Guest post: Biking away (some of) my Amazon Prime guilt

The author on his Benno e-bike.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

This story is by northwest Portland resident, Planning & Sustainability Commissioner and devoted civic activist, Chris Smith.

I confess, I’m a heavy user of Amazon Prime. Not in the “I’m too lazy to go to the grocery store” way, but more of a “there’s so much selection, I can get exactly the thing I’m looking for!” way. If I can buy what I need locally, I definitely do.

I’m aware of the potential negative impacts of this convenience: exploitation of workers at Amazon warehouses, impact on local retail and — especially given the focus of my activism — last mile impacts on the local transportation system.

I think I have an answer for that last point: Amazon Lockers.

Amazon has been aggressively opening locations where you can have your package shipped to other than your home. Their motivations for this probably include faster delivery and addressing the needs of people who can’t receive packages at home for some reason. I find the lockers attractive for several reasons:

I think this is a good potential solution to the last-mile delivery problem; but it’s clear to me Amazon has not thought about bicycle access as a priority issue.

1) I can pick up my packages by bike, rather than having a delivery vehicle congest the local street network.

2) I can (for most locations) strip the outside packaging. This makes it easier for me to transport my purchase and makes Amazon responsible for recycling the packaging, helping motivate them to use the lowest-impact packaging.

3) Removes the risk of porch theft. This is not a big risk for me, we’ve had one incident in 24 years at our current home, but it’s a source of anxiety.

4) If you’re returning items you can drop them off at some locker locations to avoid return shipping fees.

There are three locker locations reasonably convenient to my NW Portland home: the main downtown hub location on SW Jefferson; the locker at the Whole Foods in the Pearl; and a locker at the Security Public Storage self-storage facility in the NW Industrial district. The first two are open every day of the week, are staffed and offer a range of services. The NW Industrial location is not staffed and has limited hours and services.

The general drill is that you get an email when your package is available, and when you arrive or approach the locker, you click on a link in the e-mail to get a barcode on your phone that opens a locker bay door for you. Without a phone I assume you have to interact with staff, which would rule out unstaffed locations.

At a staffed location, I believe what happens is that the request for the barcode causes staff to retrieve your package and put it in a locker that you can open. For oversized items you’ll be directed to a counter where staff will scan your barcode. A staffed location will hold your package for a couple weeks.

That rules out oversized items at unstaffed locations. At unstaffed locations the items are also pre-placed in lockers, so you are given fewer days (4 or 5) to pick up your purchase.

Once I figured out how the system worked, the big question for me was, “How bike-friendly are these locations?” What I’ve found is that it varies a lot.


I lock to a pole because there’s no bike parking outside the Amazon Lockers on SW Jefferson.
(Photo: Chris Smith)

Downtown on SW Jefferson: Directly on a bike lane, but virtually no bike parking! Depending on the direction you approach from, you are likely to cross Streetcar rails. I often go a block or so out of my to make sure I’m not turning across the rails. There’s one bike parking staple next to the deli on the corner, but nothing mid-block where the Amazon storefront is. In fact I’m pretty sure bike parking has been removed since the building opened (a potential zoning code violation). I’ve been locking up to a parking sign immediately outside Amazon (photo). I’ve contacted City of Portland bike parking staff to suggest they think about adding racks in the area.

Whole Foods on NW Couch: Reasonable bike parking at the store entrance and there’s a bike parking corral mid-block on Couch. The lockers are on the second floor mezzanine, but I was able to take my Burley Travoy trailer up the elevator with me with no difficulty. You have to give recycled packaging to staff (the downtown location has bins). Couch and 12th are reasonably slow traffic streets, but can be challenging to approach depending on what direction you’re coming from.

Security Public Storage in NW industrial area: Has the non-staffed limitations I discussed above, but the locker is external to the building (area is gated off outside business hours), so you can roll right up, no need to worry about parking. You do have to cross NW Vaughn near a freeway interchange to get there, or go several blocks east out of direction to avoid the high-traffic streets (this will get better when the NW 20th Ave connection under the freeway is completed soon).

What if we made all these locations easily accessible by bike?

Generally I’ve found the Whole Foods location to be the most useful for me based on it being staffed, a little closer to home than downtown and the fact that is has the best bike parking. It also offers the option of bundling the day’s grocery shopping into the trip. I use the industrial area location for smaller items.

Overall I think this is a good potential solution to the last-mile delivery problem; but it’s clear to me Amazon has not thought about bicycle access as a priority issue. I got a survey asking about my experience and no biking issues were mentioned – so I made good use of the ‘other comments’ section. I hope the City of Portland will also give more thought to facilitating bike access to locker locations.

In a better world I could image facilities like these being community hubs able to accept shipments from a variety of vendors, and offering other convenience services like dry-cleaning. Startup idea, anyone? It seems like Amazon is open to partnering by putting lockers in local businesses (see map).

If you’re a Prime user like I am, maybe you can try locker-by-bike pickup to minimize your ‘package miles’. Or maybe you already do? Either way, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

— Chris Smith, @chrissmithus on Twitter

Never miss a story. Sign-up for the daily BP Headlines email.

BikePortland needs your support.

Switch to Desktop View with Comments