Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon

Urban Goods Delivery

Innovations in goods delivery, from drones to courier network services, are changing how goods are delivered to us.

Goods delivery refers to the shipping and fulfillment process of e-commerce and its effects on communities, as well as the urban design implications and considerations the process brings with it. While the effects that e-commerce goods delivery has on urban areas are often the most visible, this process affects suburban and rural communities as well.

Variables to consider

Delivery types

E-commerce retailers usually offer up to three delivery types: standard delivery, same-day delivery, and hourly/instant delivery. Traditional delivery operates in a similar fashion to mail-order retail, where a retailer ships an order to a customer via various shipping carriers upon order receipt. Same-day delivery typically utilizes either in-house logistics or third-party delivery and fulfillment contractors, while hourly or instant delivery options may use either an in-house employee or on-demand courier services.

In-house logistics and third-party delivery

In order to fulfill orders quickly and cost effectively, e-commerce retailers offering same-day delivery may use either in-house logistics chains or third-party delivery contractors rather than conventional shipping options for deliveries. By handling their own shipping in-house, retailers can better control delivery schedules and processing times. Using delivery contractors allows retailers to avoid having to provide benefits, liability insurance, and other employment-related support to their delivery drivers.


On-demand delivery couriers may be utilized for goods, groceries, or meal deliveries. This allows retailers and other businesses to leverage the ad hoc nature of a network of on-demand couriers to respond to delivery requests without needing to hire and maintain employees of their own. Most on-demand delivery couriers are classified as independent contractors.

Innovation Drivers

  • Online ordering is a key driver of goods delivery. Rather than needing to go to a physical storefront, retrieve purchased goods, and return with them, e-commerce goods delivery provides consumers with the option to have items, including meals and groceries, to be delivered directly to their doorstep.
  • Delivery speed is another significant driver of e-commerce goods delivery, particularly in the case of same-day or faster deliveries.
  • Customer convenience overall factors heavily into the widespread usage of e-commerce goods delivery. Goods delivery allows people to receive items they purchase online at their convenience, making it a highly attractive option.


  • Increased goods delivery contributes to congestion. As more people purchase items through e-commerce retailers, more delivery vehicles are necessarily added to existing traffic flows. In addition to adding to slowdowns on roadways themselves, delivery vehicles may impede traffic and create unsafe situations for other road users by double-parking or blocking bike lanes or crosswalks. This is particularly an issue in dense urban areas.
  • Building design and access are not always configured to easily accommodate e-commerce goods delivery. This is particularly the case with controlled access buildings—delivery drivers may not be able to get to a customer’s front door, the building may not have sufficient space to accept package deliveries, or both.
  • Labor and equity issues are both common in e-commerce goods delivery. E-commerce delivery requirements can be taxing for shipping and fulfillment workers, with periods of high demand such as holiday seasons pushing workers past healthy or safe limits. In-house logistics workers, third-party delivery contractors, and on-demand couriers can also face low pay, limited or no benefits, and unsafe or highly stressful working environments.

Key players

  • Online retailers such as Amazon, Alibaba, and eBay are some of the largest providers of e-commerce goods delivery, though other smaller or more focused online e-commerce retailers also participate.
  • Certain brick-and-mortar retailers such as Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Safeway, and Tesco provide goods delivery options in addition to in-store shopping.
  • On-demand delivery companies such as UberEats, Grubhub, Instacart, and Caviar base their business models around delivering items such as food and grocery store purchases to customers on an on-demand basis using a network of independent contractors.

Use case examples

  • E-commerce goods delivery can be used to acquire specific or specialty items. This can include items brick-and-mortar retailers don’t typically stock or stock at a certain price point, as well as items that are temporarily out of stock or have a temporarily inflated price.
  • E-commerce goods delivery can be used when getting to or from a brick-and-mortar retailer isn’t feasible. This can include situations where a brick-and-mortar retailer is nearby but is unreachable due to health or logistical considerations as well as situations where a specific retailer is not located in the nearby area.
  • E-commerce goods delivery can simply provide speed and convenience. Even if no other factors are present, the ability to acquire goods quickly and efficiently without needing to travel anywhere is often reason enough to warrant the use of e-commerce goods delivery.

Pilots & developments

2004 - Grubhub is founded as a way of consolidating paper restaurant menus into an a streamlined online format.

January 2009FedEx adds two electric-assist tricycles to their delivery fleet in Paris, France. 

September 2011Amazon installs delivery lockers, named Amazon Hub Lockers, in New York City, Seattle, and London, allowing multiple packages to be delivered at one stop. As of June 2018, Amazon Hub Lockers are located in more than 900 cities worldwide. These lockers reduce delivery costs and reduce the likelihood of package theft.

February 2012UPS launches their first electric-assist delivery pilot in Hamburg, Germany. 

October 2014UPS announces their own version of the Amazon Hub Locker, UPS Access Point Lockers. 

2015 - Grubhub begins offering delivery from restaurants in 50 U.S. cities.

December 2016UPS announces a pilot program to test electric-assist tricycles for urban deliveries in Portland, Oregon—the first in the United States. 

January 2018Amazon announces that more than 5 billion items were shipped with their Prime subscription service in 2017.  

January 2018Researchers at the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab  coin the term, the “final 50 feet” of delivery, referring to the final leg of between the curb  and the destination address. The researchers find that is the most expensive and time-consuming leg of goods delivery. 

June 2019Amazon’s CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, announces that “within months” packages ordered through Amazon Prime will begin to be delivered by drone.

September 2019 Amazon pledges to be carbon neutral by 2040 alongside purchasing 100,000 electric vans for to be used for deliveries.

November 2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic propels the growth of the on-demand delivery market.


Policies, Pilots, and approaches

Communication tools

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