Eight years ago, there was no such thing as Uber or Lyft. Taxis were around, but they only made around one percent of all vehicle trips in San Francisco. Fast forward to now, and ride hailing companies make up around 15 percent of all trips that start and end within the city — an estimated 170,000 rides per day.
All this traffic has put the curb in high demand for passenger drop-offs. Should the city therefore give Lyft and Uber drivers more space to unload their passengers?
Bike lane blockers
Night is falling on Valencia and 16th streets in the Mission. Kids are coming home from school, grown ups are coming home from work, and the bars are starting to fill up.
Every couple minutes, another car with an Uber or Lyft sticker pulls over into the bike lane.
This time it’s a large silver Honda. Three passengers jaywalk across Valencia, pop open the trunk, and load in a couple bags. Then they open the doors on both sides of the car, and get in. Every biker going by, including parents with children in buggy trailers, swerves into traffic to avoid them.
Valencia is one of the city’s most popular destinations for ride hailing. It also has one of the city’s first painted bike lanes, and is a busy biking route. This particular combination has made Valencia a flashpoint for bicycle activists in the city. The street is now a hot spot for bike injuries, according to city reports.
We don’t know how many of those injuries result from ride hailing. But the SFPD reported that last spring, Lyft and Uber drivers were responsible for two-thirds of all traffic violations downtown.
No one foresaw how fast ride hailing would take over.
“We’ve been caught unprepared,” says Brian Wiedenmeier, director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. The uses of the streets “are changing a lot faster than the city I think had anticipated.”
Mayor Lee offered more loading zones to ride hailing companies
The late Mayor Ed Lee had a dilemma. Uber and Lyft were two incredibly successful local companies — part of the tech boom Mayor Lee helped encourage.
But they also crowded city streets with cars doing dangerous things.
Wiedenmeier says the mayor was caught between a desire to support local companies, and the need to address “the negative consequences to safety and congestion that those companies were also creating.”
In May 2017, Mayor Lee’s office reached out to Lyft and Uber for a potential, partial solution. He suggested that the city and the companies work together to make new loading zones, based on where they would be most needed.
Debs Schrimmer, Lyft’s point-person for those talks, describes the idea as a way to update the street for the way travel is increasingly happening.
“Today, the majority of our curb space is being given away for parking,” says Schrimmer, “which doesn't necessarily create a space for other modes of transportation to have access to the curb.”
The loading zones in this pilot program could be used by Lyft, Uber, or anyone else making deliveries. That could make drop-offs easier and safer.
As part of the agreement, the city would get a piece of something else they had wanted for a long time: data about where Uber and Lyft rides were happening.
So Lee’s office met with staff from Lyft and Uber, and they narrowed down a list of streets to try out the pilot. Then, in December 2017, Mayor Lee died of a heart attack.
The talks are still going under Mayor Mark Farrell, but they lost some momentum.
Coveting the curbside
Wiedenmeier, with the bike coalition, says Lyft and Uber could improve safety now, without waiting to get more curb space.
“They've had the ability” to make safety changes in their apps “for years now,” he says.
For example, Wiedenmeier says the companies could use technology called “geofencing,” which is like building a virtual fence to protect designated areas of the street. The app can tell drivers to do pickups or drop-offs outside of a certain zone.
Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Jeff Sheehy have asked Lyft and Uber put a geofence around Valencia, so that drivers have to use side streets instead.
Debs Schrimmer from Lyft says geofencing works in some cases -- they already do it to control drop offs at the Caltrain station.
But she maintains that Valencia just needs more and better loading zones.
The reason, she says, is that ride hailing “isn't the only service that is causing complications in the bike lane for people who ride down Valencia Street.”
Schrimmer rattles off a list of other services that are also using up more and more curb space.
“There’s increased demand from car share, from bike share,” notes Schrummer, plus on-demand delivery from “TaskRabbit and Postmates and Caviar, as well as the logistics and goods movement from Amazon FedEx and U.P.S.”
Globally, the total volume of package deliveries doubled between 2014 and 2016, according to the Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index.
Robo-car gridlock hell
If you think the curb is in high demand now, experts think that another new technology is likely to make the curb even more active: Driverless vehicles. Dropping off a package or a person could be much cheaper if you don’t have to pay a driver.
Susan Shaheen, a transportation researcher at UC Berkeley, says if that happens, “the demand for that curb space access is going to grow by orders of magnitude from what we see today.”
Founders of both Lyft and Uber have proposed a future in which most people stop owning private cars. Instead, they want us to get around using a cheaper, driverless version of Lyft or Uber.
That’s a scenario where cars might not need to park as often. So in theory, we could dedicate much more space for pickups and drop-offs.
But Shaheen says we should think twice before we remove all that parking, especially if — contrary to the vision of ride-hailing companies — many driverless cars are individually owned.
“Because where are these automated vehicles going to go?” asks Schrimmer. “It would almost force them to be in constant motion.”
Basically, if we don’t provide enough parking, autonomous cars could end up just roaming the streets in some kind of robo-car gridlock hell.
“So ultimately we're still going to need some parking, and we're certainly going to need curb space access,” says Shaheen.
Shaheen says policymakers should think carefully about who gets to shape the future of the curb. The companies that dominate today may not have the solutions for a future we still barely understand.
If we’re not careful, today’s “market leaders potentially create an environment in which new companies can't gain access to that curb space,” says Shaheen. “Those innovations that we haven't even thought of yet.”
Drivers in a tight spot
Meanwhile, as politicians and corporations jockey for influence over the future of the curb, people who use it every day are still caught in the battle for space.
Take Vinicios Moraes, a Lyft driver I met while reporting this story who graciously agreed to do a mobile interview.
Moraes came to San Francisco from Brazil eleven years ago. Throughout his time in the city, he’s delivered just about everything: Pizza. Packages. People. He wishes there was more space in the city for drop-offs.
“That would be awesome,” says Moraes. He says it would prevent drivers from double-parking so often.
Moraes says he once got a ticket for pulling over illegally, like a lot of rideshare drivers. In his case, by stopping in a bus lane that he thought was poorly signed.
The drop off ”took us like probably ten seconds,” says Moraes.
The ticket cost $150.
“Yeah. That's not fun,” laughs Moraes.
Moraes drives me back to Valenica Street, where cars, bikes, parklets, and Uber drivers are all vying for a piece of the curb. He confirms that — yes — it is an especially difficult street to drop off riders.
To let me out, Moraes pulls out of traffic and into a little alleyway. Technically we’re blocking it, but no one’s coming, so… whatever.
I gave him five stars.
This is part three of a three-part series, Curb Wars, on the future of the curb.