Some of the most sought-after real estate in cities may end up being the space next to a curb. Thanks to online shopping, curbsides in dense urban areas now have to make way for delivery vehicles, in addition to electric vehicle charging ports, bike-share docking stations, smart parking meters or kiosks, and of course, pedestrians. The increasing number of curbside functions are far removed from merely parking a vehicle.

“As we think about reimagining our curbsides and redesigning our streets, we need to think about where the delivery activity is going to happen and where necessary distribution activity might happen,” said Alison Conway, an expert on transportation logistics challenges, e-commerce, and urban street-space. Conway spoke at City College in New York on Wednesday, April 18 during a Meeting of the Minds webinar. Meeting of the Minds is a nonprofit dedicated to studying smart cities issues and solutions.

“There’s just so much change happening, anybody who’s really concerned with urban freight needs to be sort of thinking about this,” said Michael Browne, professor of Logistics and Urban Freight Transport, School of Economics, Business and Law at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Cities face pressures to become more urban and dense, against the backdrop of a shifting retail landscape that has consumers increasingly dependent on e-commerce and having packages delivered to their homes or offices.

“And all of that takes place in a very constrained space environment, typically,” said Browne, who noted the growth rate of e-commerce is estimated to be 20 percent a year in many cities.

Cities are debating the issue of delivery vehicles and how to think innovatively about the use of curb space. This year’s Smart Cities Collaborative, organized by Transportation for America, an alliance of civic, business and elected officials, listed curb space and rights-of-way as the focus areas to be explored by the 22 cities selected for this year’s collaborative.

“In other words, how to think of the street-curb in terms of more than just a place for parking, but also maybe a place for recharging an e-vehicle,” said Russ Brooks, Smart Cities director at Transportation for America, in an interview with Government Technology last month to discuss the collaborative.

Many smart city planners envision a world where autonomous cars play a larger role in the mobility milieu. However, despite talk of Amazon delivery drones and the like, many deliveries will likely remain human-led, say researchers.

“I think there’s certainly going to be applications of it. I’m hesitant to say that autonomous vehicles are going to completely replace the human element to these deliveries,” said Conway. “Because one of the key concerns that carriers have is in the face-to-face interface. The carriers actually want to have a face-to-face connection with the customers who are receiving their goods.”

The ease of online shopping and e-commerce is quickly expanding to other areas, including grocery deliveries and consumer perks like extra-rapid deliveries. These shifts, say researchers, will force city planners and others to think about policy changes that accommodate new building design or delivery drop-off areas. For example, a typical residential apartment building may now need a loading dock or a freight elevator.

A study in New York, taking place in November and December 2016 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., used field observations where researchers stood at the curbside to examine the number and kinds of deliveries happening in eight residential buildings across four boroughs of the city. They found the most efficient and best use of curb space — getting the most packages unloaded at a single location with the smallest vehicle — was the typical step-through van, common to UPS, said Conway.

“What’s concerning about these results is that the less efficient (vehicle) is the passenger car and the cargo van, which are smaller type delivery vehicles,” she explained.

“As we continue down the road of e-commerce, and particularly e-commerce where the receiver has a specific say in the time and the speed with which a delivery arrives, we’re going to likely see more and more goods moving via those smaller modes and smaller shipment sizes, meaning that those deliveries are likely going to be done less efficiently than they are right now with these larger vehicles,” said Conway.

“Having very tight delivery time windows drives up the number of delivery trips that have to be made, typically,” Browne echoed.

When it comes to how added delivery trips and vehicles may affect urban congestion, it’s still hard to say, said Browne, who noted that if car ownership and use drops in cities — which many say is a trend to watch given the rise of “mobility-as-a-service” companies — this could make room for more delivery vehicles.

“We’re at the very early stage of these kinds of tradeoffs being made, despite the increase in e-commerce,” said Browne.