May 8, 2019

Curbside Management: Improving cities with curb data


Jordan Anderson

Software Engineer

For our second installment in our Curbside management blog series we are discussing: Why cities should care about having curb data. There are a number of very good reasonsand they are all focused on improving curb productivity, compliance and making curbside accessibility more dynamic for the needs of citizens.

Reduce traffic and make the road safer for all users

Take, for example, an event that occurs probably hundreds of times every minute in a big city. A ride-share driver looks for curb space as close to the pick-up or drop-off point as possible. Finding none, he stops in the street and flips on his hazard lights. The road users behind him have to quickly react. Drivers try to go around the stopped vehicle; some larger vehicles, like delivery trucks, can’t make the maneuver, and their drivers lay on the horn, thinking that will magically clear the blockage. (If it’s a two-way street, drivers might aggressively cut into the other lane to pass the vehicle before oncoming traffic closes off their opportunity, creating an even more considerable safety risk.) Passengers have to enter the street to get to or from the car.

Often, the culprits in this scenario are delivery trucks, which block traffic for the duration of their drop-off period—and whose workers are placed at increased risk each time they have to enter the road. When they happen on a busy thoroughfare, these problems can compound, slowing traffic and causing potential safety issues for blocks in all directions. This approach has become so ubiquitous that many delivery companies now include the cost of tickets in their budgets.

Curbside Management: Improving cities with curb data

In an ideal city, this wouldn’t be a problem: ride-share vehicles and delivery trucks would always have a spot next to the curb to pull over, allowing passengers to hop out directly onto the sidewalk, and keeping delivery workers from having to push their dollies into moving traffic.

But can knowledge of curb assets help cities address this issue? Yes, it can, because this knowledge allows cities to…

Allocate curb assets more efficiently

In 2017, Washington, D.C., launched a trial program near Dupont Circle, one of the most popular nightlife spots in the city. The city took curb space equivalent to around 60 parking spots and prohibited parking there on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. the following morning. That way, for-hire vehicles can drop off and pick up passengers without putting a strain on the street or putting safety in jeopardy.

This past October, the city announced it was expanding the effort to five additional high-traffic areas, including the National Zoo. Going a step beyond the original Dupont Circle experiment, these new zones will prohibit parking at all times; during the day, the spots will be used for commercial loading. (An added benefit to prohibiting private parking: the signage will be much clearer.)

In this age of ride-share apps, bike-share programs and pay-by-the-minute car rental, cities’ curbs are moving—slowly, but surely—away from private car ownership toward a system that relies more on pick-ups and drop-offs.

In addition, knowledge of curb assets can help cities more accurately assess potential revenue, and determine whether and how to price specific curbs. The ultimate goal is for curb use to become dynamic, responding to the needs of the area in real-time. We’re already seeing the seeds of that goal in several cities, with concepts like dynamic pricing and “flex space.”

How curb data can support policy decisions

As cities attempt to perfect their optimization of the curb, it’s clear they’ll have to address, over and over, a major point of political contention: repurposing private parking. In many communities, free on-street parking has become something of an inalienable right, and the threat of losing even a single spot for the purpose of improving traffic (by adding, say, a loading zone), increasing turnover (a bike-share rack) or both (a drop-off area for ride-share) can send tempers flaring.

From a psychological point of view, the anger is understandable: generally, humans don’t like when something they’d been getting for free suddenly disappears or comes with a cost. That’s particularly true when, as the International Transport Forum put it in a 2018 report, the benefits of the change “will flow to as-yet unclear, unorganized or diffuse beneficiaries.”

Naturally, such passion rarely responds to reason or data—even when the evidence is overwhelming. The advantages of having curb data manifest elsewhere. For one, having data allows cities to make better-informed decisions on the best use of a particular stretch of curb. It also serves as a bulwark against the lawsuits that often arise out of these changes. (Judges, fortunately, do tend to respond to reason and data.)

Better curb data makes cities more efficient—and equitable

Curbside Management: Improving cities with curb data

Bad coordination between city agencies can lead to significant delays in implementing even trivial street changes, like adding a bike rack. This lack of movement can lead citizens to think their government is incompetent—or, perhaps even worse, that local officials don’t care about them. When implemented properly, particularly in a centralized digital system, a city’s curb data can increase public transparency and trust in government by improving coordination between disparate agencies.

There are other less-obvious (but still critical) advantages available to cities that have their curb assets digitized. Federal infrastructure grants often require cities to keep tabs on their progress, which electronic tracking makes much easier. It can also create a more equitable city: by designating drop-off zones with access to a curb ramp, for example, cities can make getting from the car to the curb much easier and safer for citizens with accessibility needs.

Until very recently, gathering a complete picture of a city’s curbs was infeasible. At Coord, we’re proud to be at the forefront of developing the technology that makes this important task possible.

Curb data is not only for the benefit of cities, however. More on that in our next post in our Curbside Management blog series.


Jordan Anderson

Software Engineer

Jordan is a software engineer at Coord. He was an urban planner for 8 years, working on everything from analyzing the economic impact of universities on their communities to modeling ferry ridership on the East River. In his spare time he loves playing the banjo and riding bikes in Brooklyn with his family.