Digital commerce is exacting a very analog toll on the streets of Shanghai. According to thecity's Information Office, there were 325 traffic accidents -- and five deaths -- involvingdelivery drivers during the first half of 2019.


China is the world's biggest e-commerce market and more than 80% of those drivers weredropping off packages and meals for services such as Meituan Dianping and Alibaba GroupHolding 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 physicalimpact 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.


As with many technological innovations, early boosters of e-commerce championed itsenvironmental virtues. Digital shopping was portrayed as a healthier way to consume. Groupeddeliveries would replace the individual trip to the shop, thereby reducing traffic and carbonemissions. Fewer brick-and-mortar stores, especially in suburban locations, would allow formore productive and sustainable uses of space, including by health care facilities and parks.


The industry has grown exponentially since those early days, however. Between 2009 and2018, the number of parcels delivered by the US Postal Service doubled to 6.2 billion annually. The mountains of cardboard in apartment trash rooms are proof: In New York, roughly four in10 residents receive at least one delivery per week.


And many packages are sent to offices rather than homes, during peak business hours. InGermany, freight transportation accounts for only 30% of all traffic but 80% of peak-hourinner-city traffic.


In London, where congestion charges have reduced the number of private cars on the roadduring the day, delivery vans and ride-hailing services such as Uber have more than made upthe difference. Researchers in Seattle found that roughly half of the trucks making deliveriesdowntown parked illegally, blocking and slowing other traffic.


Then there's China, where just one food-delivery company -- Meituan -- employs 600,000 drivers to serve 400 million customers annually in 2,800 cities. Drivers mostly use electrifiedtwo-wheelers that swerve through traffic and along sidewalks, and park pretty much wherevera delivery is to be made. The swarm of e-bikes clogging sidewalks has even prompted iratecolumns in media outlets that ordinarily cheer on China's e-commerce champions.


The problem is only going to get worse. In Seattle, home of Amazon.com Inc., a compoundannual e-commerce growth rate of 20% between 2018 and 2023 is expected to more thandouble goods deliveries. The numbers for China are even more staggering: Online retail salesare projected to grow by 30% in 2019 and reach nearly $2 trillion, accounting for more thanhalf of all global online retail sales.


There are no easy fixes. Ticketing or towing delivery trucks for parking in bike lanes andblocking roads is emotionally satisfying for those inconvenienced, but will only addresssymptoms rather than underlying causes. To do that will require far more creativepartnerships between cities, e-commerce companies and housing owners and developers.


For instance, New York and other cities have demonstrated that providing incentives for off-peak deliveries (or forbidding peak-hour ones) can help reduce urban congestion. More bikelanes and parking spots would cut down on accidents and traffic in developing-world cities suchas Shanghai.


Municipal governments should consider requiring new multi-unit developments to include spacefor delivery parking. They could work with e-commerce companies to set up lockers neartransit hubs in order to reduce the number of delivery stops. Long-term, companies could lookfor opportunities to partner with one another on deliveries and consolidate individualshipments.


Finally, public education campaigns could better inform consumers about the impact of e-commerce on the shared urban environment. More than a few customers might choose toforgo some individual convenience for a safer and less chaotic city.