Transportation

What Does One-Hour Delivery Mean For Houston’s Future?

As people want their items delivered faster and faster, what’s the impact on Houston’s infrastructure?

 

A dispatcher at Hour Messenger in Houston's Energy Corridor uses both a computer and index cards to keep track of deliveries.
A dispatcher at Hour Messenger in Houston’s Energy Corridor uses both a computer and index cards to keep track of deliveries.

Like a lot of Houstonians, James Livingston enjoys ordering things on his smart phone.

“Sometimes its music, sometimes its electronics, people’s birthdays,” says Livingston. 

We meet up with Livingston near his job at a Greeway Plaza travel agency. From the convenience of a table in the food court, Livingston is about to do some shopping with his Amazon Prime Now app.

He’s buying a bathroom scale, something he says he’ll need for the holidays.

“You have the opportunity to search for items by name,” Livingston explains. “Or they’ve broken it down into certain categories.”

Livingston has several options for delivery. He can pay extra and get his scale in an hour. He opts instead for the two-hour delivery, which is free.

We then head back to Livingston’s office to wait for his package, to see how long it takes. And it appears he’s not the only one expecting a delivery.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, online sales brought in over $87 billion in the third quarter of 2015, an increase of 4.2 percent over the second quarter.

But as people want their bathroom scales and other items delivered faster and faster, what’s the impact on Houston’s infrastructure? Harris County Judge Ed Emmett talked about it at a recent transportation conference.

“Such a high percentage of goods now are being ordered online and you have to have distribution centers and fulfillment centers,” says Emmett. “And since we’re a huge market clearly we’re going to have a lot of those.”

Logistics experts now see a different model when it comes to fulfilling orders. Goods were once shipped from a central location. But to meet the demands of same-day service, those goods now have to be sent from fulfillment centers closer to the customer.

And to make the system work in a congested city like Houston, it’s going to take some careful planning. Allen Rutter is a researcher with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

“I think it’s mainly a matter of keeping track of the overall activity that’s happening on the roadways, says Rutter. “The length of those trips, the frequency, the timing of when they happen, and being able to respond to those changes in traffic patterns as you plan for the future.”

We also visited with Randy Ward at Hour Messenger in the Energy Corridor. For them, one-hour deliveries are nothing new. The company has been doing speedy deliveries around Houston for over three decades.

“We’re just couriering what the clients want,” says Ward. “And that’s an array of all kinds of different things.”

As for how Houston’s delivery business evolves as a result of e-commerce, Ward says companies have to speed things up if they want to stay competitive.

“If somebody can do it in less than one hour, more power to them,” says Ward. “It’s survival of the fittest. The other delivery services are going to have to come up to the plate or they’ll be bought and acquistioned to other companies, into larger companies.”

So just how much will Houstonians pay for delivery trucks to bring items right to their front door? We also talked to Jon Sorensen, a former transportation professional who now teaches logistics at Lone Star College Cy-Fair.

“We really need to look again at what does the customer wants,” says Sorensen. “So I think the important thing is, you need to survey and actually find out what does the customer envision. Not now, but what are their needs going to be.”

In the lobby of his Greenway Plaza office, James Livingston is getting what he wants. Well within the two-hour delivery window, a courier walks in with his new bathroom scale.

And many more people could soon be trying out those fast delivery services. According to some forecasts, e-commerce could pump over $392 billion into the U.S. economy in 2016.

This story originally aired and was posted online on November 30, 2015.

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Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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