How Do I Love Thee, Loading Zones? Let Me Count the Car Lengths.
With the continued growth in e-commerce and ride-hailing, a lot of cities are re-thinking how they provide loading space. A common question we get at Coord is how much loading space should a city have in its busy areas. The answer is….sorry, even the curb-obsessed team at Coord doesn’t yet have the magical answer to this question. However, the curb inventories we have for more than fifteen cities across North America provide a useful starting point for cities pondering their curb space allocations.
How much loading space do cities have, and how do they manage it?
With Coord, I examined how three leading cities—Seattle, Chicago and Washington, DC—manage their loadings zones. Because curb rules often vary by day of week and time of day, and because the definition of “loading” also varies by city, I’ve normalized findings to the extent possible by looking at loading in each city’s primary business district at 9:30AM on Wednesdays.
Of course, important contextual factors underlie some of the curb allocations and prices we see in these and every city. Cities with plentiful alleys might need fewer curb loading zones to meet their needs, while cities with underground trains might need less curb space for buses. Cities with plentiful off-street parking might have less demand for on-street parking, creating more opportunities to use this valuable space for other mobility or community needs. A real challenge of performing comparative analysis between cities is that not every city regulation has a one-to-one equivalent in each other city. Factoring in this inherent variability, it’s still my hope that some of the similarities and differences described here are helpful for cities determining how to reimagine their curbs.
Seattle is a thought leader in curb management, and their practices are a natural place to begin. They have four main loading zone types:
- Passenger loading zones (PLZ): In these zones, all vehicles may stop for three minutes to pick up and drop off passengers. The driver must remain in the vehicle.
- Loading zones: In these zones, all vehicles, including private vehicles, may load or unload people or goods. They require parking payment in the Center City.
- Truck zones: In these zones, vehicles licensed as trucks may load or unload goods.
- Commercial vehicle loading zones (CVLZ): In these zones, located in Seattle business districts with paid parking, commercial vehicles may load or unload for up to 30 minutes. To use these zones, a vehicle must either have a commercial vehicle permit from the City or make payment by phone or paystation.
Seattle’s CBD has nearly 5,100 spaces along the curb. For the purposes of this analysis, we group truck zones and CVLZs together. By far the largest share of curb space in this area of the city at this time of day isn’t allocated to stationary vehicles at all. On two-thirds of Seattle’s curb space at this time of day it is prohibited to stop, stand, load or park (See Figure 1). After that, metered parking, buses, and loading are each allocated roughly the same share of space (10-11%). Within loading space, 60% is dedicated to passenger loading and most the rest to commercial vehicle/truck loading.
Figure 1. Seattle Curb Allocations, 9:30 am Wednesday
Parking and loading costs $3-4 per hour in this area at this time of day. Commercial vehicles may choose between paying the hourly rate or purchasing a commercial vehicle loading permit from the City for $250 per year.
There is significant variety in the lengths of Seattle’s loading zones (see Figure 2). In all three categories, only a small share of loading zone space is in zones of one car length or less. Most passenger loading zone space is in zones that are two to four car lengths. The overwhelming majority (73%) of commercial and truck loading zone space is in zones that are more than one car length but not quite three.
Figure 2. Seattle CBD Loading Zone Lengths, 9:30 am Wednesday
The City of Chicago has a variety of loading zone types. They have zones that are reserved for loading by (1) commercial vehicles, or (2) vehicles that have obtained a non-commercial vehicle loading zone permit. In addition, they have 15- and 30-minute standing zones, which are intended for non-commercial vehicles to do business. Vehicles parking in these standing zones must have their hazard lights flashing while the driver is away from the vehicle. Like many cities, Chicago also has valet loading zones and taxi pickup/drop-off zones.
Chicago parking policy is well known for a 2008 deal that privatized its parking meter system, which was penned in response to the budget crisis and has been criticized by some transportation advocates as curtailing the City’s ability to manage its streets. However, for those of us who believe that many cities underprice access to their curbs, Chicago is worth noting. In Chicago, professional drivers using loading zones and private individuals using standing zones pay per unit of time for their use of space. Prices range from a few dollars to $14 per hour. Interestingly, although different zones have different pricing levels for metered parking ($6.50 and $4 per hour, respectively), the prices for commercial loading remain $14 per hour (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Chicago Loop Parking and Loading Prices, 9:30 am Wednesday
We focused this analysis on The Loop, which is Chicago’s busiest business district. Similar to Seattle’s CBD, at 9:30 on a Wednesday parking, loading, stopping and standing are all prohibited on more than 60% of the curb lane (see Figure 4). Whereas in Seattle’s CBD only about 10% of curb space at this time of day is dedicated to metered parking, in the Chicago Loop, 25% of space is metered parking. Chicago’s Loop has about 7% of its space dedicated to loading, standing, valet and pickups/drop-offs, about 3 percentage points less than Seattle’s CBD. Notably, more than twice as much Seattle CBD curb space is dedicated to buses as compared to the Chicago Loop.
Figure 4. Chicago Curb Allocations, 9:30 am Wednesday
A notable characteristic of Chicago’s loading zones is their length. Nearly 40% of their total loading space is found in zones more than 100 feet long (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Chicago Loading Zone Lengths, 9:30 am Wednesday
In Washington, DC I examined the area of Downtown between 20th St. NW and 9th St. NW, bounded by H St. NW on the south (the northern border of the White House) and P St. NW on the north (near Logan Circle and Dupont Circle). Similar to both Seattle and Chicago, by far the greatest share of curb space in this area of DC at this time prohibits stationary vehicle uses (see Figure 6). Like Chicago, DC devotes about a quarter of its curb space to metered parking. This area of DC also has some residential permit parking (12%). DC devotes an overall smaller share of its curb space to loading (4%) as compared to Seattle (10%) and Chicago (7%).
Figure 6. Washington, DC Curb Allocations, 9:30 am Wednesday
Drivers engaged in commercial loading in this area of the District have two options: (1) purchase an annual or daily permit, which enables them to use commercial loading zones, generally for up to two hours, or (2) pay $2.30 per hour by phone.
The District’s passenger pickup/drop-off zones in this area are primarily hotel valet zones. They also include taxi stands and more generalized pickup/drop-off zones. These generalized pickup/drop-off zones are dedicated exclusively to passenger pickups and drop-offs and commercial loading 24 hours a day to help keep these activities out of travel lanes, and at some times of day loading is prohibited to ensure the space is available for passenger pickups and drop-offs.
If planners in the District were interested in creating more weekday daytime loading zones, Coord could help them identify a set of candidate sites. Figure 7 shows a search I designed to find sites that are four or more car lengths long and that are adjacent to an intersection to facilitate pulling into and out of the spaces more easily. It also includes a list of assets and regulations the planner wants to avoid in identifying candidate sites, such as fire hydrants, bus stops, curb cuts and space designated for no parking, stopping or standing.
Figure 7. Curb Search in Coord
The search yields a set of candidate sites (see Figure 8). A planner could combine this set of candidate sites with other information, such as adjacent land uses, requests from delivery fleets and local businesses, or double-parking violation data, to select sites for reallocation to loading.
Figure 8. Loading Zone Candidate Sites
Identified in Coord Using Criteria in Figure 7
Smart Loading Zones
Many cities might find they need more loading zones than they have today as food delivery vehicles, parcel delivery vehicles, service vehicles, and ride-hailing vehicles comprise larger shares of our modal mix. A city re-thinking its loading zones to accommodate these trends could simply allocate more space to them. The traditional process would be to set rules for each zone - what types of drivers can use it, when, for how long, and at what price - and to express those rules on a series of regulation signs.
One possible solution, for a city using Coord, would be to designate new or existing loading zones as Smart Loading Zones. Smart Loading Zones are accessed by delivery and service vehicle drivers using a mobile app powered by Coord. On the way to a driver’s destination, the app shows which zones she is eligible to use at that time and their likely availability. The driver selects the zone she would like to use, navigates her “last mile” to the zone, and books into it upon arrival.
To determine how long she’s allowed to stay in this loading space, the driver doesn’t need to interpret a mile-high pole of stacked signs. Instead, she can reference the Coord app, which has all the relevant regulation information for the space and translates it into a simple set of options tailored to her specific use at that time. This mental processing work, now handled by the app, allows the City to potentially establish more nuanced and dynamic regulations. For a Smart Loading Zone, what’s listed on the signage would be quite general (see Figure 9 for an example) because the city would digitally communicate the applicable Smart Loading Zone rules using Coord.
Figure 9. Example Smart Loading Zone Street Signage
Letting the app simplify a driver’s process to identify a place to load creates opportunities for clever and nuanced curbside policy. Let’s imagine a city wants to use incentives to better distribute loading demand across the day and week. In the example in Figure 10, a planner has used Coord’s Smart Loading Zone creator to convey demand-based pricing and regulations in this zone.
Figure 10. Smart Loading Zone Designation in Coord
In this area, 8 am to noon on weekdays has the highest demand for loading. Double-parking and other illegal parking is prevalent, contributing to congestion and safety hazards. To more evenly distribute loading activity throughout the day and week, the City could set the pricing for loading in the Smart Loading Zone to $10 per hour from 8 am to noon, $5 per hour from noon to 4 pm, and $1 per hour on weekends and overnight. The time limits, which are shorter in highest-demand times and longer in lower-demand times, also incentivize spreading demand across the day and week. Between 4 pm and midnight this block’s greatest curbside need is actually for passenger loading, so the city uses Coord to transmit it as available to ride-hailing apps but unavailable to drivers registered with service or delivery vehicles.
In addition to granularity, establishing Smart Loading Zones provides flexibility. Prices, time limits or hours of operation can be easily changed in Coord in response to stakeholder feedback or program analysis. Loading zones can be digitally closed—removed from availability in the app—for special events, construction, or emergencies. Because delivery and service vehicle drivers use mobile apps to find, book and pay for their loading space, the rules, prices, and use of the loading zone can be changed without changing signage on the street. This allows for greater experimentation, program refinement in response to evolving conditions, and swift responses to emergencies or other unexpected events.
What’s Your Loading Zone Journey?
Although the movement of goods is a crucial component of our transportation system and economy, for a long time it got relatively little attention in traditional transportation planning education. However, recent trends are putting this goods movement—and its need for curb, alley or loading dock space—front and center in many cities. Coord provides tools that help cities develop loading and other curbside policy wherever they are on their curb management journey—whether it’s gathering inventory data to better understand what you have today, analyzing the impacts of alternative future scenarios, or developing a Smart Loading Zone program. If you’re interested in learning more about how Coord can support your agency’s curb management needs, click here to learn more!