Online Shopping Causing Major Uptick in Pollution, Traffic, and Industrial Rents Across Greater Boston

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) this month released a new study on e-commerce in Massachusetts, finding that this rapidly growing industry is already having major impacts on the job market and transportation network of Greater Boston, including a big jump in industrial rent prices and a worrisome increase in traffic and pollution.

The study found that this $600 billion industry now makes up 14% of all retail sales in the country and has contributed to a 42% increase in warehouse rents in Greater Boston alone over the last two years.

“E-commerce is expanding rapidly in Greater Boston, and the report helps us to better understand its effects on employment, development, congestion, and more,” said report co-author Alison Felix. “While this rapidly growing form of retail offers benefits, like easier access to goods during the pandemic, it also puts tremendous pressure on residents and infrastructure. State and local governments must work together to make sure this growth actually helps the region, and is sustainably managed.”

The report, “Hidden and in Plain Sight: Impacts of E-Commerce in Massachusetts,” strives to give policymakers useful data around the effects of e-commerce on people and places; it also offers municipal officials a starting playbook for grappling with this growth.

The report outlines national and local trends in e-commerce, and potential solutions to help communities manage the growth in warehousing, distribution, and delivery traffic.

The study found that Amazon, the world’s largest e-retailer and a company for which data is available, has 34 facilities either operating or proposed in Massachusetts; once all are fully operational, the Amazon footprint in this state will total 12 million square feet of warehouse space.

E-commerce still represents less than one-fifth of total retail sales in Massachusetts, but employment in online retail grew 30% from 2010 to 2019 in this state. Meanwhile, employment in transportation and warehousing increased 58% in the same timeframe – even as brick-and-mortar retail employment numbers remained flat.

“We all see the rising number of delivery trucks on our roads and at our curbs, and in order for those orders to arrive on time, a sophisticated logistics network has developed that centers on warehouse expansion near where consumers live,” said Felix, who is a Senior Transportation Planner and Emerging Technologies Specialist at MAPC. “The pressure to deliver more goods faster has astounding effects on our streets, our air quality, and the way our workforce is treated.”

In Everett, Amazon already has one dedicated facility on Beacham Street in the New England Produce Center area. However, the Davis Companies has been buying property in that same area at a huge clip over the last 12 months to construct “last mile” distribution centers on speculation. Already, the Boston Market Terminal property on Second Street has been permitted and construction is about to begin. Nearby, another warehouse next to the former King Arthur’s Club location has been purchased by Davis Companies with the intention of permitting another such last-mile facility.

In Revere, an Amazon distribution facility opened last year at the site of the former headquarters of candy maker NECCO, which closed in 2018. Planning for a second Amazon distribution facility is underway at the recently closed Showcase Cinemas on Squire Road, which sits at the Copeland Circle rotary off Route 1 in Revere. Further north and outside the urban core, plans are underway to open a 3.8 million square foot distribution facility in North Andover.

“There’s no doubt that online shopping is here to stay, and e-commerce is changing the landscape of how we use our roads, curbsides, and vacant commercial parcels. As local officials, we should be proactively planning now to coordinate across municipal boundaries on the planning for these facilities,” said Jay Monty, Transportation Planner for the City of Everett. “The congestion, pollution and jobs that result from these new facilities have a regional impact, and we have a great opportunity now as the expansion is just beginning to request key data metrics from these companies and to plan regionally for the traffic, safety, emissions and local job market impacts.”

These expansions have also prompted several suburban town leaders to band together to begin to address the effects of “e-tail” on local roads and developable parcels.

“Communities in the Southwest Advisory Planning Committee subregion and neighboring municipalities have seen an influx of large-scale warehouse and distribution facilities permitted and constructed in the past several years,” said Elaine Lazarus, Assistant Town Manager in Hopkinton.

“The proliferation of warehouse and distribution facilities has likely contributed to increased truck traffic and congestion across the region,” said Rachel Benson, Director of Planning and Economic Development in Wrentham, who co-chairs of the South West Advisory Planning Committee with Lazarus. “While municipalities can take steps individually to mitigate some of these congestion impacts, a coordinated regional approach would provide more predictability for developers and tenants and offer regional transportation benefits.”

The report recommends some key policy strategies for local leaders, including:

•Advance regional coordination across municipal boundaries and develop a design guide.

Creating a regional strategy for the siting and operations of warehouse and distribution centers can help manage impacts on traffic and emissions. Developing a transportation and land use design playbook can help guide zoning, building codes, proposal review, mitigation, tax incentives, and enforcement. A regional design guide promotes consistency as e-commerce expands, and puts every city and town on equal footing when it comes to building decisions.

•Increase transparency by requiring data sharing.

Data sharing is a critical step to understanding and sustainably managing the impacts of e-commerce. Municipalities should require e-commerce companies to report information and metrics such as the location of warehouse and distribution centers, employment, and transportation impacts from their delivery logistics.

•Establish incentives for efficient deliveries.

Both the public and private sectors should incentivize more efficient deliveries to reduce traffic and the harmful pollution that comes with it. This can be done by determining a method to assess the impact of e-commerce on congestion and emissions, and then set a fee structure that incentivizes companies and customers to opt for more sustainable delivery options, such as combining orders into a single delivery and not choosing fast shipping.

•Implement curb management strategies.

After conducting comprehensive curb space inventories, municipalities should use that information to establish curbside management policies that reduce congestion, safety risks, and conflicts. These policies should designate delivery and loading zones, establish dynamic pricing mechanisms to foster efficient zone use, and authorize rigorous enforcement.

•Track innovations in e-commerce.

Track new technologies and innovations in the e-commerce industry, including use of package lockers, cargo bikes, air and ground drones, and autonomous vehicles, and work to make sure these developments have positive impacts on communities.

MAPC will conduct surveys and monitor replicable strategies being used by municipalities where Amazon is already opening new warehouses, and share information on mitigating their negative impacts widely. As a follow-up to this report, MAPC plans to collaborate with municipalities to develop a playbook on the management of e-commerce warehouse and distribution centers as a resource for other municipalities.

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