Checking In: The Last Grimy Mile

At the end of March, in between nor’easters in New York City, I went out for a lunchtime stroll. I wanted to check out the 14 new gleaming skyscrapers of the Hudson Yards development—a “self contained, e-commerce friendly city within a city”—where thousands of young urban professionals won’t ever have to leave their apartments to enjoy every modern convenience. E-commerce will serve most of their consumption needs.

During most of my walk I looked up. But while heading east on 33rd Street, I looked down and saw a stack of shipments piled two feet high and four feet long on the grimy sidewalk, many with that familiar smiling logo. I didn’t see anyone making deliveries, so I wondered who would leave a stack of 40 packages unattended on the sidewalk, especially in midtown Manhattan. I also wondered what was in those boxes—iPhones? Food? Prescriptions?

About 12 feet away, past a pile of garbage bags and some grayish melting snow, I saw a smaller stack of packages in the street and on the sidewalk. An ununiformed worker (I assumed that’s what he was) unloaded more boxes from a beat-up, dirty, unmarked white van, while his helper sat on the van bed. He scanned boxes with his cell phone and casually added them to the pile in the gutter. Gravity was his helper. The whole situation struck me as odd because I’ve witnessed many city deliveries by professionally uniformed workers from UPS, FedEx, DHL, XPO, the U.S. Postal Service, and others, and they always keep a watchful eye on the packages they are responsible for.

Looking west back over my shoulder, I had a chain of custody chuckle. World-class DC automation, stunning warehouse technology, DC robots, cobots, new truck fleets, an air force sporting that familiar Amazon smile, drone deliveries, and e-commerce technology second to none truly builds a testament to the inventiveness and hard work of thousands of workers. Yet, in between melting snow puddles, separated by bags of NYC garbage, I saw the last mile of all that effort and technology ironically happening in the shadow of the most modern, glass-clad skyscraping apartments anywhere in the city. The 10,000 or more residents who will be Prime customers for these e-commerce deliveries likely won’t know that the deliveries they are anxiously waiting for might be bounced to the curb from the back of an aged and dented van by a casually dressed, newly hired, Uberesque delivery team.

Let’s hope this episode only reflects growing pains and not the norm. Has the uberization of freight ushered in an era of the last grimy mile? Let’s hope not.

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