How the curbside turned into the battleground of urban mobility and what cities should do about it

A lot of action takes place on the curbsides of busy cities. The curb is where transportation meets access. Yet, the majority of curbs in urban areas are used for parking cars, which seem to be parked about 96% of the time. Although this can be considered a waste of space, cities all over the world use curbside parking as a way to generate revenue. The city of Vancouver, Canada collected almost $62.9M in “on-street parking revenue” this year, while Chicago’s parking meter system brought in  $132.7 million in 2018. Although usage of the curb space is not optimized, cities benefit financially from using the curb as parking space.  

Over the past couple of years however, new modes of transportation, such as ride-hailing services, along with a rise in demand for delivery services, have been taking over. The global market for ride-hailing services was valued at USD$ 34.45 billion in 2018. While the global Last Mile Delivery market for E-commerce was valued at USD$ 3.2 billion in 2018. Since the dramatic rise of ride hailing companies like Uber and Lyft along with last-mile delivery companies like UPS, traffic congestions worsened by 180%. 

“The demand for the curb is going up and up and up, and there’s only so much of it”, Jon Schermann, a transportation planner who specializes in freight issues.

Photo by Norbert Kundrak on Unsplash

Without designated pick-up/drop-off areas, ride-hailing and delivery vehicles end up constantly cruising, double parking, or blocking bike lanes and side-walks. Jon Schermann, a transportation planner who specializes in freight issues indicates, “The demand for the curb is going up and up and up, and there’s only so much of it,”. Their constant need to stop-and-go is not the sole reason for an increase in traffic congestions or car accidents; they are, however, a major contributing factor.

To decrease the recurring traffic congestions caused by these new modes of transportation, the curb must be looked at as more than just space to park a car. Utilization of the curb has been shifting from private vehicle storage to multi-use spaces, including pick-up/drop-off areas for micro mobility services. For the space to be optimized properly and keep traffic running smoothly, urban planners must consider implementing curbside management programs.

Curbside what?

Curbside management aims to balance the needs for all roadway users. The process seeks to inventory and allocate curb space to maximize mobility and access for the wide variety of curbside demands. The goal is to clear up crowded curbs by analyzing how public transportation, micro mobility, pedestrians, ride hailing vehicles and private vehicles interact to derive who, where and why should have priority access.

The key to success is transparency on curb usage and curb rules

Data on service usage from mobility providers

Giving more room to micro mobility and last miles delivery services is difficult and will require an increasingly informed approach from urban planners. Choosing the right metrics and data collection systems to support decisions is a necessity. A Forbes 2018 article on shared mobility explained that better access to data will help develop more informed policies and plans that can help maximize the benefits of new mobility, while reducing the downsides such as traffic congestions. More transparency with regards to curbside regulations and policies, in addition to data from mobility services, like Uber, Lyft, will help accelerate progress towards the efficiency of our streets and the overall sustainability of transportation in cities.

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

Taking the example of delivery services, multiple cities adopted curbside management programs that introduced on-street loading zones for last mile delivery. According to a PWC study, delivery vehicles make up 80% of the city center or true “downtown” traffic. Urban planners have tried addressing the traffic problem by spacing out delivery zones. However, they failed to consider how the location of these ‘zones’ can be optimized to save the time and energy of delivery personals, which is why they often go unused. The average time it takes to complete one delivery after exiting a delivery vehicle is roughly three minutes. But, the repetitive process of finding the parcel, scanning it, tracking down the address on foot, and then walking back to the delivery vehicle’s ‘zone’ is tedious to most delivery personals. The distance between one delivery and the next, the size of the package, and the order deliveries are executed in, are all variables that should be considered when choosing the prime area for a delivery zone. Unfortunately, urban planners don’t have access to this information. The lack of data on the logistics of last-mile delivery leads to a weak management system.

Digitizing curbside regulation

Better access to data from mobility providers can only take curbside management so far. Accurate information on curbside policies and regulations are a necessity for urban planners to bring that provider data into full spectrum. Although cities can have detailed maps and data on land use, the curb is a different story. Cities are often in the dark when it comes to the exact location of signs, parking spots, meters and the details of all related regulations. This blind spot is severe and it adds to the difficulty of better managing the curb.

Many cities try to tackle this lack of data with manual surveys that are costly and can take months. As a result, only small areas within cities are examined only every few years. The city of Hamburg, for instance, conducted one of the largest and most detailed manual parking surveys ever in 2011 and hasn’t updated the available data since. To make the decision process more efficient for urban planners, curbside regulations should be updated much more frequently than today.

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

Best practices from cities around the world

Physical curb space itself is “flexible” by default and can be reassigned by changing signs and curbside colors. What is difficult for urban planners is the management and strategic alignment of these changes. The challenge lies within the complexity of creating a system that causes the least possible disturbance to the flow of traffic while maintaining productivity for the public transit, ride-hailing and last mile delivery services. Here’s how some cities tackled this pain point through curbside management:

Making curb use, “flexible”

  • The City of Seattle came up with a comprehensive plan to repurpose parking space. Seattle’s urban planners listed six functions to consider while creating, what they call a “flex zone”. By identifying the main usage of the curb and each function’s level of demand, Seattle created an interchangeable curbside space that was adaptable and fit the dynamics of the functions listed. The “flex zone” is where people are able to find their bus, hail a cab, drop off a passenger, etc.
  • Similar to Seattle, in 2017 the city of Washington DC had already begun experimenting with the reallocation of curbside space from private vehicle parking to pick-up and drop-off zones for ride-hailing services with the primary goal of decreasing traffic congestion. Washington further expanded this program in 2019, by enabling delivery services to use the reserved curbspace as commercial loading and unloading areas. This method of curbside management provides ride hailing and delivery vehicles with the necessary space to safely stop and drop-off / pick up passengers, load and unload packages.
  • Lisbon conducted a pilot project to analyze different curb use scenarios related to rideshare services. In partnership with the international transport forum, they used the city’s traffic model and simulation software to assess the effects of dedicated curb space for pick-up/drop-off zones and micro mobility services parking areas.
  • The City of Rotterdam has been experimenting with temporary allocation of curbspace, repurposing what was considered pure on-street parking spaces to restaurant terraces, public space for bike parking, or pick-up/drop-off areas. Implementing these changes temporarily enabled the city to consider the reaction of the public and gain acceptance for permanent changes later on.

Following their footsteps

To create curbside management programs urban planners need to follow these steps:

     0. Decide on clear objectives for the changes to be developed:

  • Do you want to free public space from parked cars and turn them into shared mobility hubs?
  • Do you want to reduce traffic congestions in the city center?
  • Do you want to support local business and provide them with extra terrace space?
  • Do you want to protect resident’s access to parking?
  1. Digitize the curbside regulations (road signs, parking spots, parking meters, etc.) through more frequent and preferably automated data collection (Hint: Bliq can help you here)

  2. Require mobility providers to share data: Give operating licenses only to micro mobility, ride-hailing and delivery companies that provide access to their machine-readable usage data

  3. Analyze curbside usage and understand what can be improved by visualizing curbside usage vs. curbside regulations in your GIS system

  4. Derive the appropriate policies for your city, some best practices:
  • Involve all relevant stakeholders in the dialoague (citizens, mobility and last-mile transportation companies, etc.)
  • Introduce pilot programs for pick-up/drop-off zones to analyze their effect and results if made permanent.
  • Implement different methods for curbside management that do not add to, but replace and optimize the already present city center parking spaces.
  • Dedicate specific time slots for delivery services by cross-examining peak times and demand-oriented models to avoid the traffic congestions they cause.
  • Create shared mobility hubs for micro-mobility services, like e-scooters, bikes and shared mobility vehicles.

Want to share your own best practices? Comment below!

Bliq is a powerful information engine that unlocks productivity for urban street mobility. Bliq uses computer vision on regular smartphones to collect data on cubside regulations. Bliq can create the transparency needed for a successful implementation of curbside management programs in your city.

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