We doubt the Clash had flexible curbside management in mind when they wrote their punk rock ballad in 1981. Yet the question they posed is the same question we face many times each day on the streets. Global Cities Director Stephen Engblom and transportation innovation specialist Veronica Siranosian explore ways that regulators and innovators can work together to maximize the benefits of new urban technologies to create safer, less congested, and more flexible streets.
The street has always been the artery of the city or, if you prefer, the hardware for all sorts of software from horse-drawn carriages, cars, and bikes to vendor carts and pick-up baseball games. Today, streets are once again the platform for dramatic change.
Congestion, safety, and data privacy
Transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft have challenged—and in many cases complemented—the traditional role of private cars, public transit, and taxis. On-demand curbside delivery services have multiplied at a frenzied pace. And shared electric scooter companies and municipalities have waged battle in the so-called ‘Scooter Wars’ of 2018. These new modes of transporting people and goods combine digital connectivity and the sharing economy to offer mobility when and where the user wants it. As much as these dramatic changes have already disrupted urban systems, increasing levels of vehicle connectivity and automation will only accelerate these shifts, fundamentally altering how people move, interact, and even play within the public right-of-way.
The convenience of this new technology is creating new opportunities, but the increased congestion, safety concerns, and data privacy challenges are causing unintended consequences. In the U.S., traffic congestion is estimated to cost drivers more than $305 billion in lost time and productivity, and evidence suggests innovations like TNCs may worsen this trend. How can we strike a balance that helps us optimize these new services while accurately costing their economic, environmental, and social impacts?
Costing to reflect the need
For the answer, we need look no further than the lowly curb, where the conflict between congestion and convenience plays out all day, every day. New revenue models and innovative street designs can help cities build flexibility into the roadways and capture value from precious curbside space, all while encouraging people to get out of their cars. Flexible curbside management prices the curb based on the highest and best use, in line with city policy priorities. If a delivery driver needs to access the curb, a space is cleared and the cost reflects the need. Same goes for TNC drivers or shared bikes and scooters.
This flexible model not only keeps traffic moving and incentivizes shared and active mobility options, but it also generates much-needed revenue for city services; revenue that can be used to improve streets and fund public transportation. For example, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency garners more than 30 percent of its operating budget from parking and traffic fees and fines. Like many other cities, the agency has also adopted demand-responsive pricing to optimize parking costs based on supply and demand. The next logical step is to implement flexible curbside management, bringing curbside uses and transport modes in line with the city’s priorities for its streets.
The need for more flexible curbside management is especially apparent in the recent conflict between the City of San Francisco and dockless scooter companies. After initially banning scooters from city streets and engaging in months of deliberation, the city approved permits for two scooter companies to operate a pilot program, with the companies paying an annual permit fee to cover city costs related to managing the program, property repair, and maintenance. As cities globally strive to meet the challenges and embrace the opportunities that scooters and other shared active transportation modes present, models that accommodate these new mobility options while simultaneously yielding revenue for related municipal services will be essential. Entrepreneurial technology companies should work proactively with regulators to develop flexible curbside designs and policies that align their urban innovations with the needs and priorities of local government.
Regulators and innovators embrace collaboration
At their core, flexible streets are places for people. They support multiple options for passenger and goods movement at multiple scales and in various degrees of overlap throughout the day. They are platforms for fixed-route, fixed-schedule transit services such as buses and light rail, while also facilitating adaptable, on-demand options like TNCs, scooters, shared bikes, and of course, walking. The governance and revenue models for flexible streets respond to demand and align with local priorities, like encouraging active transportation, reducing congestion, and ensuring safety.
First, our cities must move away from the now-familiar narrative that casts regulators opposite urban innovators. We need to move from this adversarial dynamic into one where regulators and innovators embrace collaborative, risk-sensitive, and scalable frameworks for experimentation. These models respect the interests of local governments and technology companies, protecting the public good and the first-mover advantages of innovators.
Below are four ways cities and innovators can work together to beneficially integrate new technology into the urban landscape:
- Invite and incentivize innovation. Create an office or program of innovation that offers funding, technical assistance, and implementation support to innovators who commit to working with government staff to demonstrate and scale their technologies in line with public agency goals. For example, the Colorado State Transportation Innovation Council Incentive Program provides financial and technical assistance to innovators to rapidly implement and standardize innovative transportation practices. Los Angeles Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation accepts unsolicited proposals to jump-start the traditional procurement process, with the goal of finding and testing innovative ideas that improve regional mobility.
- Evolve and regulate. Adopt regulations that anticipate technological trends and build innovation and equity into the planning, design, and construction of urban infrastructure. For example, the City of Chandler, Arizona, recently updated its zoning code to reduce parking requirements and prioritize passenger loading zones, anticipating the need to provide flexible space for ride sharing and automated vehicles.
- Tap the hidden potential of streets. The demand for our roadways’ lanes and curb space provides an unparalleled opportunity to capture value; yet, much of this potential goes untapped. Dynamic tolling and demand-based pricing models have proven effective in generating revenues, but easing congestion is an evolving challenge as experienced by London’s congestion pricing program. The city has seen increases in revenue and reductions in carbon emissions and the number of vehicles. However, congestion persists for a variety of reasons: a rise in ride-sharing vehicles, curbside deliveries, and bicycling infrastructure. Addressing this challenge in London and urban areas globally will take both public and private ingenuity. Innovators and regulators should continue identifying new ways to realize the double win of harnessing revenues (or savings) and achieving important public policy priorities like increased productivity, reduced traffic congestion, and improved air quality.
- Experiment locally. Cities and innovators should co-develop special districts or spaces where they can pilot programs. These programs would test the viability of new technologies and better understand how they integrate with existing systems before scaling up city-wide. In the UK, the Connected and Autonomous Pod on-Road Implementation (CAPRI) consortium is testing driverless pods at an unused airfield north of Bristol, which will culminate in on-road trials in South Gloucestershire and London. While some experiments like CAPRI require larger investments and careful evaluation before scaling, others can be rolled out rapidly and scaled quickly if successful. Under former transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City experimented with paint and lawn chairs to demonstrate how simple improvements could create safer streets with more space for people and decrease congestion.
No matter which combination of approaches cities take to creating flexible streets, all should involve collaboration with both the technology sector and local communities. Innovators who play by the rules must be assured that their intellectual property and first-mover advantages will be protected. Importantly, cities should prioritize equity when evaluating new technologies by promoting those that expand choice and accessibility for their most vulnerable populations and provide flexible ways to stay and go for all residents.
 “Scooter Wars” refers to the series of conflicts between local governments and urban technology companies over the roll-out of shared, electric scooters in cities globally. See https://techcrunch.com/2018/06/09/silicon-valley-scooter-wars/
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