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The Pandemic is Extending Your Building’s Experience to the Curb

One of the biggest pitfalls of customer experience planning when it comes to real estate is to neglect what the resident goes through before he or she gets to your property. There is a development called Prairie Crossing not too far from my house that achieved some headlines when it was first built years ago for its emphasis on conservation: It has a functional farm onsite and adheres to conservation principles like biodiversity, native landscaping and stormwater management. It was even located next to a major area train station. But, despite its progressive morals, it has struggled to get traction. I can’t help but pin some of the development’s long-term retail leasing woes to the presence of an enormous landfill adjacent to the property, ensuring anyone who would hope to visit or live there to stomach the sights and smells of trash to get to work. 

In a related vein, parking is often a neglected component of the guest experience. Modern American parking garages in big cities, which guests are expected to accept before their upscale shopping trips, are often ugly and impersonal. Surface lots are often no better as they can be difficult to access, accident-causing, and rage-inducing. It doesn’t matter how much thought is put into the design of a building if parking is difficult. Parking can have a profound impact on someone’s psychology before they even make it through the front door. 

Our collective experience struggling with retail access through COVID-19 is teaching us a similar lesson. Stores in competitive niches have had to figure out how to offer curbside pickup if they want to stay successful. This is easy in some places. Properties with large and well-designed parking lots have a much easier time than in others. But not all sites are equal, even for the same company. My personal experience using Walmart pick-up with a huge parking lot in Arizona was easy and quick, while the one I visited in Illinois, with a cramped, crowded parking lot, was slow and stressful. 

It isn’t just shopping centers that need to worry about access. For service providers as diverse as barbers, niche grocers and even tax preparers, drive-up or drive-through options are more than just a nice plus. It’s interesting to note, then, how many cities still line their streets with traditional coin-based parking meters. Even those more modern ones, which allow payment via phone app, still seem like a bit of a missed opportunity, both in terms of urban data collection as well as providing other services to city goers.

Dan Hubert is founder and CEO of Appyway, a parking and mobility tech company that provides a range of tools including traffic software, sensors and wayfinding to make parking lots less stressful, and connected payments and navigation to help customers identify specific pick-up areas within a parking lot or along the street. He told me that the future of interactions between person, road, and building is “curbside-as-a-service.” This concept transforms the margins of the street into frictionless, interactive zones where parking is pain-free, and services can be provided to people and their cars that much easier. Filling pickup orders quicker thanks to better data sharing between cars, smartphones and order runners can minimize waiting times and help keep spaces open for more customer flow. 

“The whole curbside becomes a drive through,” said Mr. Hubert. The final form of the system, he told me, is integration with buildings and local transit networks. “Shops can sponsor sensors” with an amount of prepaid meter time to offer their patrons free parking, he added. And by harnessing parking data at the network level, buses and ridesharing can be directed more effectively based on supply and demand throughout the city.

The opportunities that could come from activating the curb are bountiful. Ever been to a Sonic Drive-In restaurant? If a family of 6 can be fully fed in comfort in their car, why not push that model out to new horizons? Restaurants balancing the need to abide by COVID-19 mandates while trying to stay afloat during the winter could allow patrons to eat in their own cars, whether the cuisine is cheeseburgers or cheese platters. Office visitor management systems could become aware of guests before they even walk through the door. Neighboring stores in the same shopping center could detect the arrival of a guest for pickup, and cue up a coupon or deal through their own app. And landlords of retail or office would have a chance to gain an additional window of data into their occupiers themselves, and their occupiers guests and customers.

There are even farther reaching implications of turning the curb into a service center. Bus routes could be planned with built-in stops for particular purposes, like grocery pickup. This would allow people without reliable personal transportation to more efficiently pick up larger grocery orders. And perhaps one day, our vehicles themselves will adapt to facilitate the exchange of goods and services. I recently wrote about how the new Ford F-150 truck is designed to allow remote work from within it, with features like a center console that transforms into a desk space. And automated tailgate opening and closing already facilitates grocery pickup. In the next decade, if the risk of transmissible disease persists, these trends may evolve into cars and buses that are equipped to make eating, shopping, and working easier and more convenient, from the driver’s seat. 

Think beyond existing parking lots. There are over four million miles of road in the country. Imagine if some or even much of that space turns into individual drive-in flex space cubicles or conference rooms.  What kind of impact would that have on the office market? It may be hard to conceptualize now but with true self-driving technology becoming closer and closer to reality, it isn’t a pipe dream. Networked automobiles could more efficiently use less space, leaving us with the question of what to do with all of our highways and passing lanes. And when the day comes that your car knows right where the nearest “collaboration pullout” is, with its four parking spaces, secure wifi network and projector screen ready to go, why would you and your three teammates drive to the office for a 1-hour meeting when the road is 15 minutes closer to home? 

It’s interesting to think about the relationship between our buildings and the systems and spaces that allow people to access them. The pandemic has brought this relationship into the limelight, as people everywhere learn anew how to access goods and services. Roads and cars may seem like the margins of user experience for all types of commercial spaces, but with new technologies and norms in 2020 and beyond, these margins are rapidly becoming the center of attention.

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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