You may have encountered this situation lately in Manhattan while making your way down a sidewalk already crowded with trash bags, pedestrians, sidewalk sheds, and the odd parked police car. A big truck or two is parked at the curb, often starting in the morning. The trucks might be Amazon-branded or carry other names, some familiar, such as FedEx. The back doors roll up, and a crew of delivery workers begins sorting and stacking hundreds of boxes and pouches onto rolling dollies and hand trucks. Sometimes they’ll set up folding tables at the curb, but often the goods are piled in the parking lane. The crews unload and fan out, rain or shine, until all the boxes are gone. Effectively, they build a temporary micro–distribution warehouse hung off the back of a truck, one that disappears at the end of each day. It’s a shipping hub at the curb, and I have taken to calling it a hurb.
Is it legal? After a fashion. The hurb has been enabled, at least in part, by the stipulated-fine program, a maddening, if practical, New York City policy in which delivery companies agree in advance to slightly discounted parking fines in exchange for promising not to contest them. A parking ticket becomes, simply, a day rate factored into the budget as a cost of doing business. Moreover, Amazon usually isn’t the one paying. Hurb operators are, for the most part, contractors working for Amazon, what the company calls “fulfillment partners.” A handful of them have divvied up Manhattan into zones, each maybe 40 blocks up and down, east or west of Fifth Avenue; one serving Midtown East, for example, is called InZone Logistics. According to a federal filing, it has 40 drivers.
Although loading zones are nothing new, the hurb is a relatively recent creation, and it is, pretty clearly, an ad hoc solution to a hard-to-fix problem. Virtually all of us place orders online now. The national distribution network is breathtakingly fine-tuned, often bringing everything to within blocks of its destination in less than a day. About 2.4 million e-commerce packages go to New Yorkers every weekday, and in the central business district of Manhattan, the volume is especially, predictably intense. The last bit of the package’s journey, from there to your door — the “last mile” problem, about which plenty has been written — is, in less dense environments, largely a question of route-planning on the part of Amazon or UPS or FedEx. They can improve delivery times using more efficient mapping and scheduling technologies. In dense urban areas, however, the problem differs. It is simultaneously smaller — because density means you can pack a whole truckful for just, say, four blocks’ worth of Manhattan — and bigger, because the final fine-grained sorting is a headache. Hence the hurb.
The hurb works, but it is highly imperfect. The people working outside are, obviously, exposed to heat and cold, rain and snow. From a cyclist or streets-planning standpoint, it’s a catastrophe: Parking, bicycling, and bus lanes are supposed to be for parking, bicycles, and buses, not a delivery truck that’s parked for half a day. Loading zones, too, are typically time-limited, sometimes to 15 minutes, whereas these trucks often stay put for a few hours. It’s not so great for consumers, either, because who wants their school supplies or contact lenses sitting on damp asphalt or out in the pouring rain? (Sometimes the shipments are further encased in big vinyl zippered bags, but not always.) When Curbed’s Justin Davidson and a group of urbanism experts laid out a plan for the ideal New York street a couple of years ago, they proposed a marked-off chunk of side street, rather than just a commandeered parking spot, where trucks could unload and dollies and cargo bikes could be dispatched. It was, if you like, a designated hurb.
The city knows that the hurb is a problem — and that it fulfills a real need. (See this report by the Manhattan borough president’s office, from 2022, that proposes “making loading zones ubiquitous in all residential neighborhoods in Manhattan.”) Last month, the Department of Transportation proposed a pilot program to create loading zones much like the ones we illustrated in that story, and this week, a map of locations went up to solicit commentary. The response is predictably animated; nothing gets people going like losing free parking spots.
A big question, at least in dense Manhattan, is where these mini-hubs would go. There’s a huge functional difference between situating one every five blocks and one every 30 blocks, both for the people with the handcarts and the real-estate expense involved, and there is a similarly vast difference between putting one indoors (where workers are at least out of the weather as they sort and stack) and outside. In a just and imaginary world, Amazon would rent one of the very storefronts it has emptied out and use it as a mini-depot. Admittedly, that would turn potentially bustling shopping strips into permanent dark retail. But it’s better than leaving stores empty for years, which (at least in my neighborhood, and probably yours) is what we’re getting now. It would also get Amazon’s contract employees out of the rain.
This week, I solicited a few comments of my own at a Third Avenue hurb behind an InZone Logistics truck. There I met Elaf Jabr, a young guy who has clearly done some thinking about this. Jabr was a little skeptical of the city’s plan. “You’d need so many,” he said, suggesting that this situation, though it looks chaotic, is actually pretty workable. “Look, that’s just the ethos of the city,” he said, gesturing down the avenue. “We set up here, and everything — bikes, cars — flows around us. People deal with it.” When I offered that Amazon should rent a storefront for all of this, he said, “Yeah, but Amazon’s not going to pay a few thousand a month when they can pay $50 a day for parking.” Almost certainly true.
But around the corner, where two men were unloading FedEx boxes onto handcarts, I got a different response. They hadn’t heard about the city’s plan yet, so I described the dedicated zones that were on the table. One guy paused for a moment to consider and then raised his eyebrows and nodded. “That,” he said, “would be great.”