Cities Rethink Curb Space As Takeout, Deliveries Increase During Pandemic

Published: Tuesday, July 7, 2020 - 1:25pm
Updated: Wednesday, July 8, 2020 - 10:37am
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The restrictions that Arizona and other states put into place to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus affected many aspects of life — both individually and collectively. One of them involves something most, if not all of us come into contact with regularly, but probably don't give much thought to: curb space. With fewer people driving to work, for example, there's been less demand for on-street parking. But there's been more demand for other uses like deliveries. Chandler, in fact, earlier installed 30-minute parking in parts of its downtown to help residents who need to pick up takeout food or make a quick shopping trip. All of this is something our next guest is ... paying attention to. Avery Ash is head of autonomous mobility at the transportation data firm INRIX and has written about how cities are rethinking their curb space. He spoke with our co-host, Mark Brodie.

AVERY ASH: It certainly started before the pandemic, but we've really seen it kick into overdrive here in just the last couple of months. So really, since the start of the new millennium, we've seen a kind of influx of new road users in cities and on the public right of way. And that would include new entrants like transportation network companies, Lyft and Uber and Via and the like. More recently, things like scooter and bike companies, but also individuals like delivery companies. So GrubHub and Uber Eats. There's all this new, these new entrants looking for new ways to use and interact with the curbside. And you combine that with constituents who are increasingly using their smartphone or a connected navigation device to navigate. And you really have this demand for digitized and more responsive use of the curb.

MARK BRODIE: So what are some of the things that cities are thinking about and maybe in some cases experimenting with actually doing with, with that space?

ASH: So there's a lot of really great examples, and some of them date back to prior to the advent of COVID. And I assume we'll get into some of the interesting new examples we've seen with cities being really nimble about how they treat the curb. A good example over the last couple of years has been this trend of cities thinking about how to provide curb space for Lyft and Uber and Via — those TNTs, transportation network companies, to pick up and drop off their passengers in spots that keep them from having to double park and add to congestion and increase the kind of chaos on city streets. So in order to do that, you have to take away curb space from somebody else. So here in Washington, D.C., there are a handful of bottlenecks that get particularly bad during the weekend evening hours. And in response, the city looked at the pickup and drop off data for these sorts of services and has taken steps to pilot pickup and drop off zones for Lyft and Uber.

BRODIE: So you mentioned how some cities have been nimble about adjusting because of the coronavirus pandemic. How are cities trying to allocate their curb space a little differently to meet the needs of people right now?

ASH: Yeah. And we've seen a growing number of cities who've taken stock of that really rapid shift in the landscape of demand for the curb. So with restaurants offering curbside pickup or delivery, there is a increased traffic, limited stays outside of those restaurants. So how do, how as a city do you meet that quick shift in demand? Well, you create what are now in most cases temporary pickup and drop off zones for food delivery.

BRODIE: So when you look at some of the changes that cities are implementing now and you think about some of the changes that cities had been making before this pandemic, do you see those as a straight line? Do you see them as complementary? Do you see what's happening now as sort of veering off the path that maybe you thought cities had been trending on?

ASH: So I think it's really been an accelerant. You know, the sorts of changes in demand for the curbside we've seen in just the past 10 years or so has been really aggressive when compared to the decades prior. But in just the last handful of weeks, we've seen works that magnitude greater shifts in how roadways, how curbs and how sidewalks are being utilized. You know, we've seeing radical declines in the amount of consumer traffic in response to stay-at-home orders. We've seen increases in delivery vehicles. We've seen increases in bicycling in some areas. We've seen different uses from pedestrians, and cities have responded accordingly. So we talked a lot about pickup and drop off zones for food delivery. But there are also moves by certain cities to expand their, their sidewalks, noting that the sort of social distancing and physical distancing that's recommended when passing another pedestrian, so 6 feet or greater, is really challenging on a sidewalk that may not be 6-feet-wide. So in response to those in heavily trafficked pedestrian areas, you've seen cities move quickly to, in some cases, remove a stretch of curbside parking and others to actually shut down whole lanes of traffic or full roads themselves and open up those areas to pedestrian bicyclists, scooter or other sorts of traffic to ensure that these sorts of social distancing and physical distancing that's, that's required now can be adhered to. I think that the real, what will be really interesting to watch is how many of these changes are lasting.

BRODIE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that in terms of how permanent you think some of these changes might be. Even beyond the time when we need to be worried about social distancing and how close we are to other people that, like people, might just prefer delivery in some cases or might prefer, you know, curbside pickup as opposed to, you know, having to go into the restaurant or having to do something else to get their food.

ASH: Yeah. And it's really going to be driven by consumer behavior. And I think what's exciting is, is seeing that cities are willing to respond to the needs of their constituents. So in some markets, you may see that once things return to some semblance of normalcy, that food delivery services return back to kind of their pre-COVID states, and the amount of pickup and drop off zones for food delivery, the demand is just not there. So those spaces can be converted back into other usage. In other areas you may, as you suggested, see that people just really like food delivery. And that the demand for these sorts of services and for either curbside pickup or delivery is, continues well after COVID has faded into memory. In those instances, cities kind of have the, have shown the will to really rapidly pilot these sorts of projects and then make them permanent if they are improving the streetscape for their constituents.

BRODIE: All right. That is Avery Ash. He is head of autonomous mobility with INRIX. Avery, really nice to talk to you. Thank you.

ASH: Thank you. 

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