-academic assessments.
  • Identify the opportunities and challenges of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries for communities, consumers, and the workforce.
  • Conduct a review of relevant and effective practices of state DOTs, select MPOs, private industry, and select non-governmental organizations. This may include methods such as broad-based scans or survey(s).


An Interim Report (IR) shall be included as a deliverable at the conclusion of Phase I. An in-person Interim Meeting will be held in Washington, D.C. at the Keck Center. An updated Phase II research plan shall be included for panel review and NCHRP approval before continuing to Phase II. The IR shall also include a brief description of the proposed case studies to be prepared in Phase II.


The elements of Phase II research tasks envisioned to be necessary to meet the second research objective are described below, but proposers are encouraged to consider these elements in their proposed tasks and deliverables as they think would be most effective and should suggest additional activities.


  • Develop case studies to demonstrate examples featuring both workers' and consumers’ opportunities and challenges. At a minimum, a case study of food delivery via a variety of outlets and demographics (including those in food recipient programs) must be included.
  • Identify opportunities to showcase the use of innovative data sources or combined data sets (proprietary and non-proprietary) that can be used by state DOTs and partners to analyze trends, shifts, and patterns related to e-commerce and direct-to-consumer deliveries, and note gaps where necessary information does not currently exist. The focus shall be placed on improving equity, transportation planning, and workforce issues. It is imperative that data sources are not simply listed; the proposal shall articulate how data sources can be accessed or acquired, and effectively be used by agencies to address specific questions, decisions, investments, and measures of success.
  • Develop a toolkit including guidance on considerations, and effective practices matrices as well as information sources and case study examples for practitioners to reference when considering partnerships, plans, policies, programs, strategies, funding options, data acquisition and subsequent analysis,  and service delivery that address or support the transportation needs and equity outcomes for communities, consumers, and the workforce.


Anticipated final deliverables include (1) a toolkit presented in Microsoft Word, (2) a Conduct of Research Report that summarizes the research approach, (3) a PowerPoint presentation with speaker notes that summarizes the project, (4) a draft article suitable for publication in the TRNews (no guarantee of publication is implied), and (5) an Implementation Plan.

STATUS: Proposals have been received in response to the RFP.  The project panel will meet to select a contractor to perform the work.


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