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South Side summit discusses how new Amazon facilities impact safety, health

Rendering of an Amazon fulfillment center.

Last week's three-day South Side Transportation Summit was a collaboration between Chicago Environmental Justice Network and the Transportation Equity Network to explore the expansion of trucking, distribution, and logistics facilities on the South Side, and how the expansion of warehouses and TDL facilities is impacting public and environmental health. This writeup will focus on the discussion of new Amazon facilities.

The first presenter was Alex Perez of the Active Transportation Alliance. Perez’s presentation started off with a map of the eight current Amazon facilities located in Chicago, including a new one in Bridgeport that racial and environmental justice groups tried to block last fall. There is a proposal for a ninth facility in the South Lawndale community area, aka Little Village. All but one of the current facilities are located on the South or Southwest Side, with the majority on the Southwest Side.

Listing and map of Amazon facilities within Chicago.Image provided by Alex Perez of Active Transportation Alliance
Listing and map of Amazon facilities within Chicago. Image: Active Transportation Alliance
Listing and map of Amazon facilities within Chicago. Image provided by Alex Perez of Active Transportation Alliance

The next slide showed a map of air quality in Chicago with the locations of Amazon facilities marked. Unsurprisingly, air quality was poor in communities with a concentration of Amazon sites. It’s important to note that Amazon facilities are not the sole cause of poor air quality in these areas but that they do significantly contribute to air pollution.

Map of air quality across Chicago with starred and ringed locations indicating Amazon facilities.

The discussion of poor air quality in Black and Brown neighborhoods in Chicago called to mind Lynda Lopez's Streetsblog article about how heavy truck traffic on the Southwest Side impacts residents' comfort with biking and walking.

Another slide showed the locations of Amazon facilities near CPS schools. I found myself feeling angry that the city allows such a polluting industry so close to residential areas. Perez analyzed 2019 data from the Illinois Department of Transportation regarding truck traffic and found that hundreds to thousands of heavy trucks are traveling Chicago’s streets.

Another map Perez displayed showed that, unsurprisingly, the locations of crashes involving cyclists over the last five years mirror the location of Amazon facilities. Of course bike crashes happen in other parts of the city as well, yet it’s unfortunate the city did not step up to provide barrier-protected bike lanes along roads that see heavy truck traffic.

The next presenter was Kate Lowe, associate professor of Urban Planning & Policy at UIC. Dr. Lowe focused on the Amazon facility located at 2420 S. Halsted St. in Bridgeport as an example of the process of approving logistics facilities in Chicago and their impact. Dr. Lowe provided an overview of the efforts to block the facility and the desire for a moratorium on future logistics sites on the South and West sides. She also discussed the issue of aldermanic privilege, and barriers that prevent residents from learning of proposed developments.

Dr. Lowe noted that the Bridgeport location had already seen a number of crashes prior to the opening of the logistics center. The area near Archer and Halsted has seen 10 car-pedestrian crashes and 18 car-bike crashes between September 2017 and November 2020. She also pointed out that the approval of the logistics facility at the site, located near the Halsted Orange Line station, meant the city missed the opportunity to put its recently released Equitable Transit Oriented Development plan into to action by building transit-friendly affordable housing.

Dr. Lowe mentioned that Amazon drivers are under pressure from the company, which I appreciated. She cited a February 2021 article from The Verge regarding Amazon’s plans to install cameras inside their vehicles ostensibly in the name of safety. Some are skeptical and see the move as yet another way or the company to pressure for its workers to meet unrealistic expectations. Because Amazon employs a number of third-party companies to handle its deliveries, it’s often difficult to directly tie traffic crashes to Amazon.

Dr. Lowe mentioned the need to question the development of polluting and dangerous industries “by right, that is, within the bounds of existing zoning and therefore not requiring aldermanic approval. "Currently such developments have the green light based on current zoning. There is some push to challenge by right development of industry, but there’s an ordinance that exempts 'planned manufacturing districts', places where there is already a concentration of dangerous and polluting industries. This further highlights the need for a moratorium on polluting and dangerous industries within Chicago’s neighborhoods."

I appreciated the comments of Roberto Clack, an organizer for Warehouse Workers for Justice. He shared his desire for a unionized Amazon workforce that could advocate for better working conditions and higher wages. So often cities are competing for Amazon facilities under the guise of creating jobs. It’s worth pondering whether jobs that barely pay a living wage (Amazon's nationwide minimum wage is $15) with reportedly unsafe and grueling work conditions are really the types of jobs cities should be competing over. Unfortunately another Amazon facility is planned for Southwest Side Gage Park neighborhood and it will be the largest facility to date.

If you'd like to watch a replay of the Summit, you can find Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 via Facebook.

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