You’re traveling in a car down a typical street in any city in America. You glance at a car ahead that has pulled halfway over in the lane, but think nothing of it. Then suddenly, out pops the driver.
Screeeeech! Your foot pins the brake pedal to the floor. Your chest presses against the seat belt. Your heart races as though you’re on a roller coaster. The car mercifully grinds to a halt just inches from the other driver, who you now see is clutching a package. A delivery of some kind.
You’re becoming used to incidents like these by this point. In fact, you order deliveries like that, too.
The rise of online delivery has made this story a normal part of driving not just in cities, but in smaller communities as well. Package deliveries to homes were once occasional, but now daily deliveries are frequent. Ridesharing companies have created a new market for trips to and from places where cabs were once a rare sight. Technology has even brought us new modes of transportation, with decentralized rental bicycles and electric scooters quickly carving niches into the transportation landscape.
Every one of these innovations can create hazardous situations like the one above. Incorporating these realities into transportation rules will challenge policymakers in coming years.
In Arlington, Virginia, planners have already started experimenting with dedicated loading zones for ridesharing companies in Clarendon, its most nightlife-centric neighborhood. The plan creates dedicated short-term parking spaces during nightlife hours while stepping up enforcement of parking laws during pick-ups and drop-offs in crowded places, where these actions cause traffic and safety issues.
In re-allocating road space from standard parking to short-term pickup and drop-off zones, planners are attempting to manage the congestion that new technology brings to existing infrastructure. These efforts reflect a monopolist municipal road provider’s public choice to adapt to changes in the transportation market. Right of way being a zero-sum game, and unfortunately, efficiency isn’t the main driver of political decisions. Without robust markets in roadways, allocation of infrastructure like this is usually a recipe for a political mess.
Arlington’s actions track the concept of Shared Use Mobility (SUM) zones, a notion developed by analyst Greg Rogers to provide a place for the kinds of short-term parking that this new industry commands. It rests on the premise that we should treat the right to use street rights of way as we do other goods—as a scarce resource that can be misused if underpriced.
A question that remains is whether these zones would be appropriate for other short-term parking needs. USPS mail trucks and other package-delivery vehicles could benefit from having reliable parking on congested urban roads. Residential food-delivery drivers would similarly benefit. Whether commercial loading is an appropriate use for these spaces is unclear, however, and depends on the nature and frequency of deliveries. The loading needs for a restaurant are different from those of a dry cleaner, which are in turn different from those of a grocery store. There may be a need for some new type of short-term zone aimed at eliminating dangerous parking of delivery vehicles in travel lanes.
When left to the commons, road space gets misused and wasted. Underpriced street parking has made road space scarce, as UCLA parking guru Donald Shoup has spent his life demonstrating. The rise of e-commerce and the advent of ridesharing has increased demand for short-term parking, putting pressure on policymakers to act to accommodate it. Costs to inaction are real and felt every time a driver needs to swerve or slam on the breaks. Hopefully someday soon, we can leave these roller-coaster feelings to the amusement parks.