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Observation at GORILLAS dispatch center

Berlin-Kreuzberg

GORILLAS is a newcomer in the delivery world, since 2020 the startup is present in Berlin, expanding rapidly in other German cities as well. Their riders deliver groceries to the clients – within 10 minutes after placing the order, promises the company. In an attempt to fulfil this ambitious goal, GORILLAS needs central hubs within their delivery areas from where the riders can pick up the products and deliver them to the customer. In this new hyper-local delivery model supply hubs have to be close to the demanding end consumer. Naturally, those areas are densely populated central districts of Berlin, most of them residential. In total, GORILLAS has 14 delivery areas within the whole city.

The introduction of logistic hubs inside these areas has not gone without any conflict – in the specific case of the Berlin-Kreuzberg hub local residents have been raising complaints about noise caused by loading and unloading trucks between 5 am until late evening (the law demands no noise between 10pm and 6am), traffic obstructions by delivery trucks and and reduced road safety due to the chaotic situation in moments of loading/unloading trucks. More generally a conflict over the use of public space has emerged as the sidewalk serves as a logistics area, break room for waiting riders and bike storage for their bikes at the same time. (Read more about the situation here and here, both articles in German).

The GORILLAS dispatch center in Berlin-Kreuzberg. New goods are being unloaded from a delivery truck. The black banner hanging from the window reads “FUCK OFF, GORILLAS”.

Since part of our interest in urban traces concerns the physical environment and how it is impacted by the increase of food delivery services, we decided to carry out an observation of the situation at the GORILLAS hub in Berlin-Kreuzberg named above. It is located in a central residential area at the corner of Muskauer Straße/Eisenbahnstraße. The aim of the observation is to get a detailed picture of how the space is used by the GORILLA employees and residents/other users of public space, in order to understand what it means when a hyper-local logistics hub is introduced into a residential neighbourhood.

I carried out the observation on a week-day between 13:45 - 14:50 as a non-participant observer. On the other side of the street, in front of the entrance to the hub which is exactly at the street corner, I sat down on a bench from where I had a good overview of the crossing and the hub. Both streets are rather narrow, with parking cars on both sides of the road and relatively broad sideways typical for Berlin streets. On the ground floor of many buildings there are small shops and restaurants, bars and cafés. The GORILLAS hub is located in a former bank office. From windows in the first and third floor of the same building, banners are hanging out of the windows, saying “Fuck off Gorillas” and “FY Gorillas, geht woanders hin” (“FY Gorillas, go away”). On the sideways a lot of bikes and scooters are parked, some of them blocking the way for pedestrians or making it hard to manoeuvre around them. Most of the bikes positioned at this crossing belong to GORILLAS. This is not directly visible since they do not carry the company’s logo, but a lot of bikes of the same type are parked in front of the hub and at different positions at the crossing. During my observation, I see the GORILLAS riders pick up and use them for their deliveries.

At the beginning of the observation, it is not very busy around the hub. Three riders are waiting outside to pick up the delivery for their next ride. Over the time of the observation the number of riders waiting varies between one and 8 at the same time (in total ca. 40 different riders show up), but they never stay for long as they just pick-up the next delivery. Most of them are men between 20 and 30, ca. ¼ are women of the same age group. All of them wear almost only black clothes (GORILLAS brand colour) or dark blue/grey, which makes their appearance rather discreet (especially compared to delivery drivers of other companies in bright orange or fluorescent blue). It is a constant coming and going of riders, but never overly hectic or crowded. Most of the riders are wearing a mask as required when not keeping distance, but most of them do not put it on properly while waiting. They are gathering in little groups on the pavement, chatting while waiting for their next order, only for picking up their goods they briefly enter the hub. They seem to be more or less familiar with each other and none of them is standing alone while waiting. I can overhear some Spanish words exchanged between them, but no other languages.

The black/green bikes parked in front of the building belong to GORILLAS. Residents and customers of nearby shops also park their bikes on the sidewalk.

Other people passing by have to manoeuvre around the riders. Quite a lot of adults with children are passing by, which might be due to the ending of school hours around this time and the fact that generally there live a lot of families in this area and a playground is located on the next block. At many instances it is not possible to keep the distance for people on the sidewalk since riders are crowding in front of the hub. One man passing by at the side of the street opposite to the hub walks over to start talking with one of the  riders. I am not able to overhear their conversation, but his face and body language show that he is angry. Both walk back to the side of the street where the man originally came from and stop at one of the GORILLAS bikes parked there in the middle of the sideway. The man explains that this was not ok and that it was bothering him and other pedestrians (since he is using a lot of body language and gestures, I am able to get the topic of their conversation). The GORILLAS rider seems to be a little annoyed by it, but also not like he wants to argue about it. Eventually, he takes the bike and positions it differently, not blocking the path any longer.

At around 14:20 a huge delivery truck arrives, stopping in front of the hub parking in the second row on the street as this is the only place available for such a large vehicle. For the next 30 minutes the sideway transforms into an unloading area. Trolleys full of trash and other packing materials are leaving the hub, temporarily occupying the already packed sideway. At the same time new products are being unloaded. The trolleys make quite some noise on the uneven cobble-like underground of the sideway. Some of them are being unpacked directly on the sideway by GORILLAS employees working inside the hub (not riders), some trolleys are taken inside. This is not easy as the entrance door is a normal door regarding height and width and not made for logistics. Also, the truck makes it hard for other road users to see cars, bikes, and pedestrians as it blocks the vision and occupies a large part of the street.

New goods are being unloaded from a delivery truck parking in the narrow street. Speed restrictions limit traffic in this residential area (see signs). The sidewalk becomes a loading area filled with trolleys waiting to be moved through the narrow door inside.

The case of the GORILLAS hub is different from the regular food delivery rider waiting in front of a restaurant, because of different reasons: They are essentially trying to replace supermarkets, but because of their 10-minute promise they need to be in densely populated, residential areas - which often means narrow roads and limited space. In comparison to supermarkets, their hubs do not provide large private outside space for (un)loading goods and work equipment (in the GORILLAS case those are the bikes), therefore these activities are moved to the public space instead. Also, because riders return to the same hub, they know each other and gather in groups talking while waiting for the next ride. This also causes more obstruction to people passing by than drivers waiting individually in front of restaurants. Furthermore, the city landscape is shifting as a space originally meant for small retail and little shops suddenly becomes a logistics center not really fitting its surrounding residential atmosphere. While the black dressed GORILLAS riders seem to be less visible in the city scape than other delivery employees, the impact of the related infrastructure is more disruptive in comparison.

This observation gives a first insight into what are the consequences of setting up a hyper-local logistics hub in the middle of a residential area. In order to get a more detailed picture it would be desirable to repeat the observation at different times during the day and during different weather conditions: Where do the riders wait when it is cold or raining? When are the busiest hours and how do people manoeuvre the crowded sideways? At what times of the day do delivery trucks arrive and how often does this happen during the day? These are all interesting questions for repeated observations. Yet this first observation highlights some of the most important problems: noise, safety for other road users (especially children) and of course the impact of changes in the use of public space in general.