CurbFlow “ambassadors,” provided at no cost, will record the types of vehicles that use the delivery zones, as well as their arrival and departure times. Three to five parking spaces will be removed from each of the nine curbFlow locations during the pilot project, a District Department of Transportation spokeswoman said. Street parking will be removed to make way for the loading zones.
City officials say they plan to use the data to determine how to better manage — and possibly expand — commercial loading zones. Making space more readily available, they say, would cut emissions from delivery vehicles having to idle or circle the block as they wait for parking, relieve traffic backed up behind double-parkers and make streets safer for everyone who must swerve around them.
The study comes as the District and other cities seek more efficient ways to use their curb space — their hottest real estate — amid an explosion in ride-hailing trips by Uber and Lyft, online shopping and on-demand food deliveries.
“They’re all changing how people use the curb and how cities are doing business,” said DDOT Director Jeff Marootian. “We’ve heard reports of people double- or even triple-parking, which is definitely a safety hazard.”
How the curb is used is also changing. Space once dominated by cars parking for a couple hours is now in demand by dozens to hundreds of delivery and ride-hailing drivers aiming to pull in and out in a few minutes, or even seconds. Meanwhile, cities trying to improve public health and ease traffic congestion are devoting more curb space to bike and bus lanes, bike-sharing docks and scooter parking.
“So many things happen curbside,” said Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District downtown. “In the past five to 10 years, the nature of what’s happening on the curb has changed astronomically.”
The curb crunch, experts say, is expected to become even more acute as grocery deliveries take off and autonomous vehicles begin to demand their share. The problem is so widespread that the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is planning a regional forum for local officials to share ideas.
“The demand for the curb is going up and up and up, and there’s only so much of it,” said Jon Schermann, a COG transportation planner who specializes in freight issues.
CurbFlow founder Ali Vahabzadeh calls his reservation system “an air traffic control tower for city curb space.” The District is the first to test it, he said, and he expects to have five more cities trying it out later this year.
Cities that use a reservation system long-term could charge user fees to pay for it and to recoup any revenue lost from eliminating parking meters, a curbFlow spokeswoman said. Taxis and ride-hailing companies aren’t permitted to use curbFlow during the test phase.
But during the testing, curbFlow representatives also won’t have any authority to prevent drivers from idling or parking without a reservation — something that company officials say would be worked out before a full implementation.
“Cities are looking for solutions that cannot only measure what’s happening at the curb but also do something about it,” Vahabzadeh said. “A lot of cities have thrown their hands up in the air . . . but some are proactively looking for solutions.”
The curb shortage is also hitting suburbs.
In Montgomery County, officials in downtown Bethesda are exploring the possibility of limiting deliveries to certain times and converting some street parking spaces to commercial loading zones.
Arlington officials say they are eager to see what the curbFlow study finds.
“We need a better idea of what’s going on at curbs before we can think about how to regulate them,” said Stephen Crim, the county’s parking manager. “I think everyone is excited about the D.C. project.”
Researchers at the University of Washington’s Urban Freight Lab are focused on two potential solutions: shrinking the amount of time delivery vehicles spend at the curb and reducing the frequency of “failed” deliveries, such as when no one is home to sign for a package, that require a return trip.
Barbara Ivanov, the lab’s director, said researchers are installing package lockers in public spaces and buildings in Seattle and nearby Bellevue to prevent delivery drivers from having to schlep packages up elevators. A recent test of a storage locker inside a 62-floor building in downtown Seattle, she said, cut delivery trucks’ average parking time from 25 minutes to six minutes.
That time adds up, she said, when online sales have been growing by about 15 percent annually, or nearly doubling about every six years.
Ivanov said researchers plan to test sensors in loading zones to tell delivery drivers in real time, via an app, when space is open or likely to become available.
Helping commercial drivers find room to park and speed up their deliveries, Ivanov said, is more effective than handing out tickets for double-parking.
“You can’t just put the hammer down if people need a certain amount of time to do their job,” she said.
Those competing for the curb say they want to work with cities.
A study by transportation consultant Fehr & Peers that Uber funded found that cities could make their curbs more “productive” by consolidating commercial loading zones to accommodate larger trucks and replacing street parking with more loading and pickup areas. Cities also could allot curb space differently, such as for deliveries in the mornings and afternoons, for passenger pickups and drop-offs during busy commuting periods and for resident parking overnight, the study found.
Emilie Boman, head of public policy for Uber Eats, said the company is sharing its findings with city officials.
“All of us have a shared incentive to work with cities to really help them rethink how curbs can be used as flexible and dynamic spaces rather than be preserved for parking,” Boman said.
David Guernsey, president of Dulles-based Guernsey, said D.C. officials could help most by requiring new buildings to have larger loading docks and older buildings to be retrofitted with off-street delivery areas.
A curb space reservation system might help his company’s 100 drivers who deliver office supplies daily, he said, but he’s concerned about how reservations would be enforced.
“They’d have to make sure that time frame is ours,” Guernsey said, “and no one else will be in that spot.”
The nine curbFlow locations are: the 1200 block of 1st Street SE, 1200 block of H Street NE, 400 block of 8th Street SE, 1100 block of 4th Street SW, 300 block of Tingey Street SE, 200 block of 3rd Street SE, 700 block of Maine Avenue SW, 1400 block of 20th Street NW, 1000 block of Wisconsin Avenue near M Street NW.