In the city’s quest to handle increasing volumes of freight pouring into the five boroughs while preserving the aging infrastructure, Mayor Bill de Blasio has a plan: look to the water.
In his “Delivering Green” program unveiled Wednesday, de Blasio said New York City will make maritime shipping a bigger part of what’s called “last-mile” services – where packages are delivered to consumers' doorsteps – by building a distribution network using boats, cargo bikes, micro-trucks and rail and removing more 18-wheelers from city streets.
“One of the best ways to fight climate change is to get away from a society, an economy dominated by big trucks,” de Blasio said at a news conference that did not allow for questions.
“We are unduly dependent upon large diesel trucks, way more than any of our peer cities,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman at the same event. He called the East and Hudson rivers the city’s first highways: “Why is New York City at this particular geographic location? Because of its harbor and its waterways.”
Since the city's ports are already the largest on the East Coast, officials said building maritime infrastructure to bring goods directly to New Yorkers from those ports made sense.
The maritime freight project will first focus on modernizing the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal and renovating the Red Hook Piers. The city hopes to use more than $150 billion in funding from the federal infrastructure bill to build out the “Delivering Green” plans in the next five years.
The need for a new distribution network has only grown more urgent as online shopping shows no signs of slowing down. “E-commerce is rapidly growing, accounting for 14% of all retail sales in 2020 - a 3% increase from 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the average growth of 0.65% from previous years. This results in the growing number of delivery vehicles on city streets,” said the city’s Department of Transportation and the public-private Economic Development Council in a joint report issued Wednesday.
“Since January of 2020, the NYC Department of Transportation (NYC DOT) estimates that freight traffic across the Hudson River has already increased by over 50%,” the report said.
Transportation experts, the New York Times reported, believe that "[b]y 2045, the total volume of freight moving through New York City has been projected to hit 540 million tons a year, up from 365 million tons today — most of which is carried on trucks."
And the maritime freight program won’t necessarily alleviate traffic issues that could arise from warehouses built inside city limits.
“At least five facilities supporting e-commerce are in the works in Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Sunset Park alone, according to tracking by local groups and elected officials,” the CITY reported. And the rise of these e-commerce facilities in Brooklyn has taken a dangerous toll, with collisions along Third Avenue and two cyclists killed in 2021.
One environmental analyst said any move to take trucks off city roads could be "a huge opportunity" especially as marine vessels can be safer for water and air quality.
"There are hybrid vessels, there are electric vessels, there are cleaner burning fuels in marine vessels," said Karen Imas, the vice president of programs at Waterfront Alliance. "We've actually learned a lot, I think, from looking at countries like Norway and what they've been able to do with things like electric ferries, or even electric freight movement on their waterways. And so there are certainly best practices out there for implementation, and removing those truck miles off the road in one marine vessel, I think in the bigger environmental picture, is really environmentally sound and something we need to consider as we restructure freight distribution."
Other elements of the “Delivering Green” plan include increasing off hours deliveries of packages and expanding "Neighborhood Loading Zones" to cut down on double-parking.
The plan also calls for better enforcement of overweight trucks on city roads, which has been blamed for the alarming deterioration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The DOT and EDC report said the city is installing weight sensors on the BQE to crack down on overweight trucks, though Governor Kathy Hochul still needs to approve legislation for the sensors — it was not immediately clear if the city has already started installing them.