26 October 2018

Is Amazon Sending UPS Back To Its Roots?

I could've been....a UPS delivery person.

Actually, I was, for about four weeks.  The venerable delivery company hired me one holiday season:  from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.  Back then, the company employed a lot of "helpers" during that time of year.  Many of us were students, as I was.  We didn't drive:  We rode the trucks for a minute or two, leaped off, delivered a few packages, leaped back on and repeated a few hundred times.

I don't know whether UPS still hires extra help during that season.  The pay, as I recall, was decent, but as my driver said, "You earn it."  He was right:  Even though I was young and in good condition (mainly from cycling), I was still tired at the end of a shift:  I'd have just enough energy to ride my bike home.  But it was, in some ways, a satisfying job, at least for those few weeks:  People were usually happy to see us, and I got a few tips and gifts.

That driver, and our supervisor, suggested that I might want to get a driver's license and work for them permanently.  Sometimes I wonder whether I should have:  I understand the retirement benefits are good, and I could have retired by now.  Then again, even if I had more desire to drive at all, I'm not sure that I would have wanted to do it all day.

If I'd been born a few decades earlier, I could have been a bike messenger for them.  After all, I later plied the streets of Manhattan on two wheels, delivering everything from slices of pizza to documents pertaining to mergers, divorces and every other proceeding you can think of--and a few small packages with mysterious contents. (Well, at least I wasn't supposed to know what was in them. But, given their destinations, it wasn't hard to tell.)  And UPS was in the bike messenger business.

In fact, that's how it started more than a century ago:  a few young men delivered packages by bicycle and on foot in Seattle.  Now, it seems that UPS is returning to its roots, sort of.

It's partnered with the Seattle Department of Transportation and the University of Washington in a pilot program to make deliveries in the city's downtown area, around the Pike Place Market.  The program will involve e-bikes pulling wagons with detachable cargo trailers.  Those vehicles remind me a bit of the tuk-tuks I rode while in Cambodia and Laos. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the designers were inspired, at least in part, by them:  these containers can carry up to 400 pounds, and four adult humans (of Western size) can ride in the cab of a tuk-tuk.

According to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, the alliance will "help us better understand how we can ensure the delivery of goods while making space on our streets for transit, bikes and pedestrians."  Seattle, like other American cities, has experienced an increase in motorized traffic in spite of growing numbers of cyclists, pedestrians and people who use mass transit.  

While UPS and other couriers (including the US Postal Service and Fed Ex) can't be blamed for it, one could say they are vehicles (no pun intended) for it:  According to a report from the World Economic Forum and Deloitte, in the decade from 2005 to 2015, the global total number of parcels delivered increased by 128 percent.  Much of this increase, according to researchers, is a result of consumers increasingly having single items shipped at a time.  This trend has been fueled, in large part, by retailers like Amazon and Walmart--who use UPS and the other carriers I've mentioned--who make it easy to order, and offer free shipping on, cheap items.   

If the collaboration between the UPS, the city and the university proves successful, UPS says it will be expanded to other parts of the Emerald City.  It could also be exported to other cities experiencing traffic congestion problems.

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