Mike, an Amazon delivery driver in central Florida, is accustomed to jogging back and forth across three-lane highways to deliver packages. He has sprinted across busy commercial streets during rush hour, and crossed rural highways on foot at sundown.
"I find the most dangerous to be smaller two-lane highways with almost no room to pull off the road," Mike told Motherboard in May. (Mike spoke on condition of pseudonymity because he fears he could lose his job for speaking to the press.) "The speed limits on these roads will often be 50-60 mph and we’re having to pull halfway off the road and then [walk across] ... oftentimes at night."
If it were up to him, Mike said, he would never run across a highway with his arms full of packages. But the routing algorithm designed for its Flex app by Amazon's research scientists often makes it unavoidable, according to a source with direct knowledge of Amazon's routing algorithm. In North America and Europe, roughly 85,000 contracted delivery drivers rely on this algorithm to do their jobs. While crossing the street in a quiet suburban neighborhood is probably safe, doing so on a 50 mph highway can be deadly.
Motherboard spoke to Amazon delivery drivers who work in Florida, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and California who described sprinting across the street—or the highway—to follow the Flex app's directions.
This app determines delivery routes for both Amazon's contracted delivery drivers, who drive Amazon-branded vans, and members of its independent contractor workforce, known as Amazon Flex drivers, who drive their own cars. When a driver has to make deliveries to several addresses that are clustered together, the Flex app combines them into a single stop, rather than make a stop at each address. Drivers call these "group stops," while Amazon research scientists and engineers tasked with optimizing routes that incorporate hundreds of stops per shift refer to this routing mechanism as "stop consolidation."
“Stop consolidation is a big thing [at Amazon]. Without it, the routes would be too expensive.”
These stops often include addresses on both sides of a street—or highway. Rather than directing drivers to make a U-turn and deliver packages on one side of the street and then the other, the app instructs drivers to cross the street on foot. Depending on the size and number of packages, the driver might have to walk across the street multiple times, or run in order to meet Amazon's delivery quotas.
An Amazon dispatcher whose job it is to monitor Amazon delivery drivers' progress on their routes using GPS on the Flex app said sometimes group stops on the Flex app are so spread out—with houses a quarter mile apart—that it takes 15 minutes to run up and down and back and forth across streets to make the deliveries. "You're hauling ass to get to these houses, sometimes running across four lanes of traffic," the dispatcher, who quit their job at an Amazon delivery depot in upstate New York in May, said.
Amazon's contracted delivery drivers must use the app and follow its directions to make deliveries, meanwhile Amazon's gig workers—who are independent contractors—can manually change Amazon's routing order, but must use the app to make their deliveries.
“Stop consolidation is a big thing [at Amazon]," a source with direct knowledge of Amazon's routing algorithm for delivery drivers said. "Without it, the routes would be too expensive.”
At Amazon, which pays delivery companies a fixed rate per delivery route each day regardless of how long it takes, the goal is to squeeze in as many deliveries as possible on a route, the source with internal knowledge of how Amazon creates its delivery routes said. Amazon delivery drivers have complained that their deliveries quotas have increased during the pandemic despite being asked to complete their deliveries in the same 10-hour shifts.
"The main goal [at Amazon] is to make them deliver the most packages as possible in [a shift] because then we have to hire fewer drivers," the source familiar with Amazon's routing algorithm said. Hiring fewer drivers means the employer can pay less into worker's compensation, disability, and other employment benefits.
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Alexandra Miller, a spokesperson for Amazon Logistics, denied that Amazon delivery drivers frequently jaywalk across busy intersections and run across high-speed rural highways, and said that if the company identifies data quality issues or defects in its maps, it fixes them promptly.
“Our routing system is designed to make the delivery experience as easy as possible for drivers and prioritizes same side of the street deliveries, unless the road is safe to cross," Miller said.
Amazon's delivery route algorithm is designed to maximize efficiency by finding the most optimal way to route drivers, according to the source with knowledge of Amazon's internal routing algorithms. These optimized routes, though, often have Amazon delivery drivers—who report working under excess pressure and time constraints to deliver upwards of 400 Amazon packages a day during 10-hour shifts—running across the street while in danger of getting hit by traffic.
“Sometimes you'll get a stop where you'll be delivering six packages on one side of the street and seven on the other side and someone ordered a 50 pound page of dog food or cat litter, and you're struggling."
Amazon's delivery drivers are technically employed not by Amazon but by third-party contractors, known as delivery service partners, of which there are more than 800 worldwide. Despite this employment arrangement, which removes Amazon's responsibility for accidents and other liabilities on the road, Amazon research scientists design the algorithms that determine the routes of drivers who deliver its packages.
"It’s fucking horrendous, honestly," an Amazon delivery driver in Grand Rapids, Michigan who quit in May told Motherboard. "[You're crossing] multiple lanes, busy traffic."
"I was mostly worried about getting hit by cars," said an Amazon delivery driver in Rosemead, California, who quit in April. "I had to be on the lookout for drivers speeding through, drivers who could lose control and end up hitting me."
"In our training, they promoted 'group stops,' saying that it would make our jobs easier," an Amazon delivery driver in Charleston, South Carolina, told Motherboard. "But sometimes you'll get a stop where you'll be delivering six packages on one side of the street and seven on the other side and someone ordered a 50 pound page of dog food or cat litter, and you're struggling."
"Sometimes I'm crossing a main highway, and I just park in the center meridian rather than run across a four-lane highway at dusk," he said.
Another Amazon dispatcher confirmed that so-called group stops where Amazon drivers must traverse busy streets on foot are common.
"This happens to my drivers every single day," the Amazon dispatcher in Indiana told Motherboard. "You have to park on one side of the street, and run across two lanes, when it's very, very busy."
The Flex app allows Amazon drivers to make U-turns, park in center turn lanes, or drive the wrong way down the street, but doing so sets them back on precious time to complete their routes and, breaking traffic laws and "parking [a] van unattended in a non-parking zone or area," can result in discipline that can lead to termination, according to Amazon's disciplinary policy.
Designing delivery routes for last-mile logistics companies like Amazon isn't a straightforward task. Rather than making hundreds of thousands of individual routes each day, research scientists create algorithms. These determine how routes are dispersed geographically to and from different Amazon delivery depots and in what order each driver must deliver packages to complete as many deliveries as possible in a given amount of time.
Unlike Uber and Lyft rides, which require algorithms to determine the single fastest route a driver can take between point A and point B, route designers at delivery companies like Amazon and FedEx are required to solve mathematical problems involving a large set of variables involving destinations and distances. Finding the most efficient path that travels through all of them is often called the "vehicle routing problem."
Research scientists have yet to develop a best solution for designing vehicle routes with multiple stops, despite decades of research, but delivery companies have developed different methods to create optimal routes. Typically, this means finding the shortest route, but some companies have chosen to focus on cutting delays, such as traffic and wait time making left-hand turns.
Motherboard reached out to the top package delivery carriers, UPS and FedEx, and the United States Postal Service to find out whether their routes also force package carriers to run across the street.
A spokesperson for the Postal Service said mail carriers occasionally cross the street on foot at crosswalks or deliver in zig-zag patterns in certain neighborhoods while following traffic rules. "Every carrier is required to observe all local traffic and safety laws, using crosswalks when crossing busy streets, and following traffic signals or the direction of traffic control personnel," said Kimberly Frum, a spokesperson for the Postal Service.
UPS told Motherboard that its drivers do not deliver on both sides of the street at once but deliver on the odd then even sides of the street. "We find it safer and more efficient to design delivery areas ('routes') that have our drivers delivering the odd side of the street from origin to an apex, turning once, then delivering the even side of the street," the spokesperson for UPS, said.
“FedEx couriers and service providers combine the use of advanced route optimization technologies with their local knowledge and experience to enhance delivery efficiencies," a FedEx spokesperson said, but did not answer a question about whether FedEx drivers were ever required to cross the street on foot.
Motherboard spoke to FedEx drivers in Michigan and Illinois, including a former Amazon delivery driver, who said FedEx had never required them to cross a busy street on foot, and that its internal routing system allows them to rearrange their stops.
Amazon delivery drivers also complain that stop consolidation makes it appear like a driver's workload is lighter than it actually is when the driver sees the number of stops on their route for the day. A group stop is considered a single stop even if it's a delivery to seven different buildings, or 20 units within an apartment complex, for example.
"They bunch stops together so it doesn't look like they're working us into the ground as much," an Amazon delivery driver in Windsor, New York told Motherboard. "It will say 200 stops on a route but in reality I'll have 240 stops."