The top congestion-fighting ideas from the Downtown Delivery Symposium

As Ben Plowden wrote recently at Next City, the public streets create a “wicked problem” for planners–a term used by social scientists to describe multi-stakeholder negotiations with competing priorities and no “right” answers:

Most people assume that city street planning is a technical issue, involving prosaic concerns like road widths, demand modeling, traffic signal control and highway capacity. In fact, street planning is what social scientists call a “wicked” problem: an issue involving many stakeholders with competing interests; no single right answer; competing versions of value; and zero-sum outcomes.

If one user group “wins” — for example, by securing a new pedestrian crossing outside a local school — another group may “lose,” as nearby stores contend with slower delivery times.

In other words, the allocation of street right-of-way is substantially a political question, arguably more than it is a technical one. Technical design issues enter the picture after a political choice is made about how strong a claim different types of users have to the scarce space on the streets. 

Plowden goes on to explain the framework London has been using to process these issues. Mayor Boris Johnson created a Roads Task Force comprised of representatives from different stakeholder groups that was charged with establishing some criteria used to determine whether different streets are best used for “moving” or “living” or both.  

This trade-off–whether to allocate space to people lingering, shopping, and walking vs. people driving through or making deliveries–is ultimately what drives a lot of the political skirmishes over streets.

Deliveries add a whole layer of logistical and political complexity to the mix, so much that the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is embarking on a big study of downtown delivery issues to see where we might realize some efficiencies.

To kick off that project, last Wednesday they held a Downtown Delivery Symposium which assembled planning professionals and practitioners from around the region, as well as planners and transportation officials from New York City and Washington, DC, to learn about best practices in delivery policy. 

There are enough fascinating aspects of this issue to fill several posts, and we’ll follow up with DVRPC to get a more fine-grained look at specific areas as their project progresses. For now, let’s look at some of the big picture ideas that were discussed.

Curb parking management

Delivery trucks present some unique challenges that force us to grapple with the size of the vehicles and the particulars of loading, but the core issue for deliveries in the urban core is the same fundamental geometry problem vexing efforts to expand bike lanes and bus lanes: narrow streets laid out in the 1600s combined with an expectation of cheap and plentiful curb parking for residents.

But if one of the main goals for improving delivery efficiency is reducing double parking, then there needs to be more curb parking turnover so that trucks can unload in the parking lanes, rather than in the car travel lanes, bike lanes, and bus lanes.

We’ll post the video when it’s available, but Richard Dickson of the Philadelphia Parking Authority did a good job refreshing attendees on the basic case for making high curb turnover rates an explicit policy goal in urban areas.

This is something everyone could stand to hear more often, and the operating idea is that high turnover provides greater access to amenities for a larger number of people than we’d see in a low-turnover environment where nobody moves their cars all day. And the two main tools for accomplishing high turnover are parking meters and time limits.

Are Philly’s parking meters and time limits doing a good enough job that trucks can find spaces in the parking lanes to unload without double parking? I ride my bike around greater Center City a lot most days, and the answer is pretty clearly no.  

The PPA hiked meter rates up to $3 an hour in the central business district in recent years, with hourly rates dropping lower the further out you go, but parking guru Donald Shoup recently visited Philly and he pointed out that Center City curb parking is still jammed. I’ve noted elsewhere that the curb meter prices don’t start to nudge motorists into a garage until after four hours

Something like Pittsburgh’s dynamic parking pricing approach could potentially open up more spaces, though while dynamic pricing has long been an official goal of the Greenworks plan from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, current leadership at the PPA opposes the idea in principle so little progress has been made on that.

More curb loading zones and paid loading zones

Another way to free up more space for delivery trucks in the parking lanes is to convert more general curb parking spaces into dedicated loading zones. The city and the PPA have been doing this, with 70 new truck loading zones installed off of major streets since 2009. Still, there is a lot of double parking activity in the urban center, as the hyperactive #unblockbikelanes Twitter hashtag shows, so there’s more work to do on this front. 

Loading zones are an effective way to cut down on double parking, the representative from DDOT told attendees, but they require consistent monitoring, enforcement, and metering to prevent them from becoming short-term parking spaces for all comers.

As of January, Washington, DC began metering loading zones, with $25 day passes, $2/hour pay-by-phone parking, or $323 annual permits. They’ve also been working to extend loading zone spaces to 100 feet long. Since trucking companies are making a business decision to either absorb the cost of parking and idling tickets or pay the hourly meter rates, the fines need to be higher than the parking meter costs.

Advance booking of curb spaces

Letting delivery companies book curb parking spaces in advance would also help cut down on double parking, though it would also require the PPA to ensure that those spaces are actually unoccupied at the selected time. This would entail more sophisticated real-time information collection than currently exists, likely either with cameras or sensors installed in the curb.

Off-hour delivery rules

Off-hour deliveries in Manhattan outside the 6:00 am to 7:00 pm window have been credited with reducing congestion, air pollution, and inventory costs for businesses, and Washington, DC has been implementing a similar policy. Malcolm Burnley at Citified has reported that Atlanta, Chicago, and Boston are now looking at off-hour delivery rules as well, in response to the Manhattan success story. 

Philly has only dipped a toe in the temporal separation waters, with the Mayor Nutter’s Mobility Enhancement Initiative in Center City. Since 2009, they’ve allowed only delivery vehicle parking on Chestnut and Walnut Streets between Broad and 22nd Streets from 6:00 am to 10:00 am on weekdays. Andrew Stober, then chief of staff at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, told Burnley that change cut westbound traffic by 24 percent during morning rush hour, and eastbound traffic by 35 percent.

The city has no current plans to explore off-hours delivery, and Stober mentioned street noise as one reason why. Low-noise trucks and other noise reduction solutions were one point of discussion during the Symposium though, and they could potentially show up in DVRPC’s eventual policy recommendations. Also, Jim Kenney and several of the candidates who completed the 5th Square PAC’s candidate questionnaire agreed to explore this issue, with Kenney saying he’d be open to a pilot project early in his term. 

Physical barriers to parking on the sidewalk

Part of the delivery reform agenda is about addressing the root causes of delivery-related dysfunction, like jammed curb parking, and another part is about addressing the symptoms themselves in the meantime. For instance, when delivery trucks can’t park in a curb space or double park, they sometimes park halfway on the sidewalk, leading to faster sidewalk degradation.

Renee Gillinger of the East Passyunk Avenue BID sang the praises of gabion planters full of rocks, and other large objects, to physically keep vehicles off the curb. Her organization was having problems with trucks parking up on the sidewalk on the 2000 block of South Broad Street near Walgreens, so they enlisted the folks at Urban Jungle to to build a model gabion planter to place at that location.

Gillinger described the planters as “menacing,” despite their attractive design, since they contain about 1,000 lbs. of rocks and metal–not the sort of thing you’d want to back a vehicle into, even a big delivery truck. They placed 11 of them at the Walgreens for the past 5 months and not only did that stop vehicles from parking on the sidewalk, but there’s also no more graffiti in that area either. Gillinger chalks that up to the appearance of someone taking care of the place. Now she wants to put them everywhere.

Delivery consolidation

Many of the ideas discussed at the symposium concerned things city government can do to cut traffic congestion, improve the timeliness of deliveries, and reduce costs for businesses and the city. That was perhaps to be expected–the government (mostly) owns the streets and writes the rules of the road. There’s no one else who can make the high level political choices about which street users deserve priority.

There are also some things the private sector can do to help, though they may also require some public coordination. Two of the major ones–delivery consolidation, and deliveries and pick-ups from alternate destinations–have the potential to save money, but require varying degrees of (potentially costly) collaboration between private businesses, some of whom may be competitors. 

The goal in both cases is to avoid sending multiple big delivery trucks into a compact area like a neighborhood commercial corridor every day of the week. Instead, the deliveries would all be consolidated into one truck at a private shipping center, so only one vehicle is making all the deliveries, and/or dropping off shipments at an off-site facility, and having businesses drop off and receive their shipments there.

There’s some international evidence that these business-led strategies can pay off in terms of cost-savings and congestion reduction, but they’re new to the United States, and convincing small business owners that it’s worth spending the time and effort on what feels like a nebulous public problem seems like it would be a hard sell, even if it’s worth trying.

There’s a lot to think about here, but to reiterate Ben Plowden’s point, the key thing to keep in mind when considering these different strategies is that fixing the delivery issues are hard because there are no right answers, just different ways to rank competing goals. Everybody is going to have different ideas about which users have the weakest claim on scarce street space–residents’ cars, delivery vehicles, bicycles, buses–and settling that question is the first step to fixing delivery-related traffic congestion.

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