In an ever-escalating race to get packages to your door faster, Amazon is opening shipping centers at a rapid clip in suburban towns all over Greater Boston — more rapidly, in fact, than those towns can figure out how to regulate them.
Now some of those suburbs are joining forces, trying to devise a regional approach to managing traffic and other issues related to all these warehouses, and to make sense of a segment of the retail industry that has grown rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic and shows no signs of slowing.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council recently released a 64-page report on the spread of e-commerce in Massachusetts. It focused on the front lines of the industry, the last-mile distribution centers that serve as way stations for packages dropped off overnight by the truckload and ushered out each morning by fleets of delivery drivers.
They’re cropping up all over Greater Boston, as Amazon and its competitors expand their delivery networks closer to where customers live.
“There’s an expectation now that deliveries happen ASAP,” said Alison Felix, a transportation planner with MAPC who authored the report. “To meet that demand, companies are really focusing on these distribution centers.”
Amazon has 20 of them in Massachusetts ― 10 of which opened since the start of 2020 — and 14 more are in the works, according to the council’s report. When they’re all up and running, Amazon will occupy 12.1 million square feet of warehouse space in the state, most of it along or inside Route 495.
Earlier this month, the Globe reported that Amazon is in the running to secure a site for a major shipping center at Widett Circle, just south of downtown Boston. The company is considering malls and big-box stores, too ― brick-and-mortar retail spaces that can be repurposed for the online age.
Other major retailers are also gobbling up warehouse space. Last week, home improvement chain Lowe’s leased a 179,000-square-foot warehouse in Wilmington, while Peloton earlier this month signed a five-year deal for a 75,000 square-foot shipping center in Middleborough, the better to get its exercise bikes to buyers faster.
No one, though, has an operation like Amazon, whose trademark blue delivery vans and legions of “Flex” drivers in their personal cars fan out in waves from warehouses, sometimes several times a day.
Those trips take them through communities such as Dedham, where the company is seeking permission to more than triple the size of the 60,000-square-foot shipping center on Sprague Street it opened about five years ago.
Even at its current size, neighbors say, traffic generated by the busy warehouse clogs nearby streets with hundreds of vehicles a day. Residents are often roused from their sleep in the wee hours by the rumble of 16-wheelers. Some residents are pressuring the planning board to rein in Amazon’s expansion plans, and the project has been stalled for months as the debate continues.
It can be hard to strike a balance between the desires of residents and the needs of businesses that occupy the same neighborhoods, said Dedham planning director Jeremy Rosenberger. That part of Sprague Street, just over the town line from Boston, has been industrial for decades, and is zoned for warehouses. Amazon wants to expand into space that was vacated by distribution centers for Macy’s and Restoration Hardware, but those kinds of warehouses generated far less traffic.
“Trucks would come and go, and workers would arrive and leave, but it’d be pretty quiet,” Rosenberger said. “Amazon runs a 24/7 operation.”
Adding to the frenzied activity, Amazon has changed the way it operates warehouses, speeding up delivery cycles and bringing in more drivers to meet customer demand. About five years ago, Everett approved a 51,000-square-foot Amazon warehouse on Beacham Street, near its bustling produce center along the Chelsea line. The city thought it had a handle on the amount of traffic Amazon would generate, said Jay Monty, a transportation planner for Everett. Then Amazon launched Flex.
“Everything changed. Suddenly [personal cars] were driving a lot in and out of the place,” he said. “It’s a much harder thing to track, much harder to regulate.”
The city is now asking operators of large warehouses to craft transportation management plans — the sort of thing more commonly associated with big mixed-use developments in Boston — as they go through permitting. Monty hopes it will help mitigate the impact of a 222,000 square-foot distribution center that was recently approved for the city’s bustling warehouse district. No tenant has yet been announced, but Amazon is always a possibility.
Then there are towns that don’t have an Amazon warehouse, but are nonetheless affected by them.
Like Wrentham, which straddles Route 495 just north of the Rhode Island line. There are Amazon distribution centers nearby in Bellingham and Milford, and another one preparing to open next door in Mansfield. Amazon leases the lot of an undeveloped shopping center site in Wrentham as a satellite parking for delivery drivers, said planning and economic development director Rachel Benson. That alone generates dozens of extra car trips at busy times of day, and even causes lines at gas stations.
“I get calls about it all the time,” Benson said. “People ask, ‘Did you approve one of those Amazon warehouses?’”
She is part of a group of local planners and administrators in the southwest region of Greater Boston — where Amazon’s distribution network is thickest ― who are starting to think about solutions that are broader than what any one community can execute.
That, Benson said, might include working with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation — which maintains many of the roads that delivery drivers travel — to better regulate traffic. Or it might involve mandating the kind of rigorous state environmental review that’s typically required for larger office or residential projects, but not for most distribution centers.
MAPC is collaborating with Benson and her colleagues on a variety of ideas. The agency’s recent report floats the prospect of requiring e-commerce companies to share more data about their delivery routes, or offering incentives to minimize trips. Eric Bourassa, director of transportation at MAPC, acknowledges that it doesn’t yet have an answer for dealing with the proliferation of Amazon centers.
“We raised more issues than we actually have policy solutions for at this point,” he said.
Amazon disputed some of MAPC’s findings, saying the report “is not an accurate reflection of the benefits associated with our growth in Massachusetts.” Warehouses, the company said, effectively reduce driving by replacing car trips of individual shoppers with a single delivery van. It added that Amazon has created 20,000 jobs across the state in recent years, and has invested $6.2 billion over the last decade in Massachusetts facilities, infrastructure, and worker pay.
There is no disagreement over the reality of the e-commerce boom. Online shopping accounts for about 14 percent of retail sales, but that number has doubled in the last five years and continues to increase.
“What happens when it doubles again? When it gets to 30 percent?” What does that look like?” Bourassa said. “We’re really only at the beginning of this.”