Ahead of the Curb: The Case for Shared Use Mobility (SUM) Zones

January 18, 2017

Much ink has already been spilled about how the digital economy has transformed the way people and goods move around. But what is often missing from these discussions is the curb – the very place where many of these trips naturally begin and end.

Transportation network companies (TNCs), like Uber and Lyft, have been both celebrated and disparaged as disrupters in the mobility sector. Uber alone now conducts 5.5 million rides per day globally, while Lyft (its closest competitor in the U.S.) reached the one million rides per day mark last July.

Similarly, ecommerce companies have shifted consumer behavior and increased demand for parcel deliveries – last year alone, Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items worldwide through its Amazon Prime program alone.

These trends are not just disrupting markets – they also disrupt the flow of traffic. In San Francisco, TNCs conduct more than 170,000 pickups every weekday and account for about 20 percent of traffic – but account for 65 percent of traffic violations. Parcel volume increased by nearly 50 percent from 2014 to 2016 and will only continue to grow – and with it, the number of double-parked trucks conducting deliveries. UPS racks up over $1 million in parking fines annually in Washington, DC alone.

This has made the most overlooked part of city streets into a fertile ground for a disruption that does not disrupt traffic: the curb.

For nearly a century, cities have used curb space designations to serve a set of well-defined purposes: mostly short and long term parking, but also freight deliveries, taxi stands, bus stops, and handicap accessibility. In that time, there was little need for innovation at the curb because, for the most part, the structure of trips had not changed.

But the trip dynamics for TNC drivers is different from taxis, which are often hailed for quick pickups and, in some cases, have the benefit of waiting at taxi stands.

TNC trips also differ from pick-ups and drop-offs between friends and family. TNC drivers spend several minutes of every hour waiting for passengers to get into their car and then, even once the passenger is in the car, they also must confirm the pickup on their phones immediately and wait for their navigation apps to start.

In short: TNCs do not have a home on our streets, and freight vehicles do not have enough commercial loading zones and parking places to accommodate booming ecommerce. While silver bullets for roadway safety and congestion are in short supply, there is a solution that can help to alleviate some of the congestion, safety risks, and inefficiencies that come with the digital economy.

Enter Shared Use Mobility Zones (SUM Zones), a flexible curb management tool that can help cities reduce congestion, meet their mobility goals, adapt to emerging technologies, and even increase their revenue. This concept, which first appeared in ETW in November 2015, will be the subject of a forthcoming brief from Eno.

The Double Park Shuffle

On city streets across America, the same scene plays out in the same way tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of times per day:

  1. A car with an Uber or Lyft logo (perhaps both) slows down near the middle of a block.
  2. The TNC driver takes their eyes off the road to look for their passenger and/or a place to pull over.
  3. Failing to find either their passenger or a parking spot, the TNC driver flicks on their hazard lights and stops their car.
  4. A lane of traffic comes to a dead halt; cyclists must weave between the TNC car and parked cars; horns honk, rude gestures are made, everyone’s blood pressure increases.

The result is not just congestion, but also a risk to the safety of the TNC driver, the drivers around them, cyclists, and the TNC driver as they step out into the street to get in the car.

The TNC driver also faces the financial risk of being ticketed for double parking, even if they did not have another choice than to circle the block – which, by the way, also contributes to congestion, wastes gas, increases their greenhouse gas emissions, and may upset a passenger if they take too long to come back around.

In the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC, this scene is just as much of a permanent fixture as the streetlamps.

The vibrant nightlife along 18th Street Northwest attracts hordes of revelers – and with them, a legion of TNC drivers attempting to conduct pick-ups and drop-offs on the already-congested two-lane street. Cars are permanently parked along curbs for the night, giving TNC drivers few (if any) opportunities to pull over and wait for their passengers.

Instead, they must double park as close as possible to the parked cars on their right, which forces cars and cyclists to cross a double-yellow line and expose themselves to oncoming traffic to get past them.

When the sun comes up, delivery truck drivers do the same double park shuffle while they replenish the food, kegs, and other goods consumed the night before. Beyond slowing down traffic, this poses a risk to the driver’s safety while unloading their cargo.

This is inefficient, dangerous, and unnecessary.

SUM Zones

If a city’s priority is to reduce the congestion and safety risks, they could choose to designate a select amount of curb spaces as SUM Zones. TNC (and taxi) drivers could safely conduct pickups and drop-offs during peak hours. The concept of curb space is simple, but it bears repeating: when a driver exits the lane of traffic and pulls over to the curb, their passengers receive safe passage to the sidewalk. The driver also avoids creating a traffic slowdown that might not exist otherwise.

Outside of peak hours, these spaces could be converted back to regular parking spaces for consumer vehicles or, where needed, be designated as freight and parcel delivery zones to prevent congestion caused by double-parked trucks.

For a pilot project, Washington, DC could reevaluate the parking designations in the Adams Morgan neighborhood pictured above and study how many TNC pickups and drop-offs are conducted on this block at each time of day.

When there is a high volume of TNC drivers that are forced to park, the city could choose to set aside one or two spots at the end of the block to allow drivers and passengers to quickly locate one another and safely begin a ride.

Similarly, at times when delivery trucks are forced to double-park and block through traffic (likely during the day), those SUM Zones can be designated as delivery zones.

By placing SUM Zones at the beginning or end of each block, truck drivers and TNC drivers alike can easily pull in and out.

This also provides a vital benefit to people with disabilities, as paratransit vehicles would be able to bring the passenger up to the curb. This will simultaneously reduce the stress of pickups and drop offs for paratransit users, particularly those with limited mobility, who would not have to face the risk of being dropped off far from a curb lip, which exposes them to oncoming traffic as they seek the nearest one.

SUM Zones are a low cost solution but come with large political obstacles.

Parking is a very political issue in cities. Residents balk at any attempt to take away parking spaces, which are already in short supply in congested urban cores.

But traffic is also political. Cities should with TNCs to determine how many pickups and drop-offs are conducted in a particular area, the data may show that SUM Zones even benefit those who are driving their own cars. This could be done by determining many parking spaces are left open for every person who uses a TNC instead of driving their own car and, perhaps more importantly, the reduction in congestion when TNC drivers are no longer double-parking and shutting down lanes of traffic.

Second, many city budgets are heavily reliant on parking revenue. But some cities and many airports are already establishing TNC fees for pickups and drop-offs that are conducted in their jurisdiction. If a city elected to charge a nominal fee, perhaps $0.25 or $0.50, per pickup in a geofenced area where there are active SUM Zones, they could quickly recover the lost revenue from hourly meter parking, which is $2.30 in Washington, DC. Uber and Lyft have already began working with cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, CA to establish designated zones.

This not only makes the beginning and end of each trip more convenient for passengers and drivers, but also reduces animosity from other road users – and mitigates the risk of political backlashes due to scofflaw drivers.

While silver bullets for roadway safety and congestion are in short supply – or, rather, nonexistent – SUM Zones are a positive step toward reducing congestion, safety risks, and inefficiencies presented by the digital economy.

Stay tuned for Eno’s upcoming report on SUM Zones, Ahead of the Curb, in the coming months.

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