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Adam Minter

Making Cities Safe for E-Commerce

An explosion in on-demand deliveries threatens to add to urban congestion and chaos globally. 

Delivery drivers are clogging Chinese streets. 

Delivery drivers are clogging Chinese streets. 

Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Digital commerce is exacting a very analog toll on the streets of Shanghai. According to the city’s Information Office, there were 324 traffic accidents -- and five deaths -- involving delivery drivers during the first half of 2019. China is the world’s biggest e-commerce market and more than 80% of those drivers were dropping off packages and meals for services such as Meituan Dianping and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s Ele.Me. It’s a sign of how fast the market is expanding: For the whole of 2017, there were only 117 delivery-related accidents in the city.

Shanghai's data highlights a global problem: Cities are unprepared to absorb the physical impact of e-commerce. For now, most problems don’t yet rise above the level of annoyances. But the risks will grow quickly if developers and municipal leaders don’t start to account for e-commerce when developing urban regulations and infrastructure.