As most anyone who has found their way to the Coord blog knows, our streets and curbs have been getting busier and more chaotic for a long time. Between emerging micromobility and the increased demand for delivery, there’s greater competition for the pavement. And it is only set to increase. According to the World Economic Forum, there’s a projected 17% annual growth rate in e-commerce. And that’s a pre-COVID stat, so we can only imagine how COVID has accelerated this delivery trend.
Mo Deliveries, Mo Problems
E-commerce growth is causing all sorts of challenges on city streets. We see blocked crosswalks and ADA ramps. We see double-parking that blocks vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, creating really dangerous situations for people to maneuver around. We see our highest-priority modes, like buses, slowed down or blocked by improperly loading vehicles. Bike lanes are blocked and cyclists need to navigate into vehicle lanes instead of using the space cities have created for them.
Delivery vehicles either don’t have a place to safely and legally load, don’t know where that space is, or choose not to use the space that’s available.
This situation isn’t so great for the delivery industry either. Those trying to find a legal spot spend precious time looking for space to pull over. Some also pay a lot of money in fines. All of this uses fuel and creates unnecessary emissions.
So What Do Cities Want (What They Really, Really Want)
So what do cities want? They want people to be able to get where they need to go safely. They want their businesses to be successful. They want data to be able to make good decisions, and sometimes need revenue to support public programs. They want programs that are fair and equitable.
And what do fleets and drivers want? With respect to deliveries, they want to reduce costs. Mostly this cost is reflected in the driver’s time. The more deliveries a driver can do per unit of time, the better. And although we know there are certain companies that do not seem terribly sensitive to citations, my experience working in and with cities is that some drivers and fleets very much feel the pain of citations. And unlike fees, fines are not deductible on a business’ taxes.
What fleets and drivers are looking for in terms of how to save time is pretty much what you’d expect. They want space as close as possible to their destinations. And they want to know it’s going to be available for them when they need it.
Straight Up, Now Tell Me (About Curb Management Technology)
There’s a lot of technology supporting better curbside management, whether we’re talking about commercial loading or bike parking. It can take some time to get it all straight. As a shortcut, I’ve created this handy taxonomy, focused on technology targeting goods loading.
- Data Collection. First, there’s technology to help a city collect data. For a long time there have been cameras cities or their consultants have used to collect transportation data. Traditionally this footage has been manually reviewed and coded to gain insights. Now there is computer vision technology that can take that manual piece out of things. These sorts of data collection technologies can either make for more efficient occasional studies or be more permanent installations to support ongoing analysis.
- Availability Data. A second technology type provides availability data to drivers. This can be of the historical or predictive variety. For example, a driver can be shown where there is most likely to be space based on availability in the past. It can also be real-time availability information coming from sensors, cameras or a booking system. It can be granular, such as whether a specific space is open, or general, such as whether there’s space available in a broader zone. The hope here is to impact driver behavior, empowering drivers with information to navigate more directly to a legal and available spot.
- Payment Automation. A third type of technology seeks to automate payment. This might be through cameras that read license plates. It also might work by sending a digital signal from a vehicle signed up for the program to a bluetooth receiver on the curb. Payment could potentially be automated for all curb users. Perhaps more likely at first would be that some companies sign up for this option.
- Enforcement Automation. Fourth is automated enforcement. This can be similar to automated payment in that it involves a camera monitoring the curb and recording the license plate information of violators. Even putting (non-negligible!) legal and political issues aside, to me this is more complex to implement than payment. In automated payment, drivers may have proactively signed up for the program and given you a way to bill them. With automated enforcement, you need to be able to issue citations to, and collect fines from, vehicles that have not signed up with you. A perfect ability to collect isn’t needed for this sort of program to be impactful. But I have heard about the challenges agencies have trying to collect road toll bills sent by mail.
- Reservation Systems. Finally there are reservation systems. These systems have a lot in common with systems that provide availability data to drivers. They often also rely on availability data, and are trying to change driver behavior. By allowing drivers to reserve the space, they go a step further than pure availability data programs in their efforts to give drivers confidence that it’s worth navigating to that space. This can make it more likely it’s worth the driver’s time to go to that spot because it reduces the chance someone else is also on the way to that spot and snags it first.
In creating this taxonomy, I had a real ah-ha! moment. The perfect system would likely include features from all of these products. But for good reason, no single company is doing perfect yet. And I’m a person who believes you can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. So where you start as a city depends on your priorities, your budget, your partners and the legal and political environment you operate in.
Curb Manager, Know Thyself
If commercial loading is a challenge in your city (or whatever the space is you manage!), there’s a set of questions to ask yourself.
- What problems do you want to solve? Is your focus primarily generating revenue from existing users of your space? Or do you think that to really solve your problem, you need to do more to change drivers’ behavior? Your priorities drive what technology and regulations interest you.
- What is your city’s appetite for hardware? This is important because hardware can increase the cost of operating your system. A key related question is your scale. Hardware costs might be less of an issue for you if you have an acute problem in a certain area rather than a broader problem to address.
- What can you do legally today? We are all operating within the constraints of the law. Cities need to figure out what legal authority they have today, and if they need more, how hard it is to get. It might be easier and faster to gain authorization from a local council to charge for loading than it might be to get your state to allow you to automate enforcement. It doesn’t mean you should give up on the initiatives that take longer to achieve, but it might mean you need to start with other components
- What can you do politically today? There are widely divergent attitudes around the world and among US cities regarding cameras. Agency and political leadership also have divergent attitudes toward topics like monetization and automated enforcement. Budgets of course matter too.
- How interested are your fleet partners (if you have them). Some programs to address commercial loading rely on willing partnerships with fleets. Others rely on a more regulatory approach. So the question to ask yourself is whether or not you are making concrete progress with your fleets on a voluntary basis. If you are, that’s great! If you’re not, you might need to start with a regulatory approach, and as fleets see value from the program, they become enthusiastic partners.
And to reprise, no city or technology company has the perfect solution today. But perfect isn’t required to make progress. By gaining clarity about your priorities and nature of your constraints, you can identify the best regulatory and technology approach for your community.
This blog was adapted from a presentation given by Dawn Miller at the International Parking and Mobility (IPMI) Mobility and Innovation Summit on February 24, 2021. If you work for a public agency and are interested in learning about bringing Smart Zones or the Coord platform to your city, you can request a meeting with a member of the Coord team here.