One of the most closely watched strips of urban real estate — the much-coveted curb — is getting the high-tech treatment in several U.S. cities.
Transportation technology firm Coord will conduct curb management pilot projects in cities in several states. The three-month projects, selected as part of Coord’s Digital Curb Challenge, will establish “smart loading zones” to better manage the numerous competing uses for curb space. The four cities selected include: Aspen, Colo.; Omaha, Neb.; Nashville, Tenn.; and West Palm Beach, Fla.
“I’m a big data guy,” said Mitch Osur, director of parking and downtown services in Aspen. “So I want to make decisions that are data-oriented. With the program we’ll be able to really understand all the data, with what’s going on there.”
This includes knowing what delivery services are moving through the 16 square blocks of Aspen’s downtown area, how long and at what times of day they are parked in loading zones and other details. The district, in the upscale international ski town, is heavily focused on retail, conducting nearly $1 billion in sales annually pre-pandemic.
“We’re dying to know the data of what’s driving these zones,” said Osur.
In Omaha, a city of nearly 470,000 residents and the largest in Nebraska, the pilot project will center on downtown and nearby neighborhood business districts, said Kenneth D. Smith, parking and mobility manager for the city.
Curb space in Omaha has become crowded with not only traditional delivery vehicles from services like UPS or Amazon, but also the loading and unloading of ride-hailing from Uber and Lyft, as well as the more recent on-demand delivery services related to companies like GrubHub or Postmates.
“The main curb management issue Omaha encounters is a shortage of drop-off zones including passenger and freight loading zones,” explained Smith, in an email.
This shortage of zones has led to double-parking, travel-lane blockage and an overall increase in congestion. Detailed data, Smith said, will help the city better understand and balance the needs of vehicular parking with commercial activity.
In Aspen, Coord will provide the software and curb-management system to provide this data. The city will designate areas know as “smart loading zones,” which are accessed via an app. The app will allow drivers to set up loading zone reservations and make payments.
The city will charge a nominal fee — about $1 for 30 minutes — to use the zone. Coord and the city will share the revenue, and the data will help to answer questions around whether loading zones are in the correct locations, the correct size and other pertinent questions.
Similar pilots have been conducted in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, by the company curbFlow, which also uses tech to establish smart loading zones which can be reserved by delivery providers.
More than a dozen cities, including New Orleans, Boston and Pittsburgh, Pa., are now using the Street Manager platform by Populus as they work to adapt streets for new uses like biking, or even dining.
In cities from the size of Aspen to New York, the curb has emerged as one of the most sought after, argued over and shared strips of public right-of-way, serving the needs of e-commerce deliveries, ride-hailing and on-demand deliveries. These demands have only become more pronounced since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the door on dine-in restaurants and retail.
“The curb conversation is really a dive into one of the most contentious conversations that cities, urban cities, have,” said Danielle Harris, director of mobility innovation at Elemental Excelerator, a nonprofit focused on growing technology projects that address climate change.
Allocating more curb space for loading and unloading could mean fewer parking spots, and taking away someone’s ability to park their car on the street, “is like taking someone’s first-born child in a lot of ways, because, literally, with street projects that’s when the pitchforks come out,” Harris remarked in comments during a panel discussion last week at the CoMotion Miami virtual conference.
For example, in Downtown Aspen there are 682 street parking spaces, which generates more than $4 million annually. Losing some of those spaces to delivery zones could cut into that revenue, said Osur. However, sales tax revenue would also logically take a hit if merchants are not able to get merchandise on their shelves, he added.
“So much of our curb is not only moving people, but it’s the goods movement,” said Harris. “And it’s really what keeps our cities vital. And I think COVID has really shown that.”