Don't curb your enthusiasm: A 'radical' way to reinvent city streets is at your feet
Don't curb your enthusiasm: A 'radical' way to reinvent city streets is at your feet
Nobody ever said, "Curbsides are cool."
Perhaps that’s why we so often overlook curbs — one of a city’s most valuable assets. Everyone wants to work on expanding small business districts, improving health and education outcomes and leveraging data and technology to transform cities (because that’s all the rage these days).
But curbs? Curbs don’t get the attention they deserve.
I touched briefly on this oversight during a recent episode of "Longitudes Radio," which explored how businesses can help curb (excuse the pun) congestion. But true to form, I felt curbs deserved more attention.
A place to innovate
If you’re looking for a place to innovate, curbsides should be up your alley. Transportation design guidelines speak to the design and outfitting of curbs, but there is tremendous variability of curbside design between cities. New York isn’t Chicago, Chicago isn’t Los Angeles and Los Angeles definitely isn’t Paris or Mexico City.
The design of curbsides — and determining their purpose — actually plays a huge role in other aspects of city life. Perhaps the most tangible of these impacts is how parking availability — or the lack thereof — in turn influences traffic patterns and congestion.
We’ve all done it — circle the block a few times to find a spot close to our destination. And if a recent survey is in any indication, we’ve actually done it a lot — in fact, to the tune of 17 hours for each American driver on average.
Put simply, what happens on the curbside directly affects what happens on the street, both in terms of social and business connectivity. Curbsides are city focal points — what happens on them matters.
Conventional wisdom suggests the answer to issues such as circling for parking is just more parking. "Build it and they will come," though, is only half right — yes, they will come, and yes, you once again will not have enough parking.
Meanwhile, our cities are already filled with streets and parking. About 40 percent of a city’s land area is devoted to streets, according to estimates, with much of that space devoted to parking. Meanwhile, some statistics have shown that on average, cars spend about 95 percent of the time parked and only 5 percent of the time in actual use.
In other words, roughly 15 percent of a city’s total real estate is for parking. It’s completely inactive, and in most cases, not even assessed the market value for that real estate.
The true cost of parking
These costs are mostly hidden to consumers. We drive, we park and maybe we complain a bit about how the cost of parking went up from $1 an hour to $2.50.
But here’s the reality: When adjusted for real estate and tax valuation, that’s nowhere near the true cost of parking. In nearly all cases, cities simply don’t price their curbsides at the going market rate — they’re vastly below market. This, in turn, incentivizes driving as the dominant transportation mode.
Not to pile on curbsides as the problem children of cities, but we’re just getting started. Curbside management — how they’re signed, what’s legal and what’s not, what’s intended and what’s not — plays a huge role in the life of a city. And just like real estate cost, common use and management of curbsides often are at odds with other stated priorities and what’s most valuable.
This issue is on full display, even in a forward-thinking, progressive transportation city such as Washington, D.C. The city’s stated transportation hierarchy of needs is basically:
- Safety and preventing pedestrian and traffic fatalities (seems like a good and prudent thing to put up top)
- Shared mobility and public transit (seems prudent again because providing transportation options is the real way to reduce congestion, environmental impacts and inequality)
- Commerce — moving goods and services (every city needs jobs and businesses to thrive)
- Personal vehicles
Go out to any D.C. curbside, though, and what you’d find is far different. Most block faces are personal vehicle parking — in fact, for every commercial loading zone in D.C., there are upwards of 520 personal vehicle spots.
That imbalance of curbside use is like a disturbance in the Force — its ripple effects can be felt light years away. When there aren’t enough loading zones, trucks double park. When trucks double park, cyclists can’t reach the bike lane.
When cyclists are moving back into traffic, cars and buses feel the squeeze, and maybe the public transit operator doesn’t pull all the way into the bus stop, which similarly causes traffic to go around the bus, almost like a double-parked truck.
And then there’s the Uber or Lyft driver that’s pulled to the side, the taxi cab behind him and someone does a U-turn but then needs to do a three-point turn to avoid a pedestrian crossing the street, and so on.
The curbsides of today just aren’t working. And because many cities are already planning to address a variety of transportation issues raised by the impending arrival of autonomous cars, now is actually the perfect time to reexamine our curbsides and make the necessary changes. Future city residents will thank us if we can push for these solutions:
1. Aligning curbside use and transportation priorities
Future curbsides should be less focused on personal vehicles and more focused on everything else. A future transportation network of autonomous cars, perhaps even operating as a shared mobility platform or under a subscription model, compounds this reality.
Remember that cars spend 95 percent of the time out of service, so it’s likely that future transportation systems will rely on increasingly shared assets. It’s not quite the American Dream circa 1950, but it’s a radically simplified approach that’s more affordable and sustainable.
Meanwhile, how we physically design curbside infrastructure needs to be overhauled to truly integrate different transportation modes, while recognizing the importance of commercial diversity.
It might sound like we’re demanding a lot from the curbside, but the current reality is that we’re demanding very little. Future curbsides will be safer, easier to deliver on and better for walking and biking, among other uses.
2. Market pricing for curbsides everywhere
You thought parking tickets were bad? Just wait until you see the market price of parking on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
All kidding aside, this is a crucial next step for cities, even if it’s politically unpopular.
As ridiculous as it might seem to those spending $15 per hour on parking, it’s even more ridiculous that free parking exists throughout New York City, even for non-residents.
3. Greater integration of technology and data-based platforms
The curbsides of the future will be tech-enabled and enforced. Already it’s possible to envision future integration of parking availability sensors with mapping APIs and other transportation technology solutions, so we spend less time looking for parking.
Meanwhile, as other parts of the curbside open up to other uses, such as e-commerce delivery and transportation network providers, you might see auto-enforcement of those parking areas.
Computer vision technology, street cameras and advanced sensor tech also will provide cities and planners with greater visibility about what’s happening on their streets, and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity (and vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity) will provide exponentially more efficient curbside use and optimization.
4. Fewer curbsides, period
Perhaps the most radical realization of these solutions is to re-envision existing curbsides and streets for other uses.
If cities are wrestling with a lack of available real estate and burgeoning population growth, they could do worse than to reexamine 40 percent of their available land area. Predictions are that nearly 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, so now’s the time to take a hard look at how we’re using what we have.
The even more intriguing benefit could be additional opportunities for small business and retail growth, transforming parking spaces into entirely new forms of development.
Where the rubber meets the road
By no means are these solutions exhaustive, but they speak to the hidden power of curbsides to make a difference in cities.
City leaders are looking for ways to compete in a global economy, attract talent, reduce environmental impacts and generally improve quality of life.
Addressing curbside issues isn’t cool, but what’s possible through them might be. They are, after all, where the rubber meets the road.