Solving Curbside Congestion with Technology Innovations
Municipal leaders are being challenged to balance new transportation technologies and the desire to make cities more livable. It’s clear that congestion at the curb is a major problem as cities become denser and more populous, and technological ingenuity will be critical to reducing traffic congestion.
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21st-century urbanization isn’t slowing down, and while its effects differ from one geography to another, the effects of congestion have become far-reaching and heavily influence the safety, environment, and even the mental and physical health of citizens. Consider the following:
Crash risk is higher during times when the average network speed is slower (e.g. during traffic jams). 1 And in urbanized areas, the total cost of traffic crashes is 3x the cost of congestion; there are severe health and financial concerns to consider.
CO2 emission rates per mile are higher when cars are either idling or driving at very slow speeds.4 Emissions from traffic can cause health problems, such as cardiovascular and respiratory issues, in addition to lost productivity and higher costs.
People with longer commutes were shown to be 33% more likely to suffer from depression, 33% more likely to have financial concerns and 12% more likely to experience work-related stress.6
Contributors to Congestion
It’s important to recognize that numerous factors contribute to congestion. Changes like increasing populations, the proliferation of transportation network companies (TNCs) and micro-mobility options like dockless scooters, are presenting city leaders with a curbside management challenge that has yet to be effectively addressed. As populations grow, and more drivers and new modes of transportation enter the traffic system, there is an increased demand for the valuable space on the curbside – where parked cars, parked scooters, constantly stopping rideshares and public transportation are all trying to claim their space.
Proliferation of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs)
Smartphone technology and the proliferation of TNCs have changed the mobility dynamic, particularly throughout cities. It’s unclear at this time in what way TNCs are contributing to the problem of congestion— if more cars are being added to the road, or if stop times for passenger pickups and drop-offs are causing traffic delays. One study found that in the absence of services like Uber and Lyft, 40% of riders report they’d have taken public transit, while 12% say they’d walk or bike (CityLab). 13 But congestion isn’t caused by how many cars are moving on the road, but how many are stopped at the curb. In addition to providing citizens with another transportation option, TNC services require drivers to stop at the curbside to pick up passengers or food for delivery, potentially contributing to more congestion at the curb. City reactions to the growth of TNCs, such as New York’s consideration of the driver cap, or the tax on TNCs in San Francisco (New York Times)11 don’t necessarily take that into consideration.
The use of dockless scooters and bikes has increased as an alternate form of affordable transportation, but not without consequences. It is thought that scooters and bikes are contributing to on-curb congestion versus on-street(Bipartisan Policy Center).14
In many cases, cities are behind on creating proper bike lines, a growing concern as micro-mobility options like bikes and scooters become an additional transportation option for commuters across the country. Consequently, dockless bike and scooter riders are put at risk while commuting on the street— or, they themselves are putting pedestrians at risk when limiting riding space to sidewalks. In Seattle, an ordinance created in 1979 allows bikers to ride on all Seattle sidewalks, including in pedestrian areas. Since then, safety experts have brought attention to the risks of sidewalk riding, affecting both cyclists and pedestrians, but at present, the problem still plagues Seattle (Crosscut).3
Other cities, like Charlotte, NC, are currently testing ways to ensure safe scooter riding practices and responsible parking, including requiring riders to photograph the way they’ve parked their scooter before completing a ride. Charlotte intends to continue testing different methods for safe, proper scooter usage in order to best serve the community of Charlotte (Charlotte Observer).15
Future Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles
Autonomous vehicles and transit are still in the development phase, but one thing is certain: their conventionalization is coming. All car manufacturers are heavily investing in autonomous vehicles, including Ford Motor, who plans to spend $4 billion through 2023 via the recently established Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, created specifically for building a business dedicated to autonomous vehicles (TechCrunch).16 These developments will majorly impact the dynamics of driving, public transit and ultimately, congestion at the curb.
Solving Curbside Congestion
It’s clear that congestion at the curb is a major problem as cities become denser and more populous while modes of transportation and public transit continue to evolve and challenge each other. Moving forward, technological ingenuity will be critical to reducing traffic congestion, and curbside regulation is an important place to start. Below you will find a number of possible solutions that, when combined, can serve as a very effective strategy for reducing curbside congestion and increasing city-wide traffic safety and livability, for both drivers and pedestrians.
Smart City Infrastructure: IoT and Connections
A smart city is defined as a city that connects mobility and a broader realm of innovations with real-time technology. In a truly smart world, a citizen should be able to park their car and pay for it directly on his or her phone, find out when the next bus is coming, and seamlessly plan a day’s travels. The successful smart city will collect data continuously, using it to enable citizens and make beneficial business decisions, such as adjusting street parking prices based on the frequency of parking in a particular location; the possibilities are endless.
Cities are already starting to make this ideal a reality: connected devices such as cameras and sensors can be used to monitor parking availability and make it easier to enforce curbside regulations. For instance, in Philadelphia, SEPTA and the PPA are using forward-facing cameras on buses to record vehicles parked in bus stops. Photos from bus cameras would identify cars in the act of blocking bus and trolley zones so enforcement officers can act quickly (NBC).18
Predictive Parking Availability
Influencing the availability of public parking can also have a positive impact on curbside management and overall congestion. Predictive availability is a great feature to use in order to gain visibility into a city’s primary areas of congestion and efficiently lead drivers to the best possible parking location. Although most hardware providers have focused on developing expensive and hard-to-maintain sensors that are installed on streets to gauge real-time availability, it is often overlooked that this is not the most efficient method for relieving congestion. Traffic moves in such fast pace that it becomes nearly impossible for a driver who is a few blocks away to get to an available parking spot the minute it opens up. The best way to make an impact is to leverage predictive availability technology that can tell drivers the likelihood that a parking space will be available at the time they will arrive at their destination. As drivers plan their trips to their destinations, they are able to see where the most efficient place is to park to get there in the fastest way possible. Chicago drivers know this firsthand; the ParkChicagoMap application used across the city helps drivers find the best place to park based on a predictive algorithm that uses historical and real-time data from payments to show predicted availability.
Dynamic pricing increases parking pricing during periods of peak demand and is designed to be a mechanism to disperse traffic and congestion more efficiently by encouraging drivers to park in less expensive areas of a city (San Francisco County Transportation Authority).19 For example, SFPark, an experiment launched at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in 2011, sought to eliminate congestion by changing the underlying forces of parking. The method leverages data to modify the cost of a parking spot according to demand, which was shown in San Francisco to keep spaces open on each block and keep traffic moving (The New York Times).20
Despite the success of the San Francisco dynamic pricing pilot, many cities haven’t tested dynamic pricing in their own environments because the current infrastructure doesn’t easily allow for it as they face software and hardware challenges.
Policy, rules & regulations
As many modes of transportation converge on the curb and vie for its valuable real estate, it is becoming even more important for cities to figure out a way to regulate them in order to keep a balance and to reduce curbside congestion. A potential way to do this is leveraging parking-like rules for everything that moves and somehow leverages the curb. For example, instead of implementing permit systems for scooters, leverage dynamic parking fees that charge based on location, traffic, and supply and demand. The same goes for shortstops on the curb by rideshare services.
In order to achieve this, cities will need to leverage one platform which manages all the rules of the curb and can ‘speak’ to all the different services and providers using the curb – from rideshares to scooters, to parking apps, to smart meters.
As mentioned, inefficient curbside regulation causes traffic interruptions 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. 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.
Leveraging Real-Time Technology
Cities are going to need to leverage real-time technology to solve the problem of curbside congestion and overall traffic control. Municipalities globally need to be able to quickly ingest, analyze and leverage data from multiple sources, and also control and enforce various aspects of their cities in real-time.
For example, cities need the informed wherewithal to determine that there is increased congestion because there’s a football game in town and multiple streets are closed. A city decision-maker armed with this knowledge in a timely fashion would be empowered to justifiably increase parking rates in one part of town and lower it in another.
Municipalities also need a platform that can be easily integrated with alternative transportation methods, such as micro-mobility options like scooters and bikes, so they can have a holistic view of how people are getting around in their city.
The future of transportation is still uncertain, but with concepts like autonomous vehicles in the works, it’s imperative that more cities establish platforms that these technologies can connect to in order to ensure that vendors and users are adhering to the rules set by the city. At present, there are a few mobile technology vendors that provide the data, but they haven’t yet created a mechanism for acting on it; this is why an all-in-one dashboard is so important.
Curbside rules enforcement is also a critical feature of an end-to-end platform. If a given city makes sanctioned adjustments that stipulate the purpose of different curbside spaces, enforcement officers should be able to use their chosen platform to be able to tell in real-time whether those spaces are being used in accordance with the law and issue citations accordingly.
The evolution of mobile technology is fast-moving, and we don’t know exactly how it will affect drivers, riders, public transit agencies, and pedestrians. Regardless, connectivity will only increase, and cities worldwide have to modernize operations to prepare.