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Why your online shopping clogs roads and what to do about it

Amazon now offers customers in some areas the option of receiving their item more quickly by picking it up at a locker, like these in a Whole Foods in Silver Lake. This saves delivery trucks the drive to your doorstep.
Meghan McCarty Carino
Amazon now offers customers in some areas the option of receiving their items more quickly by picking them up at a locker, like these in a Whole Foods in Silver Lake. This saves delivery trucks the drive to your doorstep.

It’s Cyber Monday, the day online retailers traditionally push low prices for holiday shopping. Online sales are expected to grow again this holiday season as consumers embrace the convenience of shopping virtually.

But just because you aren't driving to the mall may not mean a trip has been saved: the ever-growing dependence on package deliveries is raising concerns about traffic, illegal parking and the environmental cost of all those cardboard boxes and carbon emissions.

Of course, hitting the mall to get door-buster deals can kill anyone’s holiday buzz – the parking, the lines, the messy aisles. It’s enough to keep Silver Lake resident Monica Escobar far away.

"No, I don’t want to be in a place where it’s super crowded and things are not organized," she said.

That’s explains in part why more holiday buying is shifting online. U.S. retailers expect to ship more than a billion packages this holiday season.

"Imagine the increase in volume that is generating on the streets," said USC Professor Genevieve Giuliano, an expert on transportation who’s worried about the explosion in e-commerce:

"Home deliveries are inefficient — they’re small packages delivered to many, many different places," she said. Plus, about a quarter of all online purchases are returned adding even more trips.

She said the trend toward free shipping encourages less efficient shopping as consumers don't stop to think about ordering small items for delivery or making multiple separate orders unnecessarily.

Giuliano acknowledges there's still some debate about the extent to which e-commerce increases congestion: experts point to saved trips to brick-and-mortar stores, but there's some evidence that consumers who save a trip to the mall or grocery store tend to substitute other trips they would have avoided, such as going out to dinner or to a friend's house.

Many consumers also take trips to see prospective purchases in person before ordering online.

Delivery trucks often park illegally, blocking traffic flows. An audit by the L.A. City Controller showed UPS and Fedex racked up $4 million on 45,000 parking tickets in the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

The more dense and congested the area, the less efficient package delivery becomes: there's less space for large freight trucks, so deliveries must be distributed among more smaller vehicles.

All of these problems multiply during the holidays, when the United Parcel Service says its package volume increases by half in just one month.

In addition to congestion, cars and trucks are the single biggest source of carbon emissions, which contribute to environmental change.

So what can mall-averse shoppers do to lessen the impact of their online shopping? Here are some tips:

• Shop ahead. The faster the delivery time, the less efficient it is. That's because retailers can't pool as many shipments going to the same neighborhoods as easily, so delivery trucks have to make special trips. Amazon offers financial incentives to choose longer shipping times.

• Be more deliberate about combining purchases into one big order that will result in fewer deliveries and less packaging. 

• Take advantage of neighborhood distribution lockers, such as those offered by Amazon. You can get your purchases faster that way, and trucks don’t have to make that trek to your doorstep.

• Some retailers let you order online and pick up at their nearest outlet.

• Consider walking to your local store. Why not pick up your vitamins there rather than order it for delivery with all the gas and cardboard that entails?