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COVID-19 Has Reshaped the Curb. Will the Changes Stick?

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COVID-19 Has Reshaped the Curb. Will the Changes Stick?

Nearly a year ago, surges in COVID-19 cases prompted mass shutdowns worldwide and set the scene for what would become our new shared reality. Since then, a lot has changed about our cities – the number of cars on the roads, the amount of energy we use, and whether people choose to live in cities at all.

One dimension of our cities undergoing significant changes is the curb — the transitional space where street meets sidewalk.

The role of the curb has expanded, in large part due to advances in technology and user preferences. Today, curb access is highly coveted by an array of competing users, like delivery and rideshare vehicles. Both of these curb users have become ubiquitous in a relatively short time: annual trips for Amazon delivery vehicles and TNCs like Uber and Lyft are in the billions.

While curb demand from TNCs dropped last year, demand from curbside pickup and courier deliveries soared. According to Google Trends, online searches for “curbside pickup” increased 50-fold worldwide between the beginning of March 2020 and the second week of April. Towards the end of April, CNBC reported that curbside pickups had more than tripled compared to a year earlier. Small- and medium-sized businesses also joined the wave of delivery and curbside pickup, adding to the existing demands placed on the curb by big-box retailers.

As curbside pickup has surged during the pandemic, parking has plummeted. Last March, SpotHero saw parking demand decrease by up to 90% in six major US cities. The staggering drop in parking revenue has added to a large budget shortfall for many cities. Toronto made $4.1 million in parking revenue last year, compared to the $60M expected.

The decrease in traffic and parking has opened the curbside to other uses, and many cities have adjusted street regulations accordingly. With confined spaces suddenly hazardous, indoor activities have spilled out into the street. Stores and restaurants have set up racks and patios on sidewalks and in vacated parking spaces.

CafeTO curbside patio
In Toronto, 800 restaurants were supported by CaféTO — an initiative to expand outdoor dining in the street and sidewalk.

Also taking advantage of emptier curbs: pedestrians and cyclists. As the WHO advocated for cycling over traveling in enclosed vehicles, cities across the world expanded bike lanes. Some have built temporary bike lanes, like Bogotá and Milan. Others, like Toronto, have moved to expand and/or accelerate plans for permanent lanes. Alongside the influx of temporary and permanent bike infrastructure, many municipalities have created car-free Slow Street zones for pedestrians, cyclists, businesspeople, and restauranteurs alike.

The big question for cities is this: will the curb revert to business-as-usual in the post-pandemic era, or are these changes here to stay?

Experts are weighing in. On curbside pickup, McKinsey senior partner Sajal Kohli votes “stay”, saying, “we think curbside [pickup] is going to be exceptionally sticky… consumers discovered this newfound convenience and they will actually stick to the curbside, which has massive implications.” Market research guru Lisa van Kesteren agrees. “Some customers that never had curbside before have now tried it because of COVID and found that they quite like the convenience,” she said in a conversation with Forbes last fall. “I believe it will stick around.” She should know – her company, SeeLevel HX, has been publishing an annual drive-through market report for decades.

This dynamic is true broadly: while changes to the curb arose out of necessity, the evidence suggests that they are broadly popular and will be challenging to reverse.

The expansion of pedestrian and cycling spaces, for example, have been widely adopted by the public. Bike usage has surged across the US, and cities like Paris and Rome are subsidizing new bike purchases or repairs in an effort to encourage their use. Advances in pedestrianization look like they may stick around as well. Take Banff’s new pedestrian zone, for example: in a recent survey, 97% of visitors said they’d like to see the pedestrian zone become a permanent summer fixture, and more than half wanted it to be permanent year-round. And in a survey this past summer by Politico and YouGov of European citizens, the vast majority agreed that cities should reserve more public spaces for walking, cycling, and public transport.

One thing is for certain, at least: the curbside is an increasingly dynamic and valuable space – and it’s becoming more challenging to manage. With competing claims on the curbside that vary by season, like restaurant patios and bike lanes – or by time of day, like curbside pickup and TNC drop-offs – cities will have to modernize the ways they manage their curbs and communicate regulations to the public.

Cities will also need to address the budgetary deficit that comes from an increase in transient curbside usage (loading, delivering, and curbside pickups) and a corresponding decrease in long-term parking. Cities looking to monetizing transient curbside occupancy should think about investing in automatic sensors and license plate readers – and creating a digital representation of their curb regulations to enable automatic payment.

COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for a curbside renaissance, and a lot is changing. As we move into the summer, there’s no better time for cities to reimagine the curb.

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Jake Belman

Jake is a Transit Technology and Data Analyst who specializes in the design and development of custom intelligent transportation system solutions. He is an experienced computer programmer and received his bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from McGill University.