Cities across the world are grappling with the rise of population density within their boundaries, and with the subsequent overflow onto streets, which can lead to worsening air quality and frequently occurring traffic jams. To improve the situation, it is essential for cities to promote cleaner forms of transport or alternatively, shared mobility.
“We are now living in an era of on-demand mobility – with ride-hailing, package delivery, food delivery, electric scooter sharing and even autonomous vehicles around the corner. And the streets are broken, as we see piles of scooters on sidewalks, traffic jams of on-demand taxis on the curbside, delivery vehicles that block buses and the like,” said Stephen Smyth, the CEO of Coord, a startup that provides a way to analyze, share and collect curb data.
Coord started as a project within Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Labs and spun out to establish an independent technology company that aims to dynamically deal with chaotic street spaces by digitizing curbs. “Cities still use old-fashioned and legacy ways to handle these issues, putting up static signs on top of a bunch of other signs, which eventually creates confusion,” said Smyth. “We see it is imperative for the sustainability of cities to actually digitize their curbs, so that they can become more predictable and usable.”
Smyth termed it as the know-before-you-go process – wherein instead of punching in the address of the place on the GPS, driving up the location and then searching for a curb space to park, users can identify online if there’s a curb space available around the corner or further down the street, before actually driving to the place. “This makes curb space utilization more predictable and thus improves efficiency by reducing confusion amongst the public,” said Smyth.
Digitizing curb spaces makes its utilization dynamic, which allows road authorities to switch curbs into parking spaces and create zones, all in real-time. For instance, curbs can be converted into a scooter parking zone on a game day, and parking prices can be dynamically changed based on traffic movement around the region. This makes curbs more productive, as dynamism maximizes the number of people using the curb, per unit time and unit length.
“Cities are increasingly seeing the curb as a gateway to the city. It is becoming a place not just to park a vehicle, but a place where people get out of a vehicle and where vehicles load or unload cargo. It is more like a point of embarkment for a city,” said Smyth. “We see the curb as a tremendously undervalued space that is being managed with dated approaches. It is time for us to move into the digital curb system.”
Smyth noted that these are ubiquitous issues, and nearly every major city – be it a megacity or a medium-sized one – witness these issues growing larger with each passing year. The rise of online retail has unleashed a horde of last-mile delivery vans on the streets, with logistics companies like UPS paying millions in fines just in the state of New York. That apart, cities contend with negative externalities in terms of congestion, smog and health issues that it causes.
“There’s only a finite amount of curb space out there. Most cities are not building new streets, and so the number of miles of curb length is relatively static. City administrations are also taking away curb lanes and reallocating them to bike lanes and Bus Rapid Transit (BST) systems, thus actually decreasing the net amount of curb space. So we need to see this as a balance of supply and demand,” said Smyth.
In 2018, Coord introduced a service called Open Curbs, which was the first open, multi-city platform that made standardized curb data publicly available. Though it was principally developed with the private sector in mind, the platform caught the fancy of city agencies and engineering firms, with Coord now licensing its tool out for their data collection efforts.
As trust around Open Curbs grew, several third parties came forward to release their data in the platform as an open database, helping the ecosystem of businesses, researchers and community activists to get on the same page with regard to the digital curb and get more specific in defining, visualizing and understanding it for effective usage.
“Data about curb assets and regulations doesn’t change that frequently, but it does change. Sometimes it changes temporarily like when there’s some construction happening in the vicinity. A few other times, it changes permanently when the road design in the locality is changed in some way. These are signals that we definitely look for while collecting data,” said Smyth.
Coord has integrated with various types of data feeds, including construction permit and zone permit feeds. The startup is now working with the City of San Diego, where Coord is exploring options on optimizing the city’s curb assets by digitizing it.
“Cities ultimately want the users of the curb space to know the rules. They want a way to communicate curb regulations to a broad base of curb users, including delivery fleets. We are increasingly being seen as a broadcast channel from the city out to the users of the curb space, to explain what the curb rules are,” said Smyth. “We’re delighted to keep making our platform and system dynamic, and integrating it with a variety of data feeds to help do that.”