Whose curb is it, anyway?

Risky and annoying: A FedEx truck parks in a bus lane on I St NW during peak hours, forcing a bus to move into regular traffic lanes. Image by the author.

What if, instead of driving around looking for a space, delivery drivers could reserve one ahead of time? Would that kind of system work, logistically? Would it keep deliveries out of bike lanes and from blocking traffic?

A new pilot program in DC by a company called curbFlow is trying to find out. Starting in August, nine curbside locations around the District will be available to reserve for commercial deliveries, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) recently announced. Commercial operators can reserve them for short-term deliveries, and curbFlow “ambassadors” are tasked with keeping them free for reserved use, though they lack ticketing authority.

The District of Columbia is the first jurisdiction to pilot the system. DDOT hopes to use the data gathered to help figure out the best strategies for allocating curbside space to promote safety as well as to reduce misuse of travel lanes, no parking zones, and other areas.

Where will the zones be?

The locations are spread throughout DC, though notably only west of the Anacostia River, and not downtown. There will be zones in Georgetown, Dupont Circle, the Wharf/Southwest Waterfront, Navy Yard, Capitol Hill, and H Street NE.

  • 1200 block of 1st Street SE
  • 1200 block of H Street NE
  • 400 block of 8th Street SE
  • 1100 block of 4th Street SW
  • 300 block of Tingey Street SE
  • 200 block of 3rd Street SE
  • 700 block of Maine Ave. SW
  • 1400 block of 20th St NW
  • 1000 Block of Wisconsin Ave NW near M Street NW

Map of curbFlow locations. Image supplied by curbFlow.

Who can use the zones?

Commercial drivers delivering parcels, goods and small freight, along with couriers and on-demand delivery drivers, will be able to sign up to reserve specific zones at specific times. Personal vehicles being used for commercial purposes are eligible.

Touted by the company as “air traffic control for the curb,” the pilot is designed to develop a better picture of what a comprehensive curbside delivery zone program could look like, and how it could be sustained and be attractive to service providers and all road users. During the pilot it’s free for companies and drivers to make the reservations. The platform is designed for drivers to use in real time (though other staff can use it).

Don’t curb your enthusiasm (sorry)

Risky and doubly annoying for being totally unnecessary: a UPS truck blocks a bike lane with ample parking available just feet ahead. Image by the author.

Curbside delivery services have significantly increased in recent years, from UPS to UberEats. It's important that the District is able to respond to this increase in demand for the curbside in a way that promotes sustainability, safety and active transportation. Can this approach help achieve that?

DDOT’s Director Jeff Marootian thinks it could. “During this pilot, DDOT expects to gain data on what the commercial delivery landscape really looks like in the District, and build on our current efforts to make data-driven decisions that maximize efficiency at the curbside.”

The initiative's managers from both the public and private sides will have to grapple with a few key issues. Firstly, will operators respect this system and use it as intended?

Ali Vahabzadeh, curbFlow’s CEO, acknowledges the need for a shift in local driver culture. “There will be a learning curve. That is why we hired curb ambassadors to educate drivers on how to use the technology at each curbFlow for the pilot, as well as register new operators on the spot. Once people get used to the platform, it will become second nature.”

Asked if curbFlow will be able to successfully juggle potentially conflicting requests, Vahabzadeh responded: “Yes. Whomever requests the curbFlow first has priority, and local fleets have the same access to the booking system as major players like UPS. Keep in mind, deliveries of this nature are mostly very fast, so there will be a quick turnover of the space.”

What isn’t yet clear is what’s in it for the District if the pilot becomes a long-term arrangement—safer streets, more efficient traffic flows, or actual financial returns? After all, curbFlow is likely to gain reams of unique data from this initiative (and could of course decide to charge eventually). Can it be financially sustainable for the company, and for the District?

Weird science?

Getting the curbside right is tricky. Allocation of curb space determines the environment in which people make key choices, and those choices have downstream impacts. Where drivers can and do put their vehicles (officially sanctioned or not) changes the possibilities for people walking, using bikes, or riding buses—chiefly, what they feel safe doing.

Businesses' access to deliveries is a key requirement for sustainable commercial districts. All these needs have to be considered and allocated priority in accordance with our values as a jurisdiction. But planners need large and rigorous data sets to make decisions that optimize that space, and that data has been historically scarce in the District as well as nationally.

Great planning can also help minimize conflicts between users. It should be super clear what spaces are for what purposes, and what the consequences are for misusing dedicated space. The pilot could yield some of the data and analysis required to implement changes that feel long overdue.

The taming of the curb

For a phrase that can induce a nap before you finish reading it, "curbside management" is a really effective way to change the nature of a city. A report published last month argued for more intentional allocation of curbside space in American cities, based on data in specific urban areas. It quoted “The Shared-Use City: Managing the Curb” in February 2018 as observing that most current knowledge about curbside demand is held by the private sector.

Our public sector needs to be better informed about where, when, and for which purposes our curbside spaces are being used, and to be in a position to compare that data to stated policy priorities, such as those expressed in Vision Zero and Sustainable DC.

The city’s leaders seem to be trying to embrace that potential. “This pilot project is another way that DDOT is working to explore innovative solutions to meet Mayor Bowser’s charge to address safety on our streets and reduce traffic congestion,” said DDOT’s Marootian.

No one really benefits from the "Wild West" default scenario of delivery trucks and couriers parking wherever, and authorities at times turning a blind eye because, well, we just haven't figured out where these vehicles are supposed to go, even as they become ubiquitous. There are signs of a focused effort to strategize curbside use, with initiatives like the pick-up/drop-off (PUDO) zones and installment of more on-street Capital Bikeshare stations.

So it's worth watching closely to see what information DDOT gets out of this experiment, and how it informs decisions about the use of this prime urban public space going forward.