Curbside space for Uber and Lyft? It’s coming to Boston — and is already in Somerville and Cambridge
Uber and Lyft are flooding the streets of cities across the country — including in Boston, where a ride started every single second in 2017, on average. The least they can do, officials figure, is not double-park when they pick up riders.
Boston is the latest city that’s planning to establish curb spaces for ride-hailing pickups and drop-offs, as transportation officials nationwide call for “curb management” policies to cut down on drivers stopping in the middle of streets to start or end a ride.
In many ways, it’s a modern take on an old idea; in a speech on Thursday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh described Boston’s upcoming test of a dedicated ride-hailing space in the Fenway as “similar to cab stands.”
Yet they are still relatively uncommon in big downtown or commercial areas, said Harry Campbell, an industry analyst who blogs about Uber and Lyft at TheRideshareGuy.com.
“I’ve been kind of surprised, but also a little disappointed, because it would have a pretty positive impact for the riders, for the drivers, and for cities when it comes to congestion,” Campbell said.
“A lot of congestion is caused by people double-parking, or stopping where they shouldn’t be. And picking up and dropping off passengers is the hardest part of the job.”
Washington has been among the leaders. The city has set up six pullover areas in popular precincts, said Jeffrey Marootian, director of D.C.’s transportation department. While the designated spots have helped traffic flow, Marootian said that the city’s primary goal was improving safety.
“One of the problems we sought to solve for was pedestrians and users of [ride-hailing] vehicles having to walk into travel lanes to access their vehicles,” he said.
Marootian said the loading zones have been a success, with small-business owners and elected officials calling for more of them across the city. But they differ from what Boston’s planning in a key way, he said: They do not require riders to go to the dedicated area. In Boston, the companies’ apps will not allow riders who are near a pickup zone to request a ride from any other location — marking a big change from the door-to-door service the companies have provided so far in Boston.
Southern California has a similar dedicated space in West Hollywood; elsewhere, as in Chicago, the ride companies may direct their riders to side streets off of busy thoroughfares. Uber and Lyft also often direct riders to specific pickup points near sports venues and convention centers.
Other cities have sought some form of compensation for the curbside access. At one point, San Francisco was planning to launch several pickup areas; in exchange, Uber would provide coveted ride data. That program apparently was never launched. And some transportation advocates have argued that Uber and Lyft should pay for access to the curb.
Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, said the city is not asking for ride-hailing companies to pay for the space because the areas will also be available to the general public, such as when a husband drops off his wife.
The Fenway pickup zone will be the first established by the city government, though it’s not an entirely new concept in Boston. On their own, Uber and Lyft already direct riders to designated pickup spots near South Station. And riders who request rides from Logan International Airport are redirected via the app to a designated parking lot. More pickup zones could emerge, depending on the success of the program in the Fenway.
Somerville and Cambridge have also established pickup zones — in Assembly, Davis, and Union squares and along part of Massachusetts Avenue.
Somerville’s transportation director, Brad Rawson, said the pickup spots, which are also available to taxis and the general public, have helped cut down on double-parking in Davis Square. But, he warned, it’s not a perfect system, because some drivers still let riders out before they reach the spot.
“It is very challenging to enforce,” he said. “I would describe this as an important step in a larger evolution in how municipalities are managing curbside space.”
The transportation director Cambridge Joseph Barr, said the city may add similar zones in Harvard and Central squares in the future.
Uber and Lyft say they support the Boston project.
“These zones will not only make moving around the area more convenient and frictionless, but it can meaningfully reduce congestion and improve the experience for drivers, riders, and the Greater Boston community,” said Lyft spokeswoman Campbell Matthews.
But the companies have been less keen about another Walsh administration proposal to cut down on ride-hailing traffic: It would drastically increase the 20-cents-per-ride fee levied on ride-hailing trips, especially on those taken by solo passengers. The idea is to encourage riders to share trips, with multiple passengers traversing a similar route being matched up — leading to fewer cars on the road.
Instead, company officials have said they favor broader “congestion pricing” schemes that would charge all drivers who enter congested downtown areas, not just the ride-hailing drivers.
Changing the fees would require the Legislature to act. And Governor Charlie Baker said this week that increased ride-hailing fees are not “on our radar at this point.”