5 numbers that surprised us at TRB 2019

Photo by Brandon Mowinkel

After three busy days and two quiet Amtrak rides, Stephen Smyth and I are back from this year’s Transportation Research Board annual meeting, and what a great way it was to kick off the Year of the Curb. Not only did we get to meet lots of engineers and planners who collect and use curb data, we also got to learn about the latest urban transportation research. Because we at Coord pride ourselves on being data-driven, I wanted to share five different numbers representing the most interesting things we learned at TRB this year.

240: How many person-minutes it takes to collect a mile of curb usage data

Collecting data about curb usage is critical to understanding how cities’ transportation needs are changing with the rise of residential home delivery, ride-hailing, and dockless bikes and scooters. But it is often incredibly expensive and time-consuming to digitize curb usage data and make it useful. On Monday morning, we saw a presentation by Anurag Komanduri of Cambridge Systematics about curb usage by commercial vehicles in Los Angeles. The thing that stuck with us most, though, is how much manual labor it took to get the data: it took a team of two people up to two hours to count all the commercial vehicles on a mile of Los Angeles curb during rush hour! This level of expense greatly restricts the amount of information cities can get about their curbs, and in turn, limits how data-driven and confident they can be in implementing policy changes such as reallocating use and changing the price of metered spots.

Finding cars that have been parked for a while was easy during TRB, but you can’t depend on the weather.

This is why we built Surveyor: to make sure that curb inventory and occupancy data is available to the people who need it. Using surveyor, you can already take digital curb inventories and digitize curb regulations in a fraction of the time of traditional methods. And our next step is going to tackle usage studies like this one straight on. Stay tuned by signing up for our email list!

81%: How much transportation revenue cities could lose from AVs

As electric and autonomous vehicles become more prevalent in cities, they start to change the way cities have to think about their transportation budgets. Cars that don’t use gas and that don’t need to park near their owners’ destinations can have a greater impact on a city’s transportation network while evading many of the fees that fund it, like gas taxes and parking charges. A paper by Professor Rebecca Lewis of the University of Oregon estimated that electrified, autonomous vehicles could eliminate 81% of cities’ transportation revenue.

There are many possible alternative revenue sources available for cities, but they will require new tools for collection and enforcement. How can curb usage fees be collected if AVs only pull over for a matter of seconds? How can cities ensure that road usage pricing incentivizes the right behavior by drivers and fleets? As cities begin to experiment with new revenue sources, digital infrastructure plays a key role in both their implementation and their evaluation.

2: How many scooters in San Jose actually blocked the sidewalk

The delightfully-titled poster, “Do they block the way in San Jose?” by Kevin Fang et al. presented some of the first on-the-ground research about dockless scooter parking ever conducted. And the results were surprising: while the research team surveyed 530 parked scooters, they only found a single incident of scooters — a pair of them, as it turns out — blocking more than half of the sidewalk. Even though scooter parking is a hot-button issue in numerous cities, it turns out that, in this case at least, the facts don’t bear out the anecdotal belief that scooters are a major impediment to pedestrian flow.

This is yet another case where data collection is critical. What if scooter companies had a way to show cities in real time where their scooters were parked, whether on the sidewalk or off? This problem is challenging technically — GPS alone is not accurate enough to determine whether a scooter is blocking the sidewalk or not — but we can’t wait to see how cities and scooter companies tackle this problem in the coming years.

44%: How much of the time vehicles on a busy commercial street double-park

A study by Ryland Lu of UCLA actually quantified the impact of ride-hail vehicles on curb usage in West Hollywood. What he found was that, on Santa Monica Boulevard, 44% of all vehicles that stopped at the curb double-parked. This includes private vehicles, commercial vehicles, and ride-hail. Even more amazingly, of the double-parked vehicles, 82.8% of them were ride-hail pickups or drop-offs. This demonstrates just how much of a change ride-hail has caused in the use of curbs in commercial areas.

One of the most popular sessions at this year’s conference was about the effect of ride-hail on vehicle miles traveled. Research suggests that even with pooled rides, Uber and Lyft substantially increase the number of miles driven every day in cities thanks to “deadhead” mileage where drivers travel without any passengers. Lu’s research suggests that ride-hail’s effects on urban congestion don’t end there, and shows more clearly than ever that now is the time for cities to invest in understanding and appropriately managing their curb space.

0: The number of exhibitors advertising curb data collection

The exhibit hall is one of the most popular parts of TRB, and this year, the star attraction was a NAVYA self-driving shuttle. Conference attendees could also learn about numerous suppliers of pavement assessment platforms that use LIDAR, IMUs, cameras, and more to look for potholes and other road condition issues. But on the whole exhibit floor, there were no solutions available to help cities collect curb or sidewalk data.

Needless to say, we at Coord are excited to change this state of affairs for TRB’s 99th annual meeting in 2020! And in the meantime, if you have a curb data collection problem, you can find us at partners@coord.co. Next year’s call for papers is less than five months away!