At one point, in a history that now feels more like a mythical past, grocery, food delivery and online shopping felt like a “nice-to-have” for most people. But in a matter of days, the COVID-19 pandemic turned on-demand delivery services into a lifeline for many households.
The resulting shifts in delivery habits have brought serious challenges to cities and towns already struggling with the long-term trend of rising delivery vehicles and freight trucks. Congested roadways have increased travel times while more frequent stops and idling has led to an explosion of double parking and heightened competition for curb space. This has led to problems with congestion, safety and pollution that are of concern to both cities and delivery vehicle operators.
How cities address this issue could have a huge impact on all types of business that takes place at the curb – from deliveries to rideshares to parking. To ensure that delivery needs are met without going backward on air quality, traffic congestion and road safety, both businesses and governments need to step up and adapt a more collaborative approach to curb management.
A Starting Point: Designated Pick-up Drop-off Zones
Some cities have already begun addressing increased delivery traffic through reserved pick-up and drop-off (PUDO) zones that allocate space at the curb for pick-up and delivery vehicles. Often referred to as “smart zones,” these designated zones become available for loading and unloading at certain times of the day and through an app that allows delivery vehicle operators to see curb availability at their destination.
Since March, more than 10 U.S. cities and counties, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston, have established temporary pick-up zones for restaurants. Some cities are taking steps to make these zones permanent with innovative monetization strategies that automatically invoice commercial vehicles for time spent at the curb. More efficient deliveries and less time spent circling the block to find parking has meant safer, less congested streets for residents – and, in theory, fewer emissions – while such monetization strategies can also provide new revenue streams for cities to shore up budgets.
The Choice for Commercial Operators: Proactive Partners or Passive Bystanders?
Despite the obvious benefits to PUDO zones, they don’t work if cities are unable to manage or monetize them effectively, or if cities don’t have the cooperation of commercial operators.
How cities end up operating these zones – whether through fee structures that benefit operators or through costly enforcement mechanisms – is heavily dependent on the operators themselves. Right now, operators have the unique opportunity to influence long-term policy that will reward them for cooperation and directly benefit their bottom line. But only if they get involved from the start.
For smart zones to work, operators must agree to pay for loading areas they previously accessed for free (areas that are typically illegal and undesignated). There are reasons why this is in operators’ interest. For one, allocated parking fees are an eligible tax write-off, unlike fines. Last year, one commercial operator paid the city of Los Angeles $25 million in parking fines alone, none of which was tax-deductible. Data suggests that designated loading zones can decrease dwell time per drop off by up to two minutes, increasing driver efficiency and improving customer satisfaction. Contractors working in the gig-economy world will see increased hourly take-home pay as they are able to service more customers in less time.
Another way operators can be sure their voices are heard is by joining organizations like the Open Mobility Foundation, a non-profit that brings together cities and private mobility companies to develop open-source software that helps cities better manage their streets. In January 2021, the organization launched a Curb Management Working Group to create common data standards. Until now, these kinds of specifications did not exist. As keepers of massive amounts of data, operators have a significant role to play in contributing to standards for communication and data-sharing between cities and private companies.
Operators must also be proactive in sharing non-competitive data with cities, such as fleet registry and license plate information, as well as their perspective on fee structures that will incentivize compliance. Specifically, fleet registry data will assist cities in data tracking and collection, along with automatic invoicing. When opportunities arise for participation in pilot programs, operators will also want to get on board.
Cities Must Give Operators a Seat at the Policymaking Table
There are a good reasons for private operators to play ball. But what about local governments? Cities should make clear that operators have an essential role to play in how and where they allocate real estate for smart zones. Rather than educating operators on policies after they’ve been made, cities should offer operators a seat at the policymaking table and solicit their insights on problem areas, such as which streets have high numbers of violations and longest dwell times.
A good place to start is proactively involving operators in existing or upcoming curb management pilots and demonstration projects. Cities across the United States, from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Pittsburgh, are kicking off new projects focused on their most congested curbs. City administrators and project leads should invite commercial operators to participate in the planning phase, before zone locations are decided.
Incentives should also be created for operators to opt into digital permitting based on actual input from the operators. These incentives might include allocating additional real estate for loading and unloading, as well as sharing data in real time. Commitments to increased enforcement efficiency will also further incentivize compliance with new policy norms, especially if those policy norms are ones that operators have helped craft.
The rise in commercial vehicle use is not a new trend, and neither are the challenges of on-demand delivery services for cities. However, it’s clear that COVID-19 and the shifts in day-to-day purchasing habits are forcing cities to accelerate new ways of managing and monetizing curbs. Cities need to start proactively engaging operators in zoning policy. And operators, rather than remaining passive bystanders braced for increased enforcement and fines, should work with cities on creating policies and fee structures that will improve efficiency, safety and sustainability for both their operations and for cities on the whole.