SAN FRANCISCO – The juiciest piece of real estate in cities such as San Francisco, New York, Miami and Los Angeles may no longer be the top floors of luxury high-rises. As the world of future mobility continues to unfold, it may become streetside.
“The curbs are critical to our business model,” says Maureen Murphy, head of marketing for Chariot, a 4-year-old commuter shuttle service purchased by Ford in 2016.
The crowdsourced service operates 14-passenger vans during the week at peak commuting hours. Customers can find stops and purchase credits through a smartphone application. They often are picked up or dropped off curbside in traffic-packed metropolitan areas.
Ford took over Chariot thinking the curb belonged to whoever occupied it at the time, but after working with local transit authorities on its network the automaker quickly learned the explosion in mobility services providers has clogged lanes along the curb.
“Curbside has become really valuable real estate,” Murphy tells the Wards Intelligence Smart Mobility Summit here.
Zipcar, a 20-year-old car-sharing subsidiary of rental-car giant Avis Budget Group, learned over its time as a pioneer in mobility services to learn what urban transit authorities are trying to accomplish and then find a solution that satisfies both parties.
“What they tell us is (they) want to fight congestion, increase access to transportation services, solve sustainable mobility and move people out of personal vehicle ownership,” says Justin Holmes, director-corporate communications and public policy, at Zipcar, a 1 million-member service in 500 cities and nine countries.
“What that has led to is a great number of partnerships, where cities are willing to invest dedicated parts of the curb to car-sharing because they understand that it checks all those boxes,” he says.
Holmes says Zipcar enjoys 110 dedicated parking spots in San Francisco, a global hotspot for car-sharing.
“One Zipcar takes away the need for 13 personally owned cars and when people join our service they drive less and use more sustainable modes of transportation, and since we have that great data and research, cities have been willing to invest dedicated curb space to us,” he says.
Danielle Harris, senior transportation planner-San Francisco MTA Office of Innovation, says her city looks at infrastructure as a messaging system, but admits its current message is mixed.
“Currently, we’re suggesting the curb is for storage rather than access, (but) today the city looks at it almost like a portal to life within San Francisco, so we are working on efforts to free up the curb,” she says.
That means San Francisco wants to move away from single-occupancy vehicles with free curbside storage to a model promoting high-occupancy, sustainable vehicle types and perhaps an expansion of the sidewalk to alleviate shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic.
But the curb also is a key revenue stream for cities from meters and enforcement, adds Steve Banfield, CEO-BMW Reach Now, so there are competing notions within cities over what should take precedence.
“(Cities) would love this utopian world, but the general fund needs the money,” he says. “That’s a hard thing for cities to let go.”
There is the question of boundaries, too, offers Banfield, whose car-sharing service from the German automaker operates more than 1,000 vehicles in two major U.S. cities. The city of Seattle, for example, may encourage or enforce curb access one way but just down the road in suburban Redmond the rules are different, he says.
“We still have a long way to go, because as innovative as San Francisco or Seattle or another city might be, the surrounding cities may not follow that lead and we have to keep pushing for more continuity in those rules,” Banfield says.
With demand for curbside parking so high, there is a call from some circles for dynamic pricing. In other words, bigger vehicles such as a Ford Chariot may have to pay more. Perhaps cities also could charge more for peak times, or less for a highly efficient vehicle with the ability to communicate with the curb.
But as it stands, cities such as San Francisco operate in a complex environment when it comes to parking. In fact, current laws in the city prevent it from pricing dynamically and even if it could, it does not have the technology to accurately charge the user.
“Some people still do not have credit cards, that’s another situation,” Harris says. “Some people do not have a smartphone. So what is the mechanism that is going to allow us to price in that way?”
San Francisco also considers disabled and equitable access to the curb. In short, some people may need the curb longer than others for a doctor’s appointment compared to a grocery store visit. And just because someone gave up their car, they should not be denied curb access.
“That is something we are still looking to resolve,” Harris says.