June 17, 2019 - From the June, 2019 issue

Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium: The Crowded Curb

As part of TPR’s ongoing coverage on the reimagination of streets and curbsides, we present the following conversation led by Gabe Klein, Co-Founder of Citi Fi, at the Ford City of Tomorrow Symposium on how we share space in the age of on-demand everything. Joining the discussion are Vikram Aiyer, VP PostMates, Cecelia Cabello, VP City of LA Board of Public Works VP, Sean Scott, VP Amazon Scout, and Sara Kaufman, Assoc. Dir. NYU Rudin Center for Transportation to discuss data sharing, AVs, and rethinking the permanent fixtures on our streets.

"Sidewalks are the Wild West. On streets, there are rules of the road. But on the sidewalk, almost anything can happen." —Sean Scott

Gabe Klein: The world is changing and business models are evolving, but we still have a finite amount of space on the curb. Pickups and drop-offs, scooters and bikes, slow-moving AVs, ground drones—all these things need space, and we can’t have dedicated lanes for all of them. We’re going to have to share space. This means that people, cities, transportation departments, and companies need to get more creative with the space we have and reallocate it for different uses.

The way we allocate our space, on and off the street, is hugely important for creating affordable and equitable cities. Not only do we need space for pick-ups and drop-offs, but we also need trees and unobstructed paths for people who are disabled.

Let’s begin with deliveries. Vikram, how do new on-demand delivery models compare to store visits in terms of supporting local businesses and feeding consumers? 

Vikram Aiyer: It’s interesting to see how businesses sell inventory in the era of e-commerce and on-demand tools. Consider a big-box retailer that builds a warehouse on the outskirts of a city and then funnels goods into town. On one hand, it’s hyper-convenient. On the other hand, if we can get anything we need online with just a few clicks, that shortchange our desire to go to the hardware store down the block.

Postmates inverts that warehouse model: We treat the entire city as our warehouse. We inventory the product offerings of local stores, restaurants, pharmacies, etc., and plug into those brick-and-mortar retailers with the tools they need to distribute their goods. We have a network of about 300,000 human couriers making deliveries at any given time.

Postmates uses a matching algorithm to find new customers who may not have even known these businesses existed. In 2018, small brick-and-mortar retail businesses, which are ostensibly struggling in this day and age, saw a 3x boost in sales when they used on-demand technology like ours.

Gabe Klein: How can we offset the congestion that occurs when cars start lining up at the curb for Postmates or UberEats deliveries?

Vikram Aiyer: The solution starts with engagement with cities. Companies like Postmates definitely contribute to a greater footprint on the road, but we also have fascinating datasets. It goes beyond identifying the preferred burrito when someone in LA is hungover on a Sunday. Our traffic congestion data helps identify highly trafficked corridors and where there are long dwell times when someone has to park. Because we use GPS tracking, we’re also able to monitor the number of laps that cars have to take, so we can determine whether to reroute that driver. When we share this vast treasure trove of data with cities, we gain a working partner who can help figure out how to curb the downstream negative impacts of the model.

Gabe Klein: Cecilia, how important is this kind of data-sharing to cities?

Cecelia Cabello: Data-sharing is a big deal to us. As a city, we sometimes get caught flat-footed and fall behind the times with technology. We saw this with scooters: Suddenly, there were scooters everywhere, and we had no formal agreements or regulations in place.

What we aim to do is work with companies like Postmates and Amazon to figure out how we can use our public space together, and what the city can get out of it when they use the public realm. Data is a huge part of those conversations.

Gabe Klein: In government, safety is job No. 1—especially in transportation, since we lose around 40,000 people a year in car accidents. Sean, how has Amazon centered safety in the design of its autonomous delivery fleet Scout?

Sean Scott: We designed Scout to be inherently safe, from its small size, to its light weight, to how it travels. It’s about the size of a cooler, and it moves at walking speeds. Additionally, we put in redundant sensors so that if one fails, the others will fill in the blanks.

We joke that sidewalks are the Wild West. On streets, there are rules of the road. But on the sidewalk, almost anything can happen. So, before we get on the field, we do simulation testing, indoor lab testing, and then outdoor lab testing. Once we finally get out on the street, a human ambassador follows the device. If anything odd or unexpected happens, the ambassador can take control or make an emergency stop. 

Gabe Klein: Sara, you’re one of the researchers who studies the data gathered by testing these devices out on the street. Share the results of your recent research on online consumption habits.

Sara Kaufman: The Rudin Center partnered with 6t, a mobility research firm in Paris, to compare online shopping trends in the denser parts of Manhattan with equivalent densities in Paris. We looked at how people are shopping online in three categories: goods (any item you’d buy off of Amazon, for example), groceries, and meal delivery.

One alarming finding was that, especially for groceries, online shopping is not replacing trips to the store. People are shopping online at high rates, but they’re also still driving to the store and creating traffic on the streets. In other words, we’re just consuming more overall.

People are modifying their lives, however, around online shopping and meal delivery. In particular, they are going out to restaurants less once they are introduced to meal delivery apps. This creates the question of how to make cities and places interesting enough to keep people coming to them, rather than staying at home.

Gabe Klein: Operating on the curb becomes complicated when there are different rules and regulations every 50 blocks. Cecilia, how do you coordinate among different jurisdictions about curb use? How can we maintain regional consistency while respecting the context of different neighborhoods? 

Cecilia Cabello: That is always going to be a challenge for government in Los Angeles. We are a large county—about 10 million people, consisting of 88 separate incorporated cities. We will never have consistent curb use regulations. So, instead of looking at the macro, we actually have to think about the micro.

Los Angeles has limited parks and few plazas. I think of the curb as our new public square—the new space that people share. We have to think through all the demands on that space. We have to install 5G in existing infrastructure, store dockless scooters and docked bikes, etc., all while making sure we still have enough space for tree belts. We have to think about design and sustainability as we figure out how to accommodate new technologies on the curb. That’s the only way this will be able to function in Los Angeles.

Gabe Klein: Many new businesses and technologies are trending toward a dynamic model. Yet on the curbside, we still have bus stops there all the time or valet stands there every night from 6 pm to midnight. Can we think differently about permanent fixtures on the street? Can we imagine dynamic allocation and pricing based on demand for the curb?

Sara Kaufman: New York is trying out two interesting programs. One is dynamic pricing for parking spots near schools during the morning drop-off period. That could be expanded to other cases—like, say, parking spots in front of Starbucks between 7 am and 9 am—that incentivize people to keep moving rather than park for longer periods.


The other is incentivizing off-hour deliveries. Right now, trucks are occupying traffic lanes, especially during rush hour, which impacts traffic flow, air quality, and general use of the street. If companies were incentivized to deliver outside of morning rush hours, and perhaps curb spots were allocated for delivery in the evenings, then we could keep traffic moving when we need to. 

Gabe Klein: What are the benefits of using autonomous vehicles for service delivery?

Sean Scott: For one, it enables us to deliver during off hours. People don’t usually want to deliver products in the middle of the night, but autonomous vehicles are “happy” to. There’s also an environmental incentive: Our device is small and lightweight compared to a personal vehicle, so it uses a lot less energy. A small electric vehicle is much better for the environment, and safer, than you driving to the grocery store in your big vehicle to get eggs.

Vikram Aiyer: As we examine where goods are moving and at what time of day, we think it’s also our responsibility to test the convergence of commerce and mobility. By that I mean everything from having our human couriers pick scooters up off the street, to using a bikeshare program for deliveries, to testing autonomous vehicle delivery with Ford in Miami-Dade County, to building our own robotic devices: Serve.

All these efforts come out of tracking two main considerations in on-demand commerce. One is the urban topography of the city. A delivery in Los Angeles is very different, mode-wise, than a delivery in New York City: mostly car, versus almost entirely bike or another more limited mode. At the same time, for environmental reasons, we have to ask why a two-pound burrito should be delivered by a two-ton car, and why that car should take multiple laps around a dense urban area to complete that delivery.

Autonomous devices allow us not only to diversify the modes of delivery, but also to learn where there are less congested areas from the perspective of curb space and public right-of-way. Even if the pick-up is at a popular storefront, Serve’s size allows it to take different routes or back alleys, thus alleviating congestion from the city.

All of this comes back to learning from data as our device gets smarter and better maps the cityscape. This can sometimes mean that in order to be good actors and figure out optimal routes, we have to start out seeming like annoying actors by putting lots of devices on the street at first.

Gabe Klein: Sean, you’ve said that Amazon designed Scout to function at human scales and human speeds. Explain how you managed to keep it respectful of people while using the sidewalk.

Sean Scott: We designed Scout to fit into the environment. People are very good at accommodating how other people behave and walk, or how they expect other people to behave and walk. We thought if the bot behaved like a person, it would be much easier to accommodate.

The first time we tested Scout on the sidewalk, a dog ran up to us and sniffed around and was really interested in it. The next day, we rolled by again and the dog just laid there, looked at us, and looked away. Scout fit in so well that it had become boring to the dog. That told us we’d achieved our goal. 

Gabe Klein: Sara, you pointed out that we’re starting to consume more as a whole, since we’re continuing to shop at the store and also getting deliveries on top of that. Yet as a people, we need to consume less if the planet is going to make it. How can we, as a society, deal with the full social costs of these changing consumption habits? 

Sara Kaufman: What cities can do on a large scale is incentivize use of right-size vehicles. Hamburg, Germany, for example, got sick of big trucks meandering through city streets. They pinpointed central locations outside the city where the trucks drop the day’s packages into big containers, and then electric cargo bikes pick up the deliveries for the day before fanning out into the central city.

That model might not work for delivering, say, sushi, but it could for, say, an air conditioner. Cities need to be able, first of all, to access the data from companies using their streets, and second of all, to regulate the types of vehicles that operate on the street.

Gabe Klein: On one hand, data-sharing raises a lot of concerns over privacy. On the other hand, when there are hundreds of on-demand delivery companies, if somebody’s not doing traffic control, it’s going to be a shitshow. How do we come to an agreement? 

Sara Kaufman: It has already reached that point in many cities. Cities need the ability to regulate dynamically, and they can’t do that without information.

As far as privacy, cities don’t necessarily need to know what people are ordering. But they do need and deserve to know, in the aggregate, how many delivery vehicles are being sent out at any given time so that they can regulate curb usage and deliveries by time of day.

Gabe Klein: How can government and the private sector coordinate to achieve social outcomes that are good for both residents and businesses?

Cecilia Cabello: As one example, when Postmates approached me about Serve, I looked into whether there were any regulations at the state or local level that would prohibit an autonomous robot from using our public right-of-way. There were none. So, instead of fighting them just to be reactionary, I thought, “Why don’t we start working together now?” It helped that Postmates was a good actor—not asking for forgiveness instead of permission, the way certain other companies have done in the past.

What can the city get out of partnering with these companies? Sara’s right that we don’t need to know if you’re ordering a burrito or a pizza. What’s important to us is the volume of deliveries and the point of contact. On top of that, we could take the opportunity to find out things like: What is the condition of our sidewalks? The robot could detect liabilities, and we could spot treat the problem almost immediately. That’s one opportunity for partnership.

Vikram Aiyer: There are definitely civic applications to our data. If there’s a crack in the curb cutout, that’s a problem for Serve’s wheels—and also a problem for someone using a wheelchair.

There is a cultural issue as well. This is my first private-sector job, and I’m starting to understand the motivations when a business declines to share sensitive data. We also need to feel confident that government will actually look at the data; we’ve shared datasets with transportation departments throughout the country in hopes of starting pilot programs, only to have the data languish because government is so busy.

I think we need to increase empathy between business and government and vice versa, and that starts with having actors rotate in and out of both. Maybe if there were more tours of duty from the private sector into government and the reverse, we could build a more trusting rapport.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.