Curbside Enthusiasm: Development Arrested


Curbside Enthusiasm: Development Arrested

by Daniel Wendlek

The Challenge: 20th Century Residue 

Private-vehicle parking first. Then trash collection. Perhaps commercial vehicles next. And last (and least), access to the commons, commerce and transit. This vestigial hierarchy of priorities for a typical New York City curbside─at 6” to 7” tall, a small step for many humans─has become a massive stumbling block as the city struggles to keep pace with rapid developments in today’s dynamic delivery and transit marketplaces. On-street parking needs, commercial vehicle expansion, and population growth citywide in the past decade alone have conspired to make demands on curbsides that were inconceivable in the 20th Century. 

No longer a place just for dog-walkers and home buyers, the curb is developing a fresh appeal. With M- and E-commerce, app-based services and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), for example, now creating radical levels of competition for access, cities today are playing catch-up in understanding and managing curbsides for stakeholders pushing today’s urban mobility environment. 

Curbside management─how we use the space where sidewalks meet streets─desperately needs a revised hierarchy of priorities. Digitization, dynamic management and decarbonization are three priorities that will prove invaluable as frameworks in the quest to equitably, efficiently and sustainably manage 21st Century curbsides. But first… 

The Cluttered Curb

The most glaring residue of the 20th Century curbside is free on-street private-vehicle parking. Effectively single-file gridlock, it’s a static wall at the curb. This prevents other users’ access to valuable public space (as we’ll see shortly). With consumer habits shifting steadily toward e-commerce, a crush of delivery vehicles regularly vyes for limited breaks in this wall. The result: congestion, emissions, noise, idling and packages strewn across streets and sidewalks. Within this delivery hell, the negative impacts (and the true costs) are nearly completely externalized. On trash days, the symptoms of our curbside mismanagement grow even worse

Repercussions of this dereliction of regulatory and administrative duty ripple across mobility at large, with heightened collateral damage extending to pedestrians and cyclists.  In order to improve conditions, the analog and mechanical 20th Century model of curbside management must yield to a real-time, digital and dynamic approach. Remaining flatfooted and reactive are no longer options: New York City needs to use active and predictive tools to quickly acquire data, optimally develop policies and strategies, and intelligently manage curbsides. This new model begins with awareness that curbsides are permeable membranes─in biology, an ecotone; in architecture, an interstitial space. Or, as this author suggests, a new designation altogether: enterzones.

Enterzones: Yo, Sidewalk. Meet Street!

An enterzone is a flexible-use zone. It provides a malleable area in the urban landscape that mediates the seemingly conflicting needs of sidewalk and street users. Using a holistic approach (policy, planning, enforcement, data collection and standards, public-private partnerships, etc), enterzones define valuable public spaces serving public- and private- sector interests. 

Revealed recently by the rollout of the 14th Street Busway in Manhattan, enterzones are establishing themselves because mass transit is prioritized along the corridor─and on-street parking largely is banned. The results: shorter headways for buses and higher ridership; calmer, safer streets and more space for pedestrians and cyclists. An example of repurposing public space─and curbs are most certainly public spaces─the Busway opens up opportunities to establish enterzones as a component of Complete Streets.     

Enterzones can be constituted categorically in the following ways: 

  • Transit: Dedicated busways; Shared-mobility / micromobility zones; TNC / FHV drop-off / pick-up zones. 
  • Climate / Quality of Life: Bioswales; Parkettes; Sidewalk Extensions; Urban Gardens. 
  • Municipal: Compost processing / pick-up zones; Waste consolidation / collection zones; Emergency vehicle zones
  • Commercial: Loading / unloading zones; Mobile or fixed on-street parcel / grocery lockers; Cargo bike / LEV parking / staging zones. 

By no means exhaustive, these lists suggest that enterzones, as a component of Complete Streets, can augment and expand the current toolbox cities use to effectively plan and manage curbsides. 

Dynamic Management

Dynamic management requires both real-time data processing and digitized, connected networks of hardware and software. Applied to curbsides, it means using a digital twin (think SimCity) to understand and regulate which curbs are accessible, who needs access to them, who gets access to them, at what time(s) and for how long.   

Though initially controversial for Mobility Data Specification (MDS) privacy concerns, a digital twin serves as a powerful tool when applied to curbside management. In New York City, for instance, where the mix of legacy and new infrastructure fails to consistently provide off-street loading docks, a digital twin can be used to dynamically manage designated curb space for commercial (un)loading. Knowledge of the location of a commercial delivery zone today is a mystery to most; effectively specialized knowledge acquired in the field, it still fails to guarantee a spot in one.

The ability to guarantee a spot at the curb will prove a further benefit of dynamic management. Beyond the bevy of start-ups figuring out how to code the curb, an air traffic control (ATC) approach could help regulate street traffic and curbside availability. Starting with commercial vehicles, real-time street traffic control and curb access control, dynamic management is set to improve substantially how, when and where deliveries are made. Airports are remarkably safe and efficient environments—places to observe and emulate should NYC seek to create less constipated streets. 

Delivery Hardware: Light + Electric, Intelligent + Intermodal

Bikes, scooters and cargo-bikes can dominate transportation in cities. Nimble, sustainable, minimally impactful, they thrive in urban environments—and electrification extends their range, function and appeal. Substantially augmenting human labor, e-bikes in particular have made the food-delivery revolution possible. So how can these initial successes and insights be scaled, expanded, prioritized? And what, beyond e-bikes, will it take to free up curbsides to combat congestion?

In New York City─where a new program aims to better understand commercial applications for cargo bikes─dedicated curbside zones for commercial bicycle parking or loading / unloading are nonexistent. So are curbside parcel or grocery lockers, as well as light-weight, flexible storage / micro-distribution structures. There are literally no spaces that denote commercial bicycles as belonging on the city’s streets. Not yet. 

The intermodal shipping container revolutionized manufacturing and shipping in the 20th Century. In the 21st Century, cities would be wise to help develop and adopt similar container standards for commercial urban deliveries. USPS sets a baseline of its own; soon, networks of connected, intelligent micro-containers being transferred between various sized trucks / vans and cargo bikes, handtrucks and scooters will emerge along similar lines. Designations for curbside micro- distribution and fulfillment, for parcel and food lockers, and for cargo-bike / light-electric-vehicle staging zones also are vital curbside features of any au courant complete street. 

The Curb Will Rise Again

To what extent does the infrastructure of cities shape the lives, work, and sensibilities of their inhabitants? Quite significantly, I suspect. 

─David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

‘Gridlock Sam’ Schwartz, the urban transportation juggernaut, first observed the phenomenon of disappearing traffic when the West Side Highway in Manhattan collapsed in the early 1970s. Long before it was widely understood as induced demand he witnessed that, in the wake of the collapse, not all of the earlier highway’s traffic could be accounted for on alternate streets and routes; instead, much of it literally disappeared, evaporated even. To paraphrase Schwartz, if you un-build roadways, the congestion (to a significant extent) will go away. It would be a fantastic experiment, applying this principle to New York City curbsides. Though the history of NYC’s curbs is in equal parts curious and infuriating, one wonders how these dated and neglected areas might look, feel and function without walls of freely and underpaying parked automobiles cramping our collective style. How might deliveries work? How might the use of streets change and grow? How might that most essential element of all great cities─street life─be bolstered, restored, revivified?

A Cambrian explosion in transportation and mobility is happening in leading cities throughout the world. These cities are prioritizing, among other initiatives, shared-mobility and public transit, liveability and Complete Streets, electrification and decarbonization─an evolution… or, perhaps, an awakening: At their cores, these cities are unbundling streets and curbsides from private automobiles in order to create greater accessibility, liveability and prosperity. And, they’re working

What could New York City gain by unbundling the curbside from the automobile? Healthy movement of goods and people including transportation-as-a-utility, like water and electricity; happy citizens who are un-traumatized by transportation and transit because these systems actually work; actively managed cities where politicians, bureaucrats, industry and citizens alike are informed intelligently; and space, so much more space. The once-lowly urban curb is set to rise to new heights—and the future just might turn out to be, well, pretty good.   

Daniel Wendlek is a designer, fabricator, cyclist, entrepreneur, agriculturalist, beekeeper and veteran / visionary of the new-mobility movement. He founded Upcycles in 2013 to develop the next generation of commercial delivery hardware for cities. He currently consults for mobility companies and even recently realized a dream: designing / building a passive-solar house.