Rethinking the humble curb
Cities all over the world use curbside parking as a way to generate revenue. New York City collected almost $214 million in 2017 and $228 million in 2018 from parking meters. Meanwhile, Chicago’s parking meter system brought in $132.7 million in 2018. On top of that, these same cities made a substantial amount more in parking tickets. New York raked in $545,000,000 while Chicago brought in $264,000,000 just in parking ticket fines in 2017.
At the same time, the transportation landscape in North American cities has changed quite dramatically in the last five to 10 years – COVID-19 changes notwithstanding. Many new modes of personal mobility, such as ride-hailing, bike sharing, electric scooters and private transit – along with on-demand food delivery services – all compete with more traditional modes for space on the streets and at the curbs.
Consider this: the global ride sharing market size is projected to reach nearly $12 billion by 2025, according to a report by Grand View Research. In addition, the global Last Mile Delivery market for e-commerce was valued at $3.2 billion in 2018. This means delivery trucks double park to drop off and pick up goods while ride-sharing services might be circling the block several times waiting on their passengers, or blocking bike lanes. Clearly, the curb is the new “cool kid.”
With all these changes, competition for curb space is increasing. That competition results in more congestion and more conflicts between modes of transportation. As more people, more services, and more companies compete for curbside access, there needs to be constant thought about how this valuable space is allocated and managed.
Limited curb space needs to be more flexible, dynamic, and responsive to a city’s changing transportation landscape, and its diverse users. Cities can no longer meet 21st Century pressures at the curbside while maintaining 20th Century techniques. Cities would do well to anticipate current and future demand for curb access.
With curb space in high demand, curb functions that provide the highest level of access for a given amount of space along the curb needs to be prioritized. Keep in mind: 80 feet of curb space can serve four private automobiles (possibly as few as four individuals), 22 mopeds or motorcycles, 32 shared bikes, or a single 40 ft coach bus that can serve 63 individuals.
When there is a high demand for e-scooters and e-bikes, they are often left on the curb which can completely block curb space that might otherwise be used for parking private cars, pickup or drop-off of a rider on a ride haling service like Uber or Lyft, or a transit vehicle.
The reason cities, counties, and municipalities are prioritizing the curb is because once a vehicle parks curbside, no other users can access this space. But, it is important to remember that curb space is flexible and can be reassigned by changing signs and curbside colors. The challenge becomes creating a system that causes the least possible disturbance to the flow of traffic while maintaining productivity for the public transit, ride-hailing, and last mile delivery services.
Some examples of cities creating flexible curb space include:
- Washington, D.C: In 2017, the city began experimenting with the reallocation of curbside space from private vehicle parking to pick-up and drop-off zones for ride-hailing services with the primary goal of decreasing traffic congestion. Washington further expanded this program in 2019, by enabling delivery services to use the reserved curb space as commercial loading and unloading areas. This method of curbside management provides ride hailing and delivery vehicles with the necessary space to safely stop and drop-off/pick up passengers, load and unload packages.
- The City of Rotterdam: This city has been experimenting with temporary allocation of curb space, re-purposing what was once considered on-street parking only to restaurant terraces, public space for bike parking, or pick-up/drop-off areas. Implementing these changes temporarily enabled the city to consider the reaction of the public and gain acceptance for permanent changes later on.
Managing the Curb
Some cities have embraced new policies and tools to make the new types of sustainable transportation safer, convenient, and reliable. But, those policies conflict and can be completely dismantled if the curb is not properly monitored. Cities and municipalities need dedicated bus lanes that speed up transit, protected bike lanes that separate bikes from cars, and sidewalk extensions that increase safety for people walking. Once the country, and the world, return to normal after the pandemic, cities will want to expand sidewalks so pedestrians will not be forced to walk cheek-to-cheek as they do in cities like New York or Miami.
In person or video observations are the best way to assess parking and loading conditions. The use of time lapse video cameras mounted to vertical streetlight or other utility poles can be a great way to study how curbs are used throughout the day and throughout the week.
Cities and municipalities need to prepare strategic plans for curb space, including a suite of recommended tools, policies, legislative changes, design standards and improvements. The strategies should follow six key objectives:
- Advance a holistic planning approach
- Accommodate growing loading needs
- Increase compliance with parking and loading regulations
- Improve access to up-to-date data
- Rationalize policies towards private users of curb space
- Promote equity and accessibility
There is no question that the curb is a valuable and finite resource with many different types of users, some of them competing and some of them complimentary.
The bottom line is that with all these changes, the competition for curb space is increasing, resulting in more congestion and conflict between modes of transportation and people. So as people, services, and companies vie for access, cities need to reimagine how this valuable space is allocated and managed. Cities large and small must begin to study how their curbs are used to create and develop a strategy that can work for their particular jurisdiction.
Wes Guckert, PTP, is president and CEO of The Traffic Group, a leading Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business traffic engineering and transportation planning firm serving clients nationally and internationally. He is also a Fellow of ITE and Instructor at Harvard University.