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Controlling the curb

Originally posted on The Parking Professional in July 2018

Dynamic curbside management creates space for everyone.

ONCE UPON A TIME, the curb was readily accessible for just about anyone. Buses used it for passenger pick-ups and drop-offs, trucks delivered packages, and drivers parked to run errands or even go to work for the day. Those days seem quaint in comparison to today’s bustling and dynamic city curbsides. Imagine, it’s Monday morning and it’s time for your daily commute to the office. You wake up, shower, get dressed, and grab your cup of coffee and maybe a bagel to go. You manage to get out the door on time for your 8 a.m. meeting. The clock in your car reads 7 a.m. You anticipate arriving no later than 7:30 a.m. as you cruise down the streets leading to your downtown office building. Suddenly, a city bus stops to pick up several passengers. You patiently wait. Then a UPS truck stops to deliver a package, and there’s no way around as traffic in the other lane is moving at a steady pace. You have no choice but to wait—again. Finally, just as it seems you have made it through the stop-and-go traffic, a vehicle stops ahead of you; it is a ride-share dropping off passengers. You’re now pushing it to make it to your 8 a.m. meeting. You frantically drive into the parking garage looking for one empty space to park. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, for many, this scenario has become a regular part of the daily commute, and while increased travel times are irritating and inconvenient for drivers, the aggregate increase in travel times is a much more serious problem for cities. Inefficient curbside regulation caused every traffic interruption in the example above and leads to higher levels of congestion and emissions, increases the need for burdensome minimum parking requirements, and strains the capacity of roadways and curbsides in cities across the world. The curb has become critical infrastructure for a growing number of activities—including bike lanes, delivery trucks, city buses, trash collection, ride-share vehicles such as Uber and Lyft, and personal vehicles seeking space on the curb. Consequently, curbs have become even more prime real estate in dense urban ecosystems, and cities are facing the challenge of building new rules and regulations to more effectively manage this increasingly high-impact resource in the face of several important macro-trends.

Density and Space

Increased population density has caused increased demand for space on city streets, which were designed for smaller populations. Cities can minimize the effects of this increased demand by encouraging multi-occupant modes of transit that can move more people with the same or fewer number of vehicles on the road. As a result, multi-occupant transportation options are an important component of a healthy and well-functioning urban mobility ecosystem. Ride-sharing has the potential to dramatically increase multi-occupancy trips in a city and therefore reduce traffic congestion. But every ride-share trip starts and ends at the curbside, and most cities have not reserved or allocated space for this emergent mode of transportation. As a result, rideshare drivers in high-demand areas where open curb space is scarce are forced to double park or make midlane stops, which disrupt traffic and increase peaktime congestion, reducing or eliminating the efficiency gains from these multi-occupant trips.

Then What?

To keep up with the new reality of denser cities and more congested roadways, cities have to leverage technology that enables dynamic curb management by aggregating data sources from parking meters and ride-share services to public transportation and mobile apps for parking. This will allow cities to develop a holistic view of the curb that allows them to more effectively measure, manage, and enforce curb use. With an aggregated and holistic view of curbside activity, cities will be able to analyze curb usage patterns to better inform congestion-reducing curbside regulation. Consequently, smart cities will have to partner with technology providers that provide tools and systems that enable data transfer from multiple systems to a single-management engine. Next-generation systems must also provide real-time exchanges of information between curbside management systems and in-field enforcement officers to ensure that the rules are correctly applied and enforced to yield the desired results. This technology platform doesn’t exist yet, so it will be incumbent upon cities to consider these emerging needs and trends, even when selecting vendors for services and technology to manage their existing curbside needs. Procurement practices must focus on long-term vendor alignment as a critical evaluation criteria to ensure that a city’s chosen curbside technology ecosystem will evolve to meet increasingly complicated curbside management needs. We expect that multidisciplinary vendors who have in-depth expertise in multiple aspects of parking and urban mobility will be more likely to provide cities and transportation operators with the operational knowledge and technical flexibility necessary to build the future of curbside management systems.

Flexibility Is Key

Curbside regulation will become an important policy tool when combating congestion, integrating emergent mobility technology and mitigating the effects of increased populations in cities. Research shows that cities are becoming more urban and denser and are experiencing more congestion problems. Cities like Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, District of Columbia, and Boston had the highest increases in density from 2010-2016. As these areas become more densely populated, public resources, including roadways, will become increasingly strained. The answer is not more or wider roads – increasing supply will also induce demand. Dynamic curbside management technology will help alleviate this strain through adjustable pricing and allocations of curb space between parking, rideshare pickups and drop-offs, bus stops, and future modes of urban transportation. Wired recently wrote about flex-space at the curb, which could be allocated based on time of day and demand trends to avoid traffic interruptions. For example, during rush hour, an area could be allocated for transit service, but the same area could be reserved for delivery vehicles in the afternoons and rideshare pick-ups and drop offs in the evenings.

More dynamic curbside prices can also reduce congestion by increasing available curbside inventory in high demand areas. More available inventory in high demand areas would to less cruising and fewer mid-lane stops. Addressing congestion through dynamic pricing also creates efficiency gains for transit systems, which would experience less delays in departure and arrival times. This creates a virtuous cycle in which a more reliable transit system becomes an increasingly attractive alternative to single occupant trips in high congestion areas, because the effective cost of driving increases through increased curbside fees, and consequently, more potential drivers choose to travel via mass transit, which further reduces congestion by reducing the number of cars on the road and increases the reliability of the transit system.

The Cost of Sharing

In an interview with Quartz, Julia Thayne, the director of urban development at Germany’s Siemens spoke about fixes cities can take immediately. She suggested several easy steps such as “digitally mapping out all of their curbs, including everything from parking signs to fire hydrants to bike lanes”. She said, “This is not big dollars, but it has big benefits.” Tying this mapping data to a holistic understanding of users’ curbside habits will be integral to determining what needs the city must satisfy to achieve its objectives. Data will be the best tool a city can use to reallocate, reprice, and manage how this area is used.

Data can also allow cities to accurately forecast the revenue impact of these new, more dynamic policies. Parking is an important revenue source in most cities, and understanding parking revenue is particularly important when parking revenue is used for the city’s general fund. Reducing paid parking inventory to accommodate new modes of transportation is no small ask, but this new paradigm can generate new revenue streams. For example, pricing rapid-turnover curbside sessions (pickups and drop-offs) or city-center toll systems may create new revenue streams while sensibly and fairly allocating the costs associated with increased use of roadways.

Enforcing the Rules

These dynamic curbside rules will only work successfully if drivers are incentivized to follow them. Non-compliance penalties are the most significant incentive for drivers to comply with curbside rules. The next generation of parking enforcement systems will serve as the primary enforcement mechanism for increasingly complex curbside rules. The enforcement of these rules will have a more significant effect on the overall efficiency of urban mobility systems than parking enforcement has today.

Curbside enforcement will impose new demands on enforcement systems. Rules, maps, and prices may change frequently based on unscheduled environment changes, such as traffic accidents or temporary road closures. Therefore, enforcement officers will need to have a real-time connection to a curbside management infrastructure. This means cloud-based enforcement systems will become a non-negotiable requirement to ensure accuracy and timeliness. A cloud-based enforcement system also allows information to travel back to the curbside infrastructure in real time, which allows those systems to understand and adjust for unexpected patterns that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to detect without observations in the field. For example, a car ticketed for parking in a pick-up and drop-off zone may trigger a pricing change for rapid turnover sessions on that block because of diminished available space. Unexpectedly high non-compliance in a parking area may trigger an adjustment to the system’s understanding of available parking inventory. These are all vital components that become fundamental to a city’s enforcement. The District of Columbia has already adopted longterm transportation goals with moveDC. Based on the city’s local land use and travel patterns, the plan is designed to balance “multiple competing needs,” especially in the city’s densest areas. To manage the competing curbside activities in the District—loading and unloading zones, general parking, valet, Americans with Disabilities Act accessible parking, motor scooter parking, and more—it will use enforcement and infrastructure to ensure safety and compliance among all transportation users.

Future Expectations

Dynamic curbside management will arrive over several years through deep alignment between cities and their parking and transportation technology vendors. Vendors and cities must work together to create the future during the next contract cycle, so it’s important for cities to ensure their next curbside vendor procurements properly align incentives to provide the level of ongoing service and support necessary to make the transition from parking-specific technology to a more complex, dynamic curbside management system. It is also important that the vendor selected has the right infrastructure and is set up to support this new dynamic curb space. Cloud-based and mobile-first systems that include tools to measure, manage, and coordinate the curbside technology ecosystem will be critical as data and regulation become more closely aligned. Technology that is currently used to facilitate parking management is going to take center stage as we move into the area of dynamic curbside management, and cities’ success in making this transition will depend on their vendors’ ability to adapt to a more complex and multi-disciplinary future.