The curb. That chaotic cocktail of storefronts and scooter speedways, temporary vehicle storage and pedestrian migration, valets and hotdog vendors. It’s a wildly dynamic aspect of street-level city living and arguably the most valuable asset of any given city. It’s also the most underutilized and overlooked.
Or perhaps ignored.
While curb transformation is a hot topic in any urban planning conversation, effective, long-term change means making some very politically unpopular decisions, arguably the least voter-friendly of which being the elimination of free on-street parking; another being the elimination of on-street parking altogether.
And yet, as I’ll dive into, it’s one of the leading, tested, effective, and repeatable solutions to untangling urban traffic grids—a top-five problem in almost every city across the country. It can also open more doors to revenue than many city officials (and civilians) perhaps realize.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CURB TRANSFORMATION
When their greatest potential is fulfilled, curbs offer more than just a place to park your vehicle and a footpath from Point A to Point B. They actually offer revenue opportunities for the private and the public sectors, as well as improve the health of mobility ecosystems. But unleashing that potential means addressing the problem of on-street parking.
And Step One is to eliminate it.
On the surface, it would certainly appear (especially to retail and hospitality businesses) that free parking is what draws many customers, and that customers will avoid the shopping experience if parking isn’t available. Both concepts are completely wrong.
Firstly, free parking isn’t free. The cost of parking stalls is always reflected in the price of real estate, whether that real estate owns the parking stalls in an adjoined lot or relies on on-street parking along public streets. Logically, this increase in real estate costs translates to increases in retail costs. Thus, consumers end up paying for parking in the price of their purchases.
“Free” on-street parking also leads to increases in congestion caused by circling drivers (an average of 17 hours per year, but as much as 85 to 107 in cities like LA and NYC, respectively) which diminishes the consumer experience and leads to less parking spot turnover (i.e. less revenue) for restaurants and retail stores.
Studies show that shopkeepers often overestimate the number of customers who arrive by car and that customers in many cities feel that, contrary to shopkeepers’ beliefs, “less traffic and more area improvements” would elevate their experiences.
As far as area improvements, curbs can be expanded to create personal mobility lanes, restaurant seating, valet services, and heightened pedestrian experiences such as shaded walkways and other greenery, rest areas, and kiosks. These modern curb elements themselves become consumer draws.
But to magnetize our curbs and elevate people’s experiences, on-street parking has to go.
In rare cases where on-street parking is necessary, it’s imperative that cities charge the appropriate rate for each stall. This is where the financial incentive lies.
When Santa Fe increased its rate per spot, the city brought in an additional $77,000 per month to put towards the city’s parking services, including upgrading meters to take credit cards.
Parking itself, of course, won’t disappear. Off-street garages and surface lots will be a key component to city parking, allowing curbs to be modernized by making last-mile mobility options affordable and accessible for pedestrians.
Reducing the availability of stalls would also incentivize people to use other modes of public transportation or direct them to off-street parking facilities, two results that would each help reduce traffic.
GENERATING REVENUE FROM CURB USE
Modern cities call for modern systems. And when it comes to the curb, that means accounting for emerging trends in technology and consumer behavior.
As consumers grow progressively accustomed to on-demand ordering, transit optimization may call for demand-based charges for commercial curb use.
As a theory, it’s not at all dissimilar to the way that power grids increase rates during high-use periods: those in charge of their city’s transportation grid should consider a similar approach to help handle the heightened demand of popular curb space.
To handle the increased curb demand in the absence of on-street parking, cities could vary usage costs by time of day and length of utilization for companies such as UPS, Uber, and valet operators.
It may not be popular among city-goers, but consider this: last year, UPS racked up $33 million in parking fines, while FedEx forked over around $14 million. However, these companies (among others) get out of as much as $10 million from government programs.
Implementing new advancements in artificial and visual intelligence, cities could monitor commercial use of curb space to allow companies to pay for legal curb use, without incurring violations (which come with their own labor costs) or double-parking vehicles (there would, of course, be many fewer vehicles to double park).
The same approach, applied to Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft, would also help ameliorate congestion caused by rideshare vehicles. To date, that’s as much as 30% of urban traffic.
Controlling the curb is critical to avoiding congestion caused by TNCs. But while some cases call for enforcing TNC-free zones, many cities would benefit from charging TNCs fees to utilize high-demand curb space.
Just as power companies don’t actually profit from selling power (only from delivering it), cities should not look to profit from pay-per-use curbs. These charges would bring millions to cities, which would be invest ed directly into transportation infrastructure.
And this is incredibly important.
Our infrastructure has never been reinvested in to a degree that has improved any city’s dynamic. The thing is, infrastructure is the foundation of our cities and indeed our civilization. Everything we have today is built on our country’s infrastructure, from our cell towers and electricity to our highway system and rails. In most cities today, our infrastructure—particularly that surrounding transportation—is financially broke and functionally broken. But with increased revenue from evolved mobility strategies, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this.
These solutions may perhaps sound counter intuitive, but they’re backed by ample research and testing, and being implemented to smaller degrees in cities around the world. In the same way that we update our smartphone’s OS, we must finally start updating our cities’ operating systems—and transportation is a necessary start.
Though the above solutions may not be immediately popular among the general public, they’re two critical steps to reducing congestion, increasing commercial and government revenue, and realizing our cities’ best asset in a way that helps usher us into Tomorrowland sooner than we may ever expect.