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Washington, D.C., Pilot Project Addresses Crowded Curbs

The District's Department of Transportation will conduct a three-month study with the startup curbFlow to explore how to better manage urban freight traffic around overly congested street curbs.

Washington, D.C., wants less crowded curb areas. A technology company says it can help control and manage these increasingly busy pieces of streetscape.

The result is a partnership between the District Department of Transportation and startup curbFlow to run a pilot project aimed at improving the use of curb space on nine city blocks. The pilot targets commercial delivery services, which are often at a loss for suitable loading and unloading locations and thus end up double parking or circling the block in search of an available stretch of unoccupied curb.

The nine locations, spread across the District of Columbia, were selected based on their propensity to contribute to safety concerns due to double parking or other behaviors, said district transportation officials. Starting on Aug. 1, parking will be removed from these blocks for three months to set up curbFlow loading zones.

CurbFlow allows commercial delivery services to reserve curb space for the several minutes it takes to make a delivery. For now, the pilot in Washington will only apply to commercial delivery services and not ride-hailing cars like Uber or Lyft. The city has a separate program designed to better manage these vehicles at the curb. Also, since the pilot program is largely focused on gathering data and other information, delivery services can participate free of charge.

The last decade has seen the rapid growth of curbside crowding with the rise of e-commerce, ride-hailing and on-demand deliveries from services like Grubhub, DoorDash, Postmates and others which shuttle meals from restaurants to homes. Between 2009 and 2018, urban freight traffic attributed to online shopping and e-commerce doubled, according to Professor José Holguín-Veras, director of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Because of this, cities “are more open-minded now about proactive curbside management, and they realize that by providing more opportunities for commercial and business traffic to conduct commerce, they can really improve metrics around congestion, safety, and sustainability with less vehicle miles traveled from circling looking for parking and drop-off space,” said Ali Vahabzadeh, founder and CEO of curbFlow, which is headquartered in San Francisco. The company expects to be in another five city markets by the end of the year. 

The concept for the company grew out of Vahabzadeh’s experiences at Chariot, a former shuttle transit service in San Francisco that used passenger vans. The company, which was acquired by Ford, ended operations about a month ago. “From day one of starting Chariot in 2014 to the day I left, our biggest operational challenge was where can we safely load and unload our passengers,” said Vahabzadeh.

Data collected from the nine Washington, D.C., locations will be analyzed for safety, equitable access, productivity and other criteria, say city officials.

“DDOT is continually exploring innovative ways to address safety on our streets, and reduce traffic congestion,” said DDOT Director Jeff Marootian, in a statement. “By exploring new curbside management options through this partnership with curbFlow, DDOT is able to keep traffic flowing, maximize efficiency of our curbside space, and make data-driven decisions about next steps.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.