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More metered 'smart loading zones' are coming to Pittsburgh, and not everyone is happy about it

 A purple and white sign on Murray Avenue explains parking enforcement.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh city officials aim to use graduated rates to incentivize parking turnover and create easy access to curb space for drivers, especially as the presence of commercial vehicles on city streets — and the emissions that come with them — surges worldwide.

During the past year, purple curbs have popped up in some of Pittsburgh’s busiest neighborhoods. The paint denotes a metered commercial loading zone, with invoices created and sent to drivers automatically through a camera system.

The city initially installed 20 of these smart loading zones as part of a pilot program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce vehicle emissions in cities across the country. Now, the city is moving to designate another 180 curbsides for paid commercial spaces, and not everyone is happy about the added expense.

One of these spots came up about a month ago directly in front of the door restaurant owner Victor Barboza uses to unload supplier deliveries at Coriander India Grill in Squirrel Hill.

Barboza said it’s the restaurant’s only entrance, and parking elsewhere to unload his truck would multiply the time it takes to get everything inside.

“It takes some time to unload, and then they start charging me,” Barboza said. “What's the point [in] charging me? Because we [already] pay a lot of taxes over here — sales tax, property tax. And we can't even park for 15, 20 minutes for unloading.”

A program to reduce congestion and safety hazards

The city and Carnegie Mellon University received the initial $100,000 grant in 2021 to pilot the curb management program for one year as part of a larger $3.8 million DOE study of urban curb use, as well as technologies that could both reduce emissions and accelerate electric vehicle adoption by commercial fleets.

The city selected the first 20 curbsides to be designated as smart loading zones by looking at metered parking usage and ticket data, according to city communications director Maria Montaño.

Planners with the city’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, she added, chose curbs where regular, unpaid loading zones already existed. That way, non-commercial parking spaces weren’t displaced.

“Specifically in those zones, we see a lot of double parking, which leads to [a] backup of traffic, which creates frustration for drivers, but also unsafe conditions for pedestrians and cyclists and others who are using the road,” Montaño said.

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The city’s goal was to use graduated rates to incentivize parking turnover and create easy access to curb space for drivers, especially as the presence of commercial vehicles on city streets — and the emissions that come with them — surges worldwide.

Vehicles parked in the city’s smart loading zones for up to five minutes are charged $0.07 per minute, though the rate then doubles to $0.14 per minute when idling for five to 15 minutes. It jumps again to $0.20 for 15 to 30 minutes parked, and $0.27 for 30 to 60 minutes.

For delivery drivers who spend five minutes in the zone to pick up customers’ orders, that would result in just $0.33 at most.

“We're talking about less than $0.07 per minute with most of these turnovers happening in less than 5 minutes,” Montaño added. “So it really is about that ease and convenience for short term parking for delivery drivers.”

But those parked in the zone for an hour could incur a $12.67 charge. A first-year review of the program found, though the average dwell time decreased 23% between February and December, it still sat between 25 and 30 minutes.

A graph shows dwell times.
City of Pittsburgh Smart Loading Zones Case Study
City of Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure
Though the average dwell time decreased 23% between February and December, it still sat between 25 and 30 minutes.

There’s no skipping out on the meter, either. Each loading zone deploys a camera system — developed by the Los Angeles-based tech startup Automotus — that automatically records drivers’ license plates, and uses that data to send them a bill in the mail.

(According to the company’s privacy policy, the live video feeds used to collect this data aren’t stored and access will not be granted to any third party, including law enforcement.)

In the time since the pilot program began, parking turnover in smart loading zones has increased by nearly 25%. Officials say the program has led to increased efficiency for delivery drivers, and reduced the average time spent double parked by 40%.

“This not only allows traffic to continue to flow unobstructed past the loading zones, but also creates fewer obstacles for curb users such as cyclists and pedestrians to navigate safely,” the first-year report stated.

DOMI anticipates the program will reduce double-parking by an additional 20%, and lower parking-caused traffic by 20%.

City Council members voted in November to expand the pilot to 2024. Since then, 27 of the anticipated 180 additional smart loading zones were installed through various neighborhoods, including Downtown, in Oakland and Squirrel Hill.

A call to better meet businesses’ needs

In some ways, the smart loading zones benefit businesses. Maria Cohen with the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition said stores in support of the purple curb expansion have had issues with delivery trucks blocking their storefronts, making it harder for customers to get inside.

But other businesses are used to getting their deliveries early in the day, before traffic in the neighborhood picks up. The smart loading zones are in effect from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. each weekday, and they don’t differentiate between commercial vehicles and passenger ones.

While the city notified SHUC about the imminent installation of purple curbs a few months back, Cohen said the organization failed to receive any information when the curbs would be installed, therefore limiting SHUC’s ability to communicate the changes with constituents.

“It seems like that was accidental, so now we just have to go back and establish [a] dialogue with the city and with the merchants to see if this is something that really makes sense, or what things that we can put in place for merchants that it's really not making sense for,” Cohen said.

To Barboza, the Coriander India Grill owner, business owners with property adjacent to a smart loading zone should get at least 15 to 30 minutes of free unloading time before the automatic charging system kicks in.

“They should leave the way it was,” he added, “start ticketing” those who double park.

The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition will meet with the mayor’s office Tuesday to discuss the system, and how it can better meet businesses’ needs.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.