The number of grocery deliveries enabled by app-based companies like DoorDash, UberEats and Grubhub has likely doubled in Massachusetts since the pandemic began, reflecting national trends.
The findings were detailed in a recent report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Researchers are now pushing for further study of food delivery data and its impact on climate change, traffic congestion and the restaurant industry.
Researchers estimate that the number of third-party food deliveries in Massachusetts has skyrocketed from about 45 million in 2019 to about 60 million in 2020 and more than 100 million in 2021. This exponential growth has meant that grocery deliveries have become more common in the state than ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft.
Researchers found that grocery deliveries could have a bigger impact on Massachusetts than ride-hailing services. Both contribute to road congestion, idling and the resulting emissions, as well as greater competition for parking leading to unsafe and illegal practices such as double parking on bus and bike lanes.
But food delivery drivers are likely to spend more time looking for or illegally parking. They are also likely to spend more time waiting in their cars for their next assignment. Additionally, most grocery deliveries are within one to five miles, according to the report. Therefore, a transition to more sustainable delivery methods such as bicycles or electric mopeds could be important.
According to the report, the number of food delivery app users nationwide has nearly doubled in five years, rising from 66 million in 2015 to 111 million in 2020. A survey conducted last year found that 6.5% of U.S. adult consumers use food apps to order deliveries daily, and 42% do so at least once a month, according to the report.
Even before the pandemic, Boston was one of the top areas in the country for food delivery. It ranked third in the country by per capita food delivery spending in 2019. Before the pandemic, residents spent an average of more than $500 a year on restaurant deliveries.
Complicating things further is the proliferation of ghost kitchens and micro-fulfillment centers (MFCs). Ghost kitchens, as defined in the report, are commercial establishments that house one or more restaurant operators who prepare food solely for online takeaway or delivery orders. According to the report, MFCs are stores that stock items for order fulfillment and delivery, but are often not open to the public to do retail business.
Researchers acknowledge that ghost kitchens and MFCs can cause customers to place smaller and more frequent orders, which then leads to more idle time, more emissions and more traffic problems. Such facilities also do not help sustain foot traffic in business parks, potentially dampening an area’s vibrancy and hampering its economic vitality.
“As ghost kitchens and MFCs are likely to contribute to a lack of street vitality and social energy, increase traffic congestion and cause conflict with pedestrians on major roads and business parks, municipalities should proactively consider their trade-offs,” the report’s authors wrote.
The workers who keep the entire food delivery system running could be struggling to make ends meet in one of the country’s most expensive cities. Most app-based food delivery companies consider their drivers to be independent contractors, according to the report. Drivers tend to be non-white, younger, immigrants and on lower incomes.
“As independent contractors, whether delivering by car or otherwise, they face confusing regulations and liability insurance options,” authorities wrote. “These employees, often referred to as gig workers, consider the money they make from these jobs to be essential or important to meeting basic needs, but many make less than $16 an hour after expenses such as transportation and Insurance.”
The MAPC offered a long list of recommendations for lawmakers, state regulators, and local officials. Their recommendations include:
- The requirement for food delivery platforms to report data to the state, including data on precise journey origins, destinations, time spent at the curb, and time of day.
- An assessment of the trips made by food delivery drivers, designed to “promote more sustainable travel options that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and have fewer adverse impacts on roadside access and safety”.
- Ensuring delivery workers are paid fairly and work in a safe work environment.
- Requiring companies to offer insurance and safety training for drivers.
- Expanding access to e-bikes and electric vehicles for delivery drivers.
- Implement “curb management strategies” that determine delivery vehicle parking spaces, assess loading requirements, and adjust zoning as necessary.
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