Curbside management — what is it good for? Covid-19 tells us: a lot.

By Camron Bridgford, Principal, Cityfi

It goes without saying after these many months that Covid-19 turned our world upside down. As the pandemic impacted many of our individual decisions — from exercise routines to spending habits to commute patterns — it also created a fundamental shift in many areas of the collective. From underscoring racial inequities in our communities; to upending beliefs about what the workplace should look like; to shifting our perceptions of how public spaces can be used to promote health, safety and wellbeing, Covid-19 led cities to think differently about how to meet the needs of their communities.

In no place has this shift been more on display than at the curbs of our cities. The curb used to only be thought of as the place to park your car for a short-term visit to a restaurant or museum or grocery store. But as communities become more urbanized, modes of mobility multiply, and commerce delivery explodes (who reading this is guilty of using Amazon’s two-day delivery?), the curb finds itself in, well, an awkward position — having exactly the same amount of space as before, but with rapidly increasing demands for its use.

Image: Curbed.com

“Mobility experts argue that the limiting factor for urban mobility will be land, not affordability, in the future. As urban density increases, congestion increases exponentially…Some of the largest cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have seen congestion increases of 20–35% since 2010.”
The Future of the Last Mile Ecosystem, World Economic Forum, January 2020

In a way, Covid-19’s effect on the curb has excited those of us at Cityfi (or, at least me!). During the pandemic, many cities quickly and nimbly figured out how to use the curb and right of way to better meet the needs of their residents and businesses, whether to allow parklets for outdoor dining; closing off streets for socially distanced recreating, walking and biking; or offering up public space to encourage art and small business commerce.

It was these rapid changes during such trying times that has further underscored the growing importance of the curb to cities. In an era of tightening municipal budgets, the curb is one of a city’s most valuable assets. It is also true that currently, many cities are still struggling with how to best manage curb demand in a way that incentives the behavior they want to see (e.g., reduced congestion, prioritization of vulnerable groups and transit riders, use of the curb that actually aligns with localized needs and context).

It was with this mindset that Cityfi worked with numerous clients in 2020 on strategizing curb management, including the City of Minneapolis’ Department of Public Works and Transportation for America’s Smart Cities Collaborative (T4A). With T4A, Cityfi contributed to reports that looked at long-term policy and standards recommendations for the curb, as well as near-term case studies of how cities leveraged their curb during Covid-19, both which added to a small but growing pool of resources on curbside management lessons learned and best practices.

Credit: Transportation for America

Reflecting on this work, it becomes evident that the most intentional and flexible strategies ever implemented by cities en masse to manage the curb happened during the pandemic, as municipalities were forced to adapt to changing circumstances. However, Covid-19 begs a bigger question: which of these changes will only stick around for the short-term, and which will linger as a longer-term side effect that help cities to reframe their curb as a valuable tool to promote the public good in the right of way?

While the answer isn’t quite yet known, one thing is certain: longer-term changes at the curb that truly promote equity, flexibility, adaptability and efficiency in a globalizing world will require a fundamental shift in thinking. Not only in how cities view their management of the curb as a conduit for living their values and priorities, but in how they communicate this sea change to all their stakeholders, including residents, tourists, small businesses, and yes, even other city staff.

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Cityfi

Cityfi advises cities, corporations, foundations and start-ups to help catalyze change in a global, complex urban landscape. Twitter: @teamcityfi