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Pittsburgh Pilots New Smart Loading Zones To Ease Congestion And Air Pollution From Delivery Vehicles

Courtesy of Automotus

As the amount of stuff you can order online becomes more abundant, something else has grown very scarce: curbside parking for delivery vehicles. According to the World Economic Forum, the number of delivery vehicles in the top 100 cities worldwide will increase by 36 percent by 2030. That new traffic will bring with it more air pollution and congestion to urban centers.

But the city of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Transportation is trying a new approach to managing curbside delivery parking.

“We’ve seen a dramatic uptick in commercial curb activity in recent years, and that has only increased more dramatically during the pandemic,” said Erin Clark, a policy advisor with the department.

“We not only have cars being parked there and delivery vehicles, but we have Ubers, Lyfts, transportation network companies, food deliveries, parcel deliveries…. We see a lot of double-parking, a lot of idling for longer than is necessary, which creates safety and environmental concerns.”

With the help of two grants, Pittsburgh is piloting “smart loading zones,” which use pole-mounted video cameras, machine learning, a short-term fee structure and an app to help drivers get in and out of loading zones more efficiently.

“We're trying to encourage quick trips to the curb,” Clark said. “It should get more expensive the longer you want to spend at the curb but should be more affordable for short trips.”

Under the first $100,000 grant, announced in 2020, DOMI is partnering with Los Angeles-based curb management startup Automotus to create 20 smart loading zones in dense commercial districts in Downtown, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield and Oakland. These zones, according to Automotus, may be open as soon as November.

In August, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a three-year, $3.8 million grant to develop zero-emissions delivery in Pittsburgh, Santa Monica and Los Angeles as part of alarger DOE grant program to support electric vehicle development. Under the new grant, Pittsburgh will continue to partner with Automotus to substantially expand the number of smart loading zones in the city, with an emphasis on incentivizing electric vehicle adoption.

“This DOE grant is proposing a first-of-its-kind…effort in using curb management to prioritize zero-emission vehicles and scale EV deployments in metropolitan areas with historically bad air quality,” Clark said, noting that poor air quality may have been a reason Pittsburgh and Los Angeles were chosen for the grant.

“We'll…see how we can use curb management tactics to incentivize electric vehicles for deliveries,” she said.

One strategy would be to offer free or reduced-cost parking to electric delivery vehicles in smart loading zones. Pittsburgh does not currently charge fees for 15-to-30-minute parking in commercial loading zones, but Automotus co-founder and CEO Jordan Justus said companies and individuals already incur costs for parking.

“Folks are already paying for it one way or another... through parking tickets, which are not tax-deductible,” Justus said. “And then… they’re operating far more inefficiently than they would like to, given how difficult it is for some of these companies to find parking in urban areas.”

Several pilots of curbside management have launched in cities across the country, but the need is growing more urgent as e-commerce continues to grow. Though most programs do not have results yet, a 2019 curbside pickup-dropoff pilot in Washington, D.C. reduced double parking and illegal U-turns by more than 60 percent.

Susan Scott Peterson is an audio producer and writer whose journalism, radio and literary work have appeared with Vox Media, New Hampshire Public Radio, Allegheny Front, The Texas Observer and The Rumpus.