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Itís Time to Step Up our Curbs

August 15, 2019

Thomas Madrecki

When it comes to designing safer, less congested and more livable streets, there are two experiences I wish I could share with any transportation planner, engineering consultant or local leader:


First, what it’s like to be a cyclist and a pedestrian – in their city, and then in Copenhagen. 


And second, what it’s like to deliver for a company like UPS. 


 In both cases, I think that experience would make a deep impression. As a cyclist myself, I frequently remark that viewing the transportation environment as a cyclist distinctly changes your point of view on things. It’s a shift in perspective that forces you to confront what works and what doesn’t – sometimes even to the point of peril/potential harm as you navigate from Point A to Point B. 


Delivering for UPS or other logistics companies would have the same kind of impact. Funnily enough, I’ve done that too, because everyone at UPS Public Affairs has to drive a truck at some point in their career. But for me, as transportation policy advocate and curb management wonk (how many of us are there?), it also brought many issues into immediate clarity. 


As a UPS driver, your job is to deliver the packages in your truck to their intended recipients. Sure, there are other aspects and nuances as a service provider, but really, it’s straightforward. You start with a full truck each morning and you don’t go home until the truck is empty.


Just like cyclists and pedestrians, UPS drivers notice things, too. Generally speaking, you drive in the same neighborhood every day, and you start to know the roads, buildings and people like the back of your hand. You need to, because time is of the essence.


Ensuring Speed and Safety


What do you know about roads, buildings and people? 


You know that there’s limited parking, everywhere you go – and that frequently, because of e-commerce, you’re not just going to places with clearly marked loading zones. 


You know that what you do inside a building has a distinct impact on how long that delivery takes – which in turn means how long your truck is parked outside.


And you know that 1) People order all sorts of crazy things – in increasing quantities and that 2) You need to take every precaution to stay safe. 


I mention these three insights because, although they might seem like common sense to anyone who has driven a commercial vehicle, they often aren’t present in how transportation planning professionals think about street design and curbside regulation. 


To their credit, this is partially a new development, accelerated by e-commerce growth and the rapid rise of home delivery expectations. More packages than ever before need to be delivered, and those packages are less consolidated to single addresses than ever before, too. And because of demand, there are also more trucks on the road, competing for the same limited pool of legal parking spots. 


Put differently, demand for curbside space is changing at an unprecedented clip. E-commerce is not that different than the rise in transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft; both trends create a curb demand that’s radically different than a personal vehicle parking space. 


If that’s the case, anyone who wants to limit double parking, lane blockages, parking in the bike lane, and other less-than-desirable behaviors would do well to revisit the curb and understand how it disproportionately impacts the transportation network. If we solve curb issues, we start to solve congestion and quality of life issues.


Creating a Flex Zone


One groundbreaking idea in this regard is the concept of a “flex zone.” Basically, you’d take away a bunch of personal vehicle parking spots and replace them with a curbside that can be occupied on a rotating, potentially regulated/managed basis. Washington DC DOT recently conducted a similar curb management pilot for late-night passenger pick-up and drop-off in a popular bar and entertainment neighborhood, and the results have been promising. 


In a flex zone, transportation network companies, e-commerce delivery, food and beverage distribution, plumbing and electrical repair services and more all make the cut – and the idea is you can keep traffic moving and better provide for necessary curbside demands. At the same time, cities could make strides toward greater inclusion of active and shared mobility streams at the curb and sidewalk level, incorporating design and regulatory changes to facilitate bike-share, scooters, and whatever’s next – including eventual autonomous vehicle pick-up and drop-off.


Other solutions may be less progressive, but similarly impactful. Consider:


Many municipalities drop requirements for off-street or curbside loading areas due to pressure from the development community seeking exemptions to existing ordinances.


Only a small handful of American cities still have a functioning network of alleys, which further support off-street loading and unloading.


How and why loading zones are allocated varies by city – in Chicago, for example, they were historically requested by a local business nearby. But wouldn’t it make more sense for loading zones to be allocated based on actual demand?


In Washington DC, a curb study found that the District possesses one loading zone for every 520 personal vehicle spots. Do our curbs reflect our cities’ stated transportation priorities? We need to raise the profile of other uses – for 1) shared mobility; 2) urban goods movement; and 3) ensuring the safety of all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.


Making Enforcement Work


Let’s talk enforcement – and right away, I’ll admit that UPS pays its fair share in parking tickets. But if actual behavior change is desired, and not just an ongoing municipal revenue stream, then enforcement needs to be consistent, equitable and robust. This was an issue with New York’s “Clear Curbs” pilot launched early last year. The intention to limit curb use on congested avenues may be made theoretically, but if only a single United States Postal Service truck parks at the curb regardless – and can’t be ticketed or towed – then you still have an entire lane blocked to traffic. 


Critically, it’s important to understand that there’s no silver bullet solution to curbside management or congestion issues, apart from continued collaboration. And as last-mile delivery solutions change – from e-cargo bikes to robot dogs to the cutest burrito burro you’ve ever seen – that level of collaboration will need to be even greater, because each solution requires new considerations about land use, right of way, staging areas, and generally how things are signed, coded and regulated.


Managing the curb probably isn’t the sexiest transportation topic on the planet, but its ripple effect on other aspects of how people and goods get around is enormous. Cities are at the cusp of a whole-scale mobility revolution, with e-commerce and transportation network companies as just the tip of the iceberg. Working together to deliver better curb solutions was the first step in improving quality of life in the places we call home.


Thomas Madrecki was Director of Urban Innovation and Mobility, UPS. The above was first published as a blog on www.coord.co 



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