Zoning and the Urban Freight System

December 12, 2018

The movement of freight in America depends on a complex system that reaches from seaports to front porches. We bump up against parts of that system daily, from the delivery truck or warehouse we pass on the way to work to the package we sign for to the trip to the grocery store in the evening.

The urban freight system includes built and mobile components that physically transport freight (the “hardware”), such as roads, distribution centers, loading areas, vehicles, and drivers, as well as components that direct how those physical components work (the “software”), including actual software for routing and tracking, shipping contracts, regulations, etc.  Zoning regulations focus on the location, shape, and operation of a slice of the “hardware.” For example, many zoning codes regulate where distribution centers can be located, the size and configuration of loading areas for particular uses, and the hours of the day when deliveries are allowed.

During a recent zoning update meeting, we were asked, “does the treatment of distribution centers in our zoning ordinance reflect the range of facilities that are emerging in the modern economy?” In many communities, the answer would be “No”— because e-commerce is quickly changing the way goods are delivered.

Consider, for example, the Amazon Prime Now service offered in a few dozen cities (52 currently), which promises delivery of products, including groceries, within hours of when they are ordered online. Amazon’s “software” to manage the complex logistics is one essential piece, but it also needs new “hardware” to operate well. The service depends on the ability to distribute products from smaller, more dispersed facilities, drawing on a variety of means for “last mile” delivery. This “hardware,” which includes grocery stores, small distribution centers (Prime Now Hubs), and contracted delivery in personal vehicles, is different from what many zoning ordinances might define as a typical distribution center servicing tractor trailers.

So, how might the zoning code adapt? A good starting point is the range of distribution facilities the code defines and regulates. Each community will have its own idea of what is an appropriate range, but here are some examples of facilities that might be added:


We generally suggest that communities look at their current definitions of permitted uses to see whether they could be modified to encompass new varieties of those uses before adding a new (and often narrowly defined) permitted use. Besides looking at permitted and conditional uses, communities should also consider revising loading space requirements, keeping in mind that some “hardware” is moving away from infrequent activity by large vehicles toward more frequent activity by smaller vehicles.  Some communities are reducing the number or size of loading spaces required, while others are exempting small and medium-sized facilities from loading space requirements.

Looking forward, change in the urban freight system will probably be driven by even newer technologies for last mile delivery (e.g., autonomous vehicles, drones), increased dispersion of the production of goods outside of traditional industrial areas (e.g., makerspaces, light manufacturing in office and commercial settings), increasing populations of urban dwellers, and the growing need for home delivery of goods and services to an aging population. So, zoning ordinances will need to continue to evolve.

By Tim Richards, AICP

Photo Credits: Michael RiveraUPS Access Point lockers, ValdostaCC BY-SA 4.0

MobiusDaXter, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0