Like many congested cities, Seattle is grappling with how best to manage the increasing use of ride-hailing services by Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. According to a 2018 Seattle Times analysis, TNC ridership in the Seattle region has grown to more than five times the level it was in the beginning of 2015, providing, on average, more than 91,000 rides a day in 2018. And the newspaper reports Uber and Lyft trips are heavily concentrated in the city’s densest neighborhoods, where nearly 40,000 rides a day start in ZIP codes covering downtown, Belltown, Capitol Hill and South Lake Union.
This University of Washington (UW) study focuses on a strategy to manage TNC driver stops when picking up and dropping off passengers to improve traffic flow in the South Lake Union (SLU) area. SLU is the site of the main campus for Amazon, the online retail company. The site is known to generate a large number of TNC trips, and Amazon reports high rates of ride-hailing use for employee commutes. This study also found that vehicle picking-up/dropping-off passengers make up a significant share of total vehicle activity in SLU. The center city neighborhood is characterized by multiple construction sites, slow speed limits (25 mph), and heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Broad concerns about congestion, safety, and effective curb use led to this study, conducted by researchers at the UW’s Urban Freight Lab and Sustainable Transportation Lab. Amazon specifically was concerned about scarcity of curb space where TNC drivers could legally and readily stop to pick up and drop off passengers. Without dedicated load/unload curb space, TNC vehicles stop and wait at paid parking spots, other unauthorized curb spots, or in the travel lane itself, potentially blocking or slowing traffic. To try to mitigate the impacts of passenger pick-up/drop-off activity on traffic, the city proposed a strategy of increasing passenger loading zone (PLZ) spaces while Uber and Lyft implemented a geofence, which directs their drivers and passengers to designated pick-up and drop-off locations on a block. (Normally, drivers pick up or drop off passengers at any address a rider requests via the ride-hailing app.)
By providing ample designated pick-up and drop-off spots along the curb, the thinking goes, TNC drivers would reduce the frequency with which they stop in the travel lane to pick up or drop off passengers and the time they stay stopped there. By these measures, this study’s findings show the approach was successful. But it is important to note that the strategy is not a silver bullet for solving traffic congestion—nor is it designed as such. It is also important to note that any initiative to manage use of curbs and roads (by TNCs or others) is part of a city’s broader transportation policy framework and goals.
For this study, researchers analyzed an array of data on street and curb activity along three block-faces on Boren Ave N in December 2018 and January 2019. At a minimum, data were collected during the morning and afternoon peak travel times (with some collected 24 hours a day). The research team collected data using video and sensor technology as well as in-person observation. Researchers also surveyed TNC passengers for demographic, trip-related and satisfaction data. The five Amazon buildings in the area studied house roughly 8,650 employees. Researchers collected data in three stages. Phase 1, the study baseline, was before PLZs were added and geofencing started. Phase 2 was after the new PLZs were added, expanding total PLZ curb length from 20 feet (easily filled by one to two vehicles) to 274 feet. Phase 3 was after geofencing was added to the expanded PLZs. The added PLZ spaces were open to any passenger vehicle—not just TNC vehicles—weekdays from 7am to 10am and 2pm to 7pm. (Permitted food trucks were authorized from 10am to 2pm.)
Note that while other cities can learn from this analysis, the findings apply to streets with comparable traffic speed, mix of roadway users, and street design.
The study’s main findings include:
- A significant percentage of vehicles performing a pick-up/drop-off stop in the travel lane. Those in-lane stops appear connected to the lack of available designated curb space: Adding PLZs and geofencing increased driver compliance in stopping at the curb versus stopping in the travel lane to load and unload passengers. But it was not lack of curb space alone that influenced driver activity: Between 7 percent and 10 percent of drivers still stopped in the travel lane even when PLZs were empty. After adding PLZs and geofencing, in-lane stops fell from 20 percent to 14 percent for pick-ups and from 16 percent to 15 percent for drop-offs.
- Adding PLZs and geofencing reduced the average amount of time drivers stopped to load and unload passengers. For example, 90 percent of drop-offs took less than 1 minute 12 seconds, 42 seconds faster than the average with the added PLZs alone.
- While curb occupancy increased after adding PLZs and geofencing, occupancy results show the current allocation of PLZ spaces is more than what is needed to meet observed demand: Average PLZ occupancy remained under 20 percent after PLZ expansion, even during peak commute hours.
- Vehicles picking-up/dropping-off passengers account for a significant share of total traffic volume in the study area: during peak hours the observed average percentage of vehicles performing a pick-up/drop-off with respect to the total traffic volume was 29 percent (in Phase 1), 32 percent (in Phase 2) and 39 percent (in Phase 3).
- High volumes of pedestrians (400-500 per hour on average) cross the street at points where there was no crosswalk. Passengers picked-up/dropped-off constituted a fraction (five to seven percent) of those pedestrians, but high rates of passengers (30 to 40 percent) cross the street at non-crosswalk locations.
- Adding PLZs and geofencing did not have a significant impact on traffic safety. Researchers found no significant change in the number of observed conflicts from baseline to the addition of PLZs and geofencing. Conflicts are situations where a vehicle, bike, or pedestrian is interrupted, forced to alter their path, or engaged in a near-miss situation. Conflicts include vehicles passing in the oncoming traffic lane. • Adding PLZs and geofencing also did not produce a significant impact on roadway travel speed.
- Of the 116 TNC passengers surveyed in the study area:
- Roughly 40 percent to 50 percent said their trip was work related. More than half said they used ride-hailing service at least once a week and 70 percent or more used TNC alone (versus in combination with other transportation options) to get from their origin to their destination.
- Most responded positively to the added PLZs and geofence: 79 percent rated their pick-up satisfactory and 100 percent rated their drop-off satisfactory as compared to 72 percent and 89 percent in the baseline.
- Nearly half said they would have taken transit and one-third would have walked if ride-hailing was not available.
- 40 percent requested a shared TNC vehicle in Phase 1 and 47 percent in Phase 3.
The study suggests that while vehicles picking-up/dropping-off passengers account for a significant share of traffic volume in SLU, they are not the primary cause of congestion. Myriad factors impact neighborhood congestion, including high vehicle volume overall and bottlenecks moving out of the neighborhood onto regional arterials. As researchers observed in the afternoon peak, these bottlenecks cause spillbacks onto local streets. Amazon garages exit vehicles onto streets that then feed into these clogged arterials.
Regarding traffic safety in SLU, this study was not designed to assess whether TNC driver behavior on average is safer or less safe than that of other vehicles. It is important to understand the safety and speed findings in the context of the SLU traffic environment. Drivers tend to drive at relatively slow speeds, navigating around high pedestrian and jaywalking volumes, and seem relatively comfortable stopping in the middle of the street for short periods of time. Due to the nature of area traffic, this seems to have relatively little impact on other drivers. Drivers appear to anticipate both this behavior and the high volumes of vehicles moving onto/off the curb and into/out of driveways and alleys.
Whether the strategy this study analyzed is recommended depends on a city’s transportation goals and approach. The researchers found the increased PLZ allocation and geofencing strategy worked in that it improved driver compliance, reduced dwell times, and boosted TNC user satisfaction. However, this may encourage commuters to use TNC. The passenger survey clearly shows that TNC service is attracting passengers who would have otherwise walked or used transit. While in the short term the increased PLZs and geofencing had a positive effect on traffic, if this induces TNC demand, there could be larger, more negative long-term consequences. If the end goal is to reduce traffic congestion, measures to reduce—rather than encourage—TNC and passenger car use as the predominant mode of commuting will yield the most substantial benefits.
In the news:
Goodchild, Anne. Giacomo dalla Chiara. Jose Luis Machado. Andisheh Ranjbari. (2019) Curb Allocation Change Project.