Dec 12, 2018

Take Me Out To The Ball Game (Without Getting Towed)

Jacob Baskin

CTO & Co-Founder

Why curb regulations get complicated, and what cities can do about it

Most traffic signs convey a single message with a symbol or a short phrase. Simple shapes, large text, and universal usage ensure that every driver knows with a mere glance what is allowed or forbidden. A stop sign always means stop. One way always means one way.

Signs about curb usage, however, are a mishmash of imagery and messaging. The design varies not only between cities but from block to block. What’s more, curb signs often need to convey multiple messages. The rules change depending on the day of the week and the time of the day. What is a legal parking spot on a weekday might be a no stopping zone on a weekend. The rules are also different for passenger cars, trucks and taxis.

As an example of how complicated curb rules can get, take this sign near AT&T Park, the baseball stadium where the San Francisco Giants play.

Take Me Out To The Ball Game (Without Getting Towed)

That jumble of text and boxes is trying to tell drivers that there are different curb rules for when the Giants are playing a home game. Making it even more complicated, some of those 81 regular season games are played during the day and some at night. For afternoon games, the area in front of this sign is a taxi zone from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but for night games, it’s a taxi zone between 4 p.m. and midnight.

The curb regulations are this fine-grained for a reason. If this curb were reserved for taxis every day of the year, it would make the area’s regulations needlessly restrictive, but allowing parking during Giants games would mean that only a dozen or so people could use this curb rather than hundreds over the course of a night. The issue is in how and when the city conveys this information.

Let’s say you are looking for parking near the stadium. You drive up 2nd Street and pull over to the curb. Wanting to avoid an expensive ticket, you glance up at the sign to figure out whether you’re in a legal spot. Given the sign’s complexity and the number of variables that determine the rules, it is unlikely you can make a quick and informed decision. And because there was no way of knowing the rules in advance, you had to drive all the way there just to find out whether you were even allowed to park or not!

This sign is a great demonstration of both the benefits and the challenges of flexible curb rules. The city wants curbs to be as useful as possible, but the regulations live on physical signs that drivers have to read within a matter of seconds. This means that flexibility is hard to realize in practice.

Digital Means Flexible

To solve this problem, we need to digitize the curb. If the city shared curb rules with citizens in an easy-to-understand format, you wouldn’t need to know whether the Giants were playing at home before leaving the house. Once curb rules are digital, drivers can make better decisions without stopping to decipher complex and detailed parking signs. Navigation apps can integrate the data to improve how people plan their journeys. While the street sign has to try to answer every question for every person, digitized signs offer personalized information on demand.

Another advantage of digital distribution of curb regulations is that it can be updated in near real time. Changing curb use on game days is a way to react to handle the increased demand. What happens if there is a rainout? Nobody walks to the sign and changes it to reflect a canceled game, so the curb will be underutilized or used inefficiently on that particular day. Longer-term, cities can also be more flexible in response to increased bike, scooter, or pedestrian traffic by reallocating street space from parking to other modes. Ultimately, digitized curb rules are necessary to help make sure the curbs serve the people who use them instead of bringing them frustration and parking tickets.

The first step is digitizing the city’s existing rules, including signs like this one. Coord has built a suite of products to do just that. First, our Surveyor app uses just a smartphone to precisely collect digital information on existing curb signs, as well as painted curbs and anything else you have to look at to know whether you can park, drop off a passenger, or load and unload goods at a particular street. Then, we encode each city’s bylaws so we can interpret the information. Finally, we map and share the results using the Curbs API. For a taste of these rules, try our Curb Explorer, which displays some of the rules and regulations we’ve collected across thousands of blocks in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.

Coord’s Surveyor is available now to survey North American cities. Start your free trial today! We’re excited to work with all kinds of organizations, including government agencies, transportation consultants, and mobility companies.

If you want to learn more about using our Curbs API to integrate curb data into your applications, contact us at partners@coord.co.

Jacob Baskin

CTO & Co-Founder

Jacob Baskin is Coord's co-founder and CTO. Before starting Coord, Jacob worked at Google, where he helped to build Doubleclick Ad Exchange, one of the Internet's largest advertising platforms. In his free time, Jacob enjoys playing bridge and walking around far-flung areas of New York City -- not just to look at the parking signs!