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Online Orders in Manhattan May Soon Arrive by Ferry

People who live in Manhattan could soon get their yoga mats, air fryers and game consoles delivered by ferry.

A New York lawyer and a British maker of electric cargo bicycles, with encouragement from UPS, are proposing to revive the use of Manhattan piers as a conduit for goods, bypassing bridges and tunnels that have become increasingly snarled with trucks and vans delivering all the stuff that residents order online.

The lawyer, William Wachtel, who is also chairman of the company that operates the Downtown Manhattan Heliport along the East River, and Fernhay, a British company that has developed a system for urban package transport, unveiled their plan on Wednesday.

Beginning in the spring, if all goes well, a dedicated ferry will deposit containers of packages at the heliport. The containers would then be transported on lightweight trailers, preferably hauled by electric vehicles, to drop-off points around Manhattan. From there delivery companies will distribute the packages using battery-powered handcarts or cargo bicycles.

The idea of using the waterfront for cargo is hardly new. Manhattan was once a thriving global port of entry for cargo like cotton, iron or grain. But in the last century waterborne cargo has all but disappeared, replaced by fleets of trucks and vans crawling over the bridges and through the tunnels that connect Manhattan with other parts of the region.

The need to reduce climate-changing emissions and congestion from delivery trucks has become more urgent during the coronavirus pandemic. Traffic has soared in New York City with a boom in e-commerce that has put more trucks on the roads and increasingly sent them into residential neighborhoods.

Truck traffic at six major crossings to New York City from New Jersey — including the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels — rose to 638,725 trucks in September, up from 620,150 trucks in the same month in 2019, before the pandemic, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the crossings.

The plan in New York is modeled after similar programs elsewhere, including in Dublin, where it was developed by Fernhay in partnership with UPS, the package delivery giant.

UPS vans take packages to so-called microdistribution centers near central Dublin. Narrow four-wheeled Fernhay vehicles known as eQuads, powered by a combination of batteries and human pedal power, take packages to their destinations.

The Dublin system accounts for a relatively small proportion of deliveries there, said Colm Ennis, senior executive engineer in the city’s Environment and Transportation Department.

“It hasn’t been a game changer,” Mr. Ennis said. But he added that any reduction in traffic was welcome and that the Fernhay system was putting pressure on UPS rivals to reduce their contributions to traffic and emissions.

“Where it is having a bigger impact is making the other companies think about what they’re doing,” Mr. Ennis said.

UPS, which has promised to reduce its net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero by 2050, already uses bicycles extensively in Europe. In Munich, for example, most deliveries in the center city are made by bikes, said Peter Harris, vice president for international sustainability at UPS.

But he said that most of the cargo bikes available today were not rugged enough for UPS, prompting the company to work with Fernhay to develop vehicles suited to its needs.

The eQuads, as well as battery-powered handcarts that can travel on sidewalks, are made to carry a standardized box holding numerous packages. The boxes are loaded in central distribution hubs, reducing the amount of handling a toaster oven or loungewear set requires to reach its city center customer. They are a scaled-down version of the containers that have been used for decades to move international cargo.

“Shipping containers revolutionized the shipping industry a number of years ago,” Mr. Harris said. “The smaller containers we are talking about here could revolutionize city logistics.”

In New York, the plan is for a dedicated NY Waterway ferry to bring loaded containers from freight terminals in Bayonne, N.J., and Red Hook in Brooklyn to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. Mr. Wachtel, founding partner of Wachtel Missry, a Manhattan firm, is chairman of Saker Aviation, which operates the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. He is also an investor in Fernhay.

At the heliport, the mini-containers will be loaded on trailers and taken to locations around the city, where they will be transferred to battery-powered handcarts for delivery. The eQuad bikes will be used sparingly in New York, said Robin Haycock, a veteran automotive engineer who is a co-founder of Fernhay. “Manhattan lends itself more to walkers,” he said.

Fernhay and Mr. Wachtel are not seeking public money to finance the project, and only routine municipal approvals will be needed to begin operating, he said. While UPS looks favorably on the project, it has stopped short of making a commitment.

“We are exploring the feasibility of taking this model from European cities to the U.S.,” Lauren Spangler, a UPS spokeswoman, said by email.

The partners hope to attract other customers like FedEx, Amazon and Ikea. To convert the heliport to receive ferries, Mr. Wachtel said, “all you do is float in a barge.”

The freight-by-ferry plan comes as city officials announced a renewed effort to reduce the city’s reliance on truck traffic and promote a more sustainable freight delivery system at a news conference at Pier 79 in Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon.

During the news conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio posed for photos in a Fernhay eQuad with a UPS logo on the side. “This thing is surprisingly roomy,” he said.

By 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 — according to transportation experts.

In response, city officials have taken steps such as promoting off-hour truck deliveries, expanding neighborhood loading zones and working with e-commerce and shipping companies, including Amazon and DHL, to use cargo bikes as an alternative to delivery trucks.

The city’s growing truck traffic has made its streets less safe for pedestrians and cyclists and worsened congestion and pollution, said Sarah M. Kaufman, the associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

Turning to ferries as an alternative, Ms. Kaufman said, was a smart, multipronged approach to addressing a truck problem that was only going to get worse as people continue to shop online even after the pandemic ends.

“Manhattan is an island and we don’t make adequate use of our waterfront,” she said. “If we can reduce traffic on the street and make more productive use of our waterways, we’ll see a slew of benefits.”

Manhattan’s thriving population and factories helped transform its waterfront into a center for shipping, trade and commerce in the 1800s and early 1900s, said Kurt C. Schlichting, a sociology professor at Fairfield University and author of the 2018 book “Waterfront Manhattan.”

Ships carried machinery and iron and steel from England to build railroads, sugar cane from the Caribbean and cotton from the American South.

But Professor Schlichting added that this once-bustling waterfront later languished in part because trucks started moving cargo on highways and Manhattan’s crowded docks and streets were ill suited for the industry’s shift to container shipping, which offered a more efficient way to move cargo in large metal boxes.

Professor Schlichting said he liked the idea of bringing freight back to the Manhattan waterfront, but he questioned how practical it would be to ship large volumes of freight to a waterfront that is crowded today with recreational users.

“To repurpose the waterfront another time for the delivery of freight, I think it would be hard to keep up with the scale — in other words, all the packages,” he said.

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