New parking technology aims to manage curb space virtually

“We’re effectively greasing the wheels of the delivery economy,” said Ali Vahabzadeh, founder of curbFlow.

According to Vahabzadeh, the system relies on a collection of “computer vision devices” installed in windows of participating businesses. The units, which include a camera and microprocessor, record when curb space is occupied near the shop and relay that information to the drivers. The hope is having that information in hand will enable drivers to find parking more quickly, eliminating the need to double-park or endlessly circle the block, Vahabzadeh said.

The camera records only the presence of a vehicle in a space, not the driver’s face or the vehicle’s license plate. The images are not stored, he added.

Cameras have been installed at hundreds of businesses throughout D.C., but the recent launch included only 40. Vahabzadeh said he expects more to come online, with hundreds operating by the end of the year.

He said the company chose to launch its newest product in D.C. in part because it had built relationships with many of the city’s businesses through a pilot project it did last year with the District Department of Transportation.

Curb space has become an increasingly hot commodity in cities such as D.C., New York and San Francisco. In the pre-pandemic days, ride-share services jockeyed for space alongside traditional delivery trucks, the growing number of food-delivery services and those just looking for a place to park. The resulting traffic snarls frustrated drivers and sometimes puts pedestrians and cyclists at risk when vehicles block bike lanes or ignore traffic signs.

CurbFlow is one of several companies trying to find ways to manage those spaces.

The pandemic has eased some of those tensions, but Vahabzadeh said the shift in work habits, with many people now working from home, has fueled unprecedented demand for takeout and delivery services, leading to congestion in some areas as drivers jockey for curb space to make pickups and deliveries.

That’s what led to the development of the company’s virtual curbFlow system.

“Chaos at the curb is bad for business,” he said. “People don’t want to visit a place where there’s no space.”

That is part of the reason Suzanne Simon, owner and co-founder of Chaia Tacos, signed on to curbFlow. In pre-pandemic days, most of the customers at her two shops — one in Georgetown and one in Chinatown — were walk-ins. Now the vast majority of her business comes from online orders for delivery or carryout, and she’s seen firsthand how that shift can affect parking. Stressed drivers double-park in front of her restaurants because they don’t have time to search for a space, and other customers get frustrated because they simply want to be able to dash in and get their food as quickly as possible. She’s not sure curbFlow is the answer, but she’s willing to give it a try.

“We thought, why not do our part to alleviate some of this congestion and try and make it smoother for the drivers?” she said. “It just takes the edge away.”

The units are free for businesses. CurbFlow charges the companies whose drivers use the service. It has already inked a partnership with DoorDash, the food-delivery company, and has others in the pipeline, Vahabzadeh said. Members of the public can download the app for a free seven-day trial.

“We’re always exploring ways to enhance the delivery experience for all sides of the marketplace, and partnering with curbFlow has helped restaurants operate more efficiently, while reducing Dasher pickup times by 20 percent,” said Michelle Ma, the project manager of strategy and operations at DoorDash.

“We’re excited about the benefits this will offer the DC Dasher and merchant community, and hope to expand the service to new locations down the road,” she said.

This isn’t curbFlow’s first project in D.C. In 2019, the company partnered with the District Department of Transportation for a 12-week pilot that created several temporary loading zones. Instead of having to circle around the block in search of a space, delivery drivers could reserve a spot in one of the nine temporary spots.

A subsequent evaluation of the pilot program by curbFlow found that the number of vehicles double-parked in the zones dropped 64 percent, including in areas where vehicles had previously blocked bike lanes and crosswalks.

D.C. officials, while encouraged by the findings, said they would continue to explore a variety of strategies for managing curb space and traffic congestion in the city.

For his part, Vahabzadeh sees promise in the system, which does not require special zones but simply monitors use of existing curb space. But he doesn’t rule out future collaborations with the city government. He said data collected from D.C. may help determine whether the company should expand within the Washington region.

“Cities have a lot on their plate right now with the pandemic,” he said. “Our new approach is to work directly with the merchants while cities get back on their feet, and maybe they can focus on this at some later point.”

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