“There aren’t enough hours in the day”: a self-employed private courier, on the Christmas delivery round

So. Many. Parcels. Image: Getty.

This festive season the new sport seems to be courier bashing. The latest installment comes from the Daily Telegraph, under the headline “Delivery drivers using ‘Sorry we missed you’ notes to get out of Christmas rounds, Which? survey finds”. As usual the story is twisted and distorted, and several bits of it don’t make sense if you are a self-employed courier trying to make a living developing parcels.

The Which? survey finds that 9 per cent of people have had calling cards pushed through the door, even while they were in. But it is unlikely that many of these notes were left by someone who made no effort to knock on the door or ring the bell. Unless the courier is paid by the hour, which few are, we do not get paid for posting a card and running away: we don’t get paid for a failed attempt, only for the successful delivery.

So if we’ve managed to make it to the house, why wouldn’t we complete the job, save ourselves a return visit, and get paid? Most couriers have, however, experienced the strange phenomenon in which a customer can’t hear you hammering on the door, but can, somehow, hear a piece of paper falling on their doormat.

The second finding, of customers being told by email or text that a delivery was attempted when no-one was seen or heard, is also easily explained. This is due to a glitch in some carriers’ notification systems which says a delivery was attempted, whenever it’s been carried forward to the next day for any reason whatsoever. The carriers don’t exactly broadcast the existence of this glitch, but it’s also not a secret: the tiniest amount of digging by either Which? or the Telegraph could have turned up this nugget. We couriers are trying to work with our carriers to get this system fault rectified.

Since Black Friday delivery numbers have been extremely high. I have been supporting my colleagues in neighbouring rounds. I also worked the following two Sundays: many of my customers have expressed surprise at seeing me on unusual days or at unusual times.

At this time of year I deliver between 100 and 150 parcels a day; some couriers have over 200. At those rates, you are left with less than a couple of minutes at each house, which doesn’t leave much time for knocking on neighbours doors trying to find the one person who is in, and who is sometimes getting quite grumpy because they have a hall full of parcels for neighbours who ordered things to be sent to houses that they knew would be unoccupied during working hours.

Stories about what happens to couriers under those pressures, and couriers who make honest mistakes when making decent attempts at safe place deliveries, are to be found in local newspapers up and down the country. I don’t condone couriers who dump parcels on doorsteps, over gates or otherwise cut corners; but any criticism of misdeliveries should take the demands placed upon us into account.

We do our best to get your parcels to you when we receive them; but with numbers as high as they are at the moment often there aren’t enough hours in the day. Carrying a parcel forward without visiting a property is not done lightly. One day I had so many that I worked from before 8am until 9pm but only managed two thirds of the parcels assigned to me and, yes, that meant some people didn’t get their next day deliveries. It pained me to have to throw in the towel, but there was nothing I could have done. The next day I made my best efforts to catch up and many customers greeted me with, “Did you call yesterday, cause I was in.” They had all received those misleading emails that we couriers so, so love.

It is hurtful that the press do not take a more responsible and balanced attitude to reporting on these issues. But perhaps to do so would be more dog bites man than man bites dog.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.