The Curb is Everything

The curbside has long been overlooked and is playing a growing role in our increasingly multimodal society.  It was a main topic of conversation when I attended the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Conference in Los Angeles earlier this month. During one of the sessions, the Parking Manager of Pasadena, CA, Jon Hamblen, proclaimed, “the curb is everything.” During a separate session, the Director of DDOT, Jeff Marootian, asserted that “the curbside is the most precious asset in any city.”

What is the curbside, fundamentally? Why is it valuable? What are its possible uses? And what is the best way to allocate these uses?

 

The curb is a transitional piece of infrastructure that separates the pedestrian-only portion of the street (the sidewalk) from the vehicle-only part of the street (the road, or, well, the street). If you find yourself either as a pedestrian or operator of a vehicle on the wrong side, you might land yourself a fine or even some time in jail. The curb is solidly delineated by the physical edge of the sidewalk, while the curbside is a bit more conceptual. In the simplest terms, the curbside refers to the vehicle lane next to the curb, but typically only when it’s being used as something other than a motor vehicle travel lane. In a practical sense, the concept of the curbside is really only relevant when we’re talking about roads with 2+ lanes in a given direction, as most curbside use inhibits or impedes motor vehicle travel. To complicate things a bit, when the curbside lane is occupied, the next lane over becomes the de facto curbside, hence the issue of double parking (see: departures and arrivals zones at airports).

A pickup truck with the passenger side door opening onto the sidewalk

The curbside is so valuable because it facilitates a safe transition from street to sidewalk.

The curbside is valuable precisely because of its status as a portal between the pedestrian and vehicle worlds, conferring with it the safety and efficiency of not having to move people and goods across lanes of moving traffic. Motor vehicle parking has been the near-ubiquitous king of the curbside for a long time. But as cycling, rideshare use and package delivery are on the rise, cities are starting to take a hard look at who exactly should get to use the curbside, and when (not to mention – how to commoditize it).

 

Curbside uses include:

  1. Transit. Bus stops must have dedicated curb access for people to board and disembark safely onto the sidewalk. Bus lanes are sometimes built into the curbside lane so as not to inhibit traffic while switching lanes to the bus stop. However, BRT routes often run buses (and install bus stops) in the center lanes to avoid curbside conflicts.
  2. Cyclists. The active transportation planning revolution is underway, and bicycle/scooter lanes are being built all around the world at a steady clip. They are most frequently allocated the curbside lane, meaning that, hypothetically, all other vehicle uses are barred from that lane – though many have taken on the brave cause of pointing out vehicles illegally using the bike lane. Like pretty much all other uses of the curbside lane, bike lanes by the curb are intended to keep cyclists safe from moving vehicles, though they have several major flaws:
    – Cyclists must leave the bike lane and maneuver through traffic to make a left turn.
    – Vehicles turning right in front of curbside bike lanes hit cyclists at an alarming rate – this dangerous and sometimes deadly situation is known as a “right hook.”
  1. Vehicle Parking. This is likely the most common use of the curbside aside from vehicle travel. Unlike some other uses, parking can actually generate revenue for a city, with a few caveats:
    – On-street parking should be appropriately priced so that only 85% of parking spaces are occupied at any given time (see: Donald Shoup, who also spoke at NACTO). This will almost always mean dynamic pricing; that is, pricing that changes based on traffic volumes (time of day, day of the week).
    – While parking can generate revenue for a city, it may not be the best generator of economic activity for area businesses (see 5. TNC/Taxi pickup/dropoff zone). In fact, business owners often overestimate how valuable parking is to their business traffic.

    Pedestrians, a UPS delivery truck and parked cars share the curb area.

    Pedestrians, a UPS delivery truck and parked cars share the curb area.

  1. Freight & City Services. For example, mail delivery and garbage trucks. As online delivery services such as Amazon grow, we will see increased need for mail delivery trucks to use the curb. In most places, people are accustomed to garbage trucks picking up and emptying garbage cans right off the curb. Businesses that stock any kind of material good also need curbside space for delivery trucks to drop off goods – they can purchase a permit for this use, which generates revenue for the city. One alternative to the congestion exacerbated by delivery trucks is to have them deliver at off-peak hours, though in many cases this would require someone to be present at the business at night to accept the delivery.
  2. TNC’s. Specifically, pickup and drop-off zones. In areas with heavy TNC use, allocating space specifically for this purpose could help reduce congestion from double-parked cars picking up and dropping off passengers. TNC’s might even pay good money for this space to facilitate services and increase safety for their customers, giving cities a non-parking method to monetize the curbside. In areas and at times with high TNC use, allocating space for pickups and drop-offs may generate more economic activity than parking since the possible volume of people entering and exiting the space is much higher.
  3. Pedestrians. Extending the curb through so-called bump-outs for increased pedestrian safety and visibility make the concept of the curbside a moot point by reducing 4+ lanes to 2 (for example). This can be done by extending out the actual curb infrastructure, or by merely placing bollards in the curbside lane.
  4. Nothing. “Daylighting” intersections by prohibiting parked/stopped vehicles by curb near the intersection increases visibility for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians alike, creating a safe environment to cross busy streets in any of the modes mentioned above.
No Parking during School Hours Sign

Many curbsides already have variable uses, such as this No Parking 7AM-5PM on School Days.

The challenge cities are facing now is how to accommodate these competing uses. To determine who gets to use the curb in a given area, cities will have to examine their goal for that area. Is the goal to generate the most possible economic activity? To create an equitable, safe street, accessible for various demographics? To build a bike- and pedestrian-friendly zone? Ultimately, the most efficient use of the curbside will be not to allocate it exclusively to any one user but to make its use variable throughout the day or week and along various parts of the street, after all safety concerns have been addressed. For example, a quarter of the curb lane on a given block might be reserved only for transit, while the rest might be used for parking 7AM to 6PM, TNC drop-off from 6PM to 3AM, and a commercial loading zone from 3AM to 7AM.This way, a wide variety of uses and users will be able to take full advantage of this critical infrastructure, in a way that best serves cities and the people in them.

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4 Responses to The Curb is Everything

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke October 24, 2018 at 10:04 am #

    Not to mention sidewalk cafés and food trucks, etc.

  2. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell October 25, 2018 at 11:27 am #

    Your comments on bicycling are very Amero-centric and ignore what has been learned in Europe and elsewhere that painted bicycle lanes are not safe on most streets and that most people, about 95-97%, do not feel safe using them.

    Curb protected bikeways are the standard in The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and increasingly elsewhere. France and Spain, among others, are installing curb protected bikeways at a rapid clip.

    • Brian October 26, 2018 at 8:38 am #

      Would the alternative of doing nothing be better? Cities can’t even afford to repave streets let alone do expensive rebuilds that include protected bike lanes. It isn’t just adding a second curb inside the existing curb. You either have to redo the storm drains to move them out to the new curb, or make provisions for storm water from the street to drain through the bikeway to the storm drains.

      We certainly should have protected bike lanes, but I doubt a referendum to raise taxes for protected bike lanes would pass in most cities.

  3. Nicole Salica
    Nicole Salica October 28, 2018 at 10:09 pm #

    dynamic pricing for on-street parking? I love it.

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