This is my final project for Shaping the Future of New York: The Eco-History of a Fragile Place at Macaulay Honors College.
Last September, I was making quesadillas at my apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. "Ah, shoot," I whispered to myself, after realizing I forgot to buy sour cream. I really didn't want to run to the store for the second time that day, especially to get just one ingredient.
Then I remembered a flurry of ads I saw on the subway for 1520 and Fridge No More, two grocery delivery apps that promise your items in about 15 minutes or less via bicycle couriers. To top it off, there was no minimum cart amount or delivery fees. It sounded too good to be true.
Within a few minutes, I downloaded 1520 and placed an order for just one container of sour cream. My total came out to $3.12. Nine minutes later, a cheerful courier knocked on my door and hands me a bag. "Whoa, that was so fast!" I say to him. I remember thinking, is this the future of groceries?
1520 later ran out of funding and shut down in early December. But plenty of other startups remained. In February, there was a rapid-grocery war: Buyk, Getir, JOKR, Gopuff, Fridge No More, and Gorillas were all operating in New York.
All of the apps offered generous discounts and even completely free orders in a bid to attract new customers. Some friends and I were coasting off of free groceries for weeks at a time, riding the free wave, hopping from app to app as new promotions popped up, and sometimes even creating multiple accounts to use the same promotion twice.
Since then, Buyk and Fridge No More, both primarily backed by Russian investors, shut down after sanctions likely impacted their access to capital.
How on Earth are these apps able to deliver food so quickly?! As I learned, it's a very well-oiled machine where little can go wrong.
Each of these companies maintain a network of micro-warehouses called "dark stores" that are strategically spread throughout the areas they deliver to. Dark stores appear at first like any ordinary grocery store, complete with carts and aisles filled with merchandise, but are "dark" because customers are not allowed inside.
Through reverse engineering and public records retrieval, I was able to create a list of every dark store in New York City. In the maps below, each app's dark store is plotted. The dark overlay shows which areas of the city that particular app can deliver to in under 10 minutes (which assumes 4 minutes to prepare the order and 6 minutes to deliver via bike), while the lighter overlay in under 15 minutes (assumes 4 minutes to prepare, 11 minutes to deliver).Map data from OpenStreetMap contributors
New York is the most population-dense metropolitan area in America, and its efficient grid system (for the most part) keeps traffic moving. To put it bluntly: there are so many people and its easy to get to them. That's an important part of why these start-ups chose New York to operate in during the industry's early stages. JOKR, for example, has seven dark stores in the city, a seemingly low number. Yet, they are able to deliver to any address in Manhattan below 117th Street in less than 15 minutes, allowing them to serve about 1.2 million people.
Inside, dark stores are typically busy in an organized fashion. While a supermarket is designed to have customers meander down as many aisles as possible, dark stores have to be designed the other way around. Typically, products in high demand are found at the beginning of the assembly line, while delicate items like bread and eggs are found at the end.
There are 3 primary roles: merchandisers, collectors, and couriers. Merchandisers are tasked with maintaining the store's inventory and keeping shelves well-stocked. Inventory technology keeps track of where each item is in the store, and notifies merchandisers when food items have expired and need to be removed.
When you place an order, a collector moves through the aisles with a cart that contains open bags. A device lists each item that you ordered in the order that it will be encountered on the assembly line. Before placing the item into the bag, the collector scans it to update the inventory system. Your order is normally bagged and ready to go mere minutes after you placed it!
A courier on a bicyle or e-scooter then takes your order, and maybe one or two other orders that are going in the same general direction as your's.
New York's influx of rapid grocery delivery start-ups has shown that bicycles are extraordinary methods of transporation, and should be adopted in other industries' last mile deliveries. They are the most efficient method of transporation in terms of minimizing calories per mile per person, even beating out walking and running.
When taking into consideration the climate crisis, the amount of carbon emissions produced as opposed to energy used is a more relevant measure of a mode of transporation's effectiveness. At first, bikes may seem to produce zero carbon, but the carbon emissions generated during the production and transporation of the food you eat while you cycle, and the carbon emssions generated during the production of your bike at the factory must be factored in. How do emissions generated while pedaling a normal bike compare to riding an e-bike?
Surprisingly, e-bikes produce less CO2 per unit of distance traveled than traditional bikes. Although e-bikes cost more in carbon to manufacture and in electricity to move, they use much less in food-related emissions. As a bonus, they move fast with no pedaling required.
|Conventional bike||Electric bike|
|Manufacturing emissions (g/km)||5||7|
|Food-related emissions (g/km)||16||6.3|
|Electricity emissions (g/km)||0||1.5|
A typical van produces 101 g/km. Although the amount of cargo that can fit on an e-bike trailer is smaller than the space inside a van, e-bikes can manuever in and out of traffic, and have a much easier time finding parking spaces. This means that deliveries can usually be completed much faster in congested urban areas. Quality of life and air quality are also improved with e-bikes. A neighborhood with quiet e-bikes buzzing by is much more attractive than one with large, loud trucks or vans.
New York City needs to prepare for, adapt, and usher in the next form of green last-mile commercial delivery. The city already has relatively comprehensive bike infrastructure, but can expand this to accomdate commercial bike traffic.
Particularly in commercial districts where there is frequent loading and unloading, growing bike lanes to have at least two distinct lanes would benefit not only commercial cyclists but also other cyclists. E-bikes move on average at 20 mph, while traditional bikes move at around 11 mph. Having distinct lanes for faster and slower bikes would make cycling safer for everyone and allow e-bikes to deliver cargo more quickly.
The 7th and 8th Avenue bike lanes in Manhattan are the clearest bike lanes to widen because these roads connect industrial areas in Midtown to residential and commercial areas either uptown or downtown.
Opening charging stations, or leasing out space to private companies to do the same, would further encourage the use of e-bikes in New York City. While e-bike ranges tend to be 20 to 30 miles, a full day of deliveries would require either stopping to charge for a few hours or replacing the battery. The city could create, or help create, a network of charging stations around the city that allow e-cyclists to charge their bike passively, or exchange their depleted battery for a full one.
Using strictly renewable forms of energy for these charging stations, like solar or wind, could further reduce the carbon emissions of e-bikes in the city.
There are many reasons why companies would opt to use e-bikes to deliver their products around the city now, like faster delivery times and fewer costs. But magnifying these effects will only make the transition to e-bike deliveries faster. For example, introducing the following policies will make deliveries by vans and trucks obselete faster: