Walk down Boylston Street near Copley Square around lunch time, and you’ll likely see a line of empty cars double-parked, red hazard lights flashing like out of sync bulbs on a Christmas tree.
The drivers will be nearby, huddled on the sidewalk outside a Chick-fil-A. They’re couriers for Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Grubhub, waiting for employees to hand over orders packed with sandwiches, waffle fries, and milkshakes. The same scene takes place again around dinner time, lasting until the fast food restaurant closes at 9 p.m.
Delivery apps offered a lifeline to restaurants early in the pandemic, when indoor dining was banned and al fresco wasn’t yet a thing. But the streets were mostly empty then. Today ― with traffic sometimes back to its before-times level ― parked delivery vehicles are further snarling already congested parts of Boston. That’s causing adjacent business to complain and forcing the city to take action in an effort to mitigate the problem.
“It’s really become a crisis for us in a few areas,” said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets. “These are services that primarily rely on people driving cars to pick up a food order. ... In places with limited parking or that are already congested, that can create enormous negative impacts.”
The most egregious example is on Boylston Street, where Boston’s first Chick-fil-A location opened in January, according to Franklin-Hodge.
“The orders come in at a volume that far exceeds the ability of the street to handle the cars,” he said. “The result is just chaos, basically the loss of a lane on Boylston Street, and a lot of safety concerns.”
Over the last several months, the City of Boston has been taking steps to address the issue. It’s replaced parking meters with free 5- and 10-minute food pickup zones in more than two dozen hotspots, including near Chick-fil-A, the High Street Place food hall in the Financial District, and pockets of the Fenway and South End neighborhoods.
Franklin-Hodge estimated that the pickup zones will cost the city “several hundred thousand dollars a year” in lost meter revenue, though he noted that it “shouldn’t be prioritizing meter revenue over safety.”
In an effort to ease the logjam, Chick-fil-A set up a pickup shelf on the sidewalk, so drivers can save time by grabbing orders without entering the store. Uber says that after the problem was brought to its attention, the company also limited how many orders Chick-fil-A can generate during certain hours.
But even with those measures in place, it’s still not exactly smooth sailing. On a recent weekday, about 20 delivery drivers stood outside Chick-fil-A, most leaving their cars double-parked.
“What’s become abundantly clear is that it’s not enough,” Franklin-Hodge said of the various attempts to untangle delivery-vehicle traffic, including the pickup zones.
Eric Herot, a tech worker who rides his bike past Chick-fil-A every weekday around 5 p.m., said he was “impressed” with Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration’s quick response, even though it isn’t working. But he also understands why drivers are disregarding the new rules ― time is money for them.
“The incentives for the drivers to turn things around quickly is so high,” he said.
As the city figures out what to do next, local business owners are running out of patience.
Adam Babcock, who runs a physical therapy and fitness studio next to the Boylston Street Chick-fil-A, said parking has always been challenging. But before the restaurant opened, he said he “never really had anybody complain.”
These days, the delivery-vehicle logjam is making people late to appointments, Babcock said. Sometimes his water cooler supplier postpones deliveries. Babcock said he even lost a new client who became frustrated after spending 30 minutes looking for parking.
“He was going to be late and just said, ‘I’m going home,’” said Babcock, the co-owner of Sustained Fitness and Physical Therapy. “That’s never happened before.”
Franklin-Hodge said he’s tried sending a dedicated parking enforcement officer to the area, but it’s hard to change the behavior of delivery drivers. That’s because the delivery app workforce has a high turnover rate, and drivers frequent hundreds of different restaurants per week. The odds of getting a ticket are low, and even when they do, it’s hardly a deterrent.
“We don’t view traditional enforcement as a particularly effective tool to manage the delivery apps,” he said.
During an appearance on GBH’s Boston Public Radio last week, Wu commented on the situation at Chick-fil-A. “Curb management is a key component of this,” she said in response to a call from a delivery app driver. “We cannot have traffic brought to standstill with double, triple parking.”
Franklin-Hodge said he’s in the process of finalizing a new set of curb guidelines, so the city can be more proactive and consistent when allocating free parking for food pickups. He’s mirroring work done by former mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration, which started a program to allocate curb space for ride-hail pickup and dropoff zones in 2019. The goal then was to minimize traffic congestion caused by people getting in and out of Uber and Lyft vehicles. (Food deliveries are now estimated to have exceeded Uber and Lyft rides in Massachusetts, according to a new report published by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.)
Josh Gold, a senior director of policy and communications at Uber, said other cities followed Boston’s lead after the city established pickup and drop-off zones for ride-hailing. He imagines a similar ripple effect if local officials figure out how to lessen the bottleneck around restaurants that take home-delivery orders.
“Boston was really the leader [in ride-share], and I think they’re being a leader here,” Gold said. “Other cities aren’t as willing to give up some of that parking space.”
Gold acknowledged that Uber has work to do, too. He said the company is using technology to try to reduce the amount of time drivers wait for orders to be completed, as well as to increase “batching,” which is when drivers pick up several orders from a restaurant at a time.
A spokesperson for DoorDash said the company is “working closely with local policymakers” and “eager” to “identify solutions” to pickup issues.
Franklin-Hodge said he’s also looking at ways to work with the state to set up something similar to the Massachusetts Transportation Network Company Division, which was established in 2016 to oversee the ride-share industry. In its report, the MAPC called for several legislative actions that would put food delivery under the same rules as the ride-hailing industry, such as requiring delivery companies to pay a fee that would be used to address their impact on local businesses and streets.
But Franklin-Hodge said the longer-term goal is to encourage couriers to make deliveries by bikes. Wu appointed Franklin-Hodge to her cabinet in January, charging him with expanding the city’s network of bicycle routes.
The city might consider partnering with companies that let delivery couriers rent electric bikes, he said. He’s also thought about trying to tax companies for every delivery made by car, then crediting them back that money for each delivery made by bike.
So far, the delivery companies seem open to working with Boston. Uber launched an incentive program in Boston to encourage bike deliveries, offering $50 to riders who made five trips by pedaling last week, Gold said.
“There are a whole lot of reasons why driving someone’s chicken sandwich around in a 4,000-pound SUV is a terrible thing for the city,” Franklin-Hodge said.