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Sunday, April 21, 2024

How Curbs Became the New Urban Battleground

It's common knowledge that city curbs are fiercely contested places, what with Ubers and Lyfts hovering inconveniently and blocking traffic; piles of shared bikes and scooters being dropped off and picked up; rapidly climbing numbers of deliveries being made by double-parked trucks; and buses and taxis pulling up—not to mention all the private-car parking going on. These daily dramas will only get more boisterous and difficult in the years to come, when fleets of city-licensed driverless cars join the fray.

Yes, dramas. Calvin Trillin wrote an entire 2002 novel about parking in New York City (Tepper Isn't Going Out), in which the main character, Murray Tepper, finds a sense of purpose in securing a Beautiful Spot; once he's in, he usually stays in his car until the meter runs out, reading the newspaper and waving away anyone who asks whether he's leaving. That's a use of the curb that planners call, somewhat derisively, "storage"—today's private vehicles spend 95 percent of their existence waiting to be used.

Planners want curbs and sidewalks, the essential public ways of any city, to go through a phase change from the Tepper storage state ("Where can I leave my car for the day?") to mobility. ("How will I move along with my day?") The District of Columbia, along with several other cities, is piloting shared used mobility zones, and city officials are thinking about both how to rezone curb space and what to charge for its use so that the work of the city can be supported appropriately.


Like any complex policy regime aimed at changing the status quo, these plans require very detailed data to support them. That means cities need to know exactly how their curbs are being used. And municipalities should not shrink from gathering that data directly. This will be a fight—Uber, in particular, now getting into the bike business and flush with cash from Toyota, has pushed back hard on city authority to get direct access to data—but it is one worth winning. Otherwise, cities will be making policy in the dark.

Right now, Uber is working with a nonprofit called SharedStreets, a project of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, to hold Uber’s data and set up data standards that can be used across cities. Cities would then have access—using SharedStreets as the intermediary—to some cleansed, authorized version of this information for planning purposes. Transportation for America is also working on data standards, but for all “shared mobility” services: scooters and bikes as well as Ubers/Lyfts/Vias.

I am all for standardized data, if it's possible to set standards across cities with heterogeneous policy needs. (A similar standardization effort for 311 data got off to a great start a few years ago, but appears to have lost steam since.) Yet having cities rely on intermediaries for access to data about uses of their own curbs sets off alarm bells for me.

For a precedent that has caused a lot of policy misery for this country, consider high speed internet. Private companies selling us internet services have relied heavily on access to public rights-of-way for places to string their wires and install equipment, and for years have claimed that granular data about the locations they actually serve—households and businesses—is too confidential to provide to regulators. And price data—forget it. Without this information, the Federal Communications Commission makes policy in the dark, routinely overestimating the availability and speed of competitive connections, and having little insight into how much Americans are actually paying. Result: blindness on the government side, and a stagnant, oligopolistic marketplace on the consumer side.

The risk of relying on third parties for data about shared mobility companies’ use of curbs is that policymakers will be stuck with whatever that third party chooses to make available, at whatever level of generality is deemed suitable by a group of private companies. The incentives of those companies may not align with the public interest. It will be exhausting for cities to have to continually go back and reopen these third-party arrangements, and what's worse, an enormous set of public values that could be served by mobility policy could just end up in the "too hard" pile.

Cities should demand granular location and pricing data (as well as data logging payments to drivers) as a condition of allowing access by shared mobility services—human-driven or driverless, tiny or huge—to their rights-of-way, including streets, curbs, and sidewalks. Cities also need to deploy high-resolution cameras counting parked cars and double-parked trucks over time that are clogging curbs—something that can be done these days without actually capturing video. At the same time, cities will need to be extremely responsible about how that data are released to researchers and journalists. There's a balance to be struck, clearly.

But the first step is getting data in the door. Because without that basic information, making a data-driven move from storage to mobility won't happen. Tepper really won't be going out.

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