There is curb appeal, and the future of autonomous cars may depend on it. For reasons that are somewhat novel to transportation planners, curb appeal has new-found meaning. If parking issues were the unintended consequence of human driven cars, curb space might become a thorn for autonomous vehicles, if left to chance.
Fortunately, there are already lessons in developing curb appeal…and they come from an unlikely place- the airport. In a previous blog we wrote about how U.S. airports could become a proving ground for autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to speed up ground-traffic, improve air quality, and make airport pick-ups and drop-offs less stressful.
But, surprisingly, airports provide a double-sided learning curve for automotive engineers and planners. Today’s airports already have vital traffic control measures in place, ones that will become mandatory when there are more autonomous vehicles on the road.
But first, think city streets: both Uber and Lyft pick-up and drop-off passengers in a “willy-nilly” fashion- vehicles pull over to the curb, per customer demand. The pick-up point is set by the passenger, and it might be near a busy intersection or in high-speed traffic. This passenger-set location can interrupt other traffic, cause delays, and sometimes accidents. Today, as Uber tests autonomous trip-taking in Pittsburgh, they may work out a safer protocol for ride-hailing customers.
Meanwhile, most airports have controlled this sort of situation out of necessity. In a recent talk at the Volpe Transportation Center, Professor Anthony Townsend noted that curb management will become one of several policy levers for cities as they search for ways to manage pedestrian/vehicle interactions with new technology.
- Airports do several things “right” at the curb: First, autonomous cars will come in all shapes and sizes, just like today’s vehicles. The amount of painted curb space at airports favors, multi-passenger shuttle buses- like the hotel and rental car vans that circulate. As autonomous vehicles develop, there are vital reasons for multi-passenger vehicles to get preferential treatment. The current curb configuration at airports helps these longer vehicles glide in and out. Passengers, meanwhile, come to accept that the vehicle stops are not at their door-step, but they are marked, and frequent enough so that they will not have to walk too far.
2. Airports have learned to take their curbs seriously. Airports assiduously monitor and patrol their curb appeal, particularly after September 11th. When vehicles linger too long, or turn off their engines, the drivers are subject to fines or towing. Major airports have security forces that enforce curb control. Their presence makes airports more secure and keeps the vehicles moving.
In a future, where autonomous vehicles circle on the road, it will be key that they stay on the network and in service.
3. Third, larger airports sometimes have porters and staff at the curb to assist passengers. Although not all passengers will need this as they disembark from their autonomous vehicle, it may be of value for older people or the handicapped. New curb based concierge services might assist passengers as they board or embark. Furthermore, note that most of the vehicles that circle airports today do not charge their passengers directly. They have worked out payment transactions off-site. Keeping the vehicles moving is the first priority.
CURB (SF STYLE)
Meanwhile, when you depart the “orderly” world of the airport curb and travel to more conventional open streets, the lack of curb control can bring chaos and conflict.
In San Francisco, for example, teachers at a public school joined with activists to protest the painting of an open, un-metered curb section to create a no-parking, white zone for tech shuttles. Again, in San Francisco, intra-city shuttles have operated for more than 30 years, but their use of curb space has remained a hot issue since 2004 when private employers began offering regional commuter shuttles, some with 45-foot long buses. With the arrival of the autonomous car, the curb may replace parking (think Donald Shoup) as the next premium space to be coveted, rationed, and taxed. It may have all started at the airport.