Blog Curb appeal: This overlooked bit of urban infrastructure becomes a battleground for transportation innovators

Originally published at GeekWire.

Not too far down the road is a transportation revolution that will prioritize creative ways of getting around over single-occupant cars. It’s happening fastest in cities, where environmental concerns tend to be acuter and traffic reveals a lot to be desired in traditional modes of transportation. New options — from Uber to Chariot — are just starting to emerge and already they have created an unlikely battleground for transportation innovators: the curb.

Curbs have always been valuable in cities, initially for parking and public transportation. But they have become far more precious in a relatively short period of time. Seattle is one of the main fronts in the war for curb space as an early adopter of new transportation technology and home to Amazon, king of e-commerce. The rise of online retail has caused a sharp uptick in home deliveries — and delivery trucks need a place to unload. Combine that with ride-hailing companies, like Uber and Lyft, car sharing services like ReachNow and car2go, and you see increased competition for a place to pull over, often leading to congestion and illegal maneuvers.

The need for curb space has become a key issue for Drive Forward Seattle, a group originally founded to fight the city’s landmark law allowing Uber drivers to unionize. The organization, which was created by the industry and is made up of drivers, sent a letter to Seattle officials calling for dedicated pickup and drop off zones for Uber and Lyft drivers.

Bruce Agnew, director of the ACES Network, which advocates for piloting self-driving cars in the Seattle area, is helping Drive Forward with the effort. Together, they have identified more than 30 blocks in Seattle and South Lake Union where it’s particularly difficult for drivers to pick up and drop off passengers.

“Many of those spots are by Amazon, which is also trying to accommodate their shuttles, so it’s a real circus,” Agnew told GeekWire. “What we’re hoping to do is work with the city to come up with a policy that allows equal access for these precious curb spots for shared vehicles.”

ACES, which stands for autonomous, connected, electric, and shared, has a vested interest in smarter use of curb space. INRIX CEO Bryan Mistele and Madrona Venture Group Managing Partner Tom Alberg formed the group to accelerate deployment of self-driving cars in the Seattle region. That can only happen if the autonomous vehicles have a place to pull over. Agnew says that Seattle’s curb wars are particularly painful “because all of the construction has closed lanes and bike lanes have been added and there’s a constant battle between street parking for space, and freight loading zones … and then bus zones.”

“You’ve got this volatile mix of competitors for the coveted mid-block two or three spots where you can actually pull over a couple of vehicles and drop people off,” Agnew said.

His solution? A technology-based management system for shared curb space. Agnew wants the city to create mixed-use curbs that can be shared by delivery trucks, ride-hailing companies, busses, and eventually self-driving cars at different times.

In this scenario, an app and a dynamic sign (like the kind you see at Seattle bus stops) would notify drivers when it’s their turn to use the curb. Of course, that plan doesn’t entirely account for drivers who show up when it’s not their turn. If they can’t pull over, they either wait in a lane or circle the block. Despite that roadblock, other cities are also considering flexible-use curb space, too.

In an interview with KIRO, Seattle Transportation Director Scott Kubly said he hopes to see some pilot projects for flexible curb space proposed in early 2018, admitting that it may require “rethinking how curb space gets managed.” In other words, we may see fewer parking spots for personal cars.

Those proposals would come just in time for the arrival of Chariot’s micro-transit commuting service in Seattle. Chariot CEO Ali Vahabzadeh told GeekWire he hopes to roll the service out in Seattle during the first quarter of 2018. The Ford-owned company is already operating its enterprise service in Seattle, allowing companies to ferry their employees back and forth from work in 14-seat Ford Transit Wagons. The public commuting service would transport more passengers; by 2019, Vahabzadeh anticipates around 100,000 riders will be using Chariot to get to and from work — and all of those vans pick up and drop off in yellow and white curb loading zones.

Curb wars aren’t unique to Seattle. Wired’s Aarian Marshall took a look at how cities are rethinking curb space around the country — from Washington, D.C., to Chicago. It’s a problem cities need to address and fast. As Marshall points out, “the curb is only going to get more important, as even newer tech like self-driving vehicles start driving themselves over the horizon.”

Cascadia Center

Founded in 1993, as the Cascadia Project, Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development is an important force in regional transportation and sustainable development issues. Cascadia is known for its involvement in transportation and development issues in the Cascadia Corridor, Puget Sound and in the U.S.-Canadian cross-border realm. We’ve recently added to that mix through a major program to promote U.S. efforts to reduce reliance on foreign oil, including the earliest possible development and integration of flex-fuel, plug-in, hybrid-electric vehicles.