The rise and rise of the kerb

Over the past few years the kerb – previously a relatively minor concern for city planners and transport engineers – has taken centre stage. This new-found focus on the kerb has been prompted by concerns over increased competition for kerb space brought on by evolving trends in transport planning, use, and technology.

Interest has been building over the past few years. In 2018 Sabrina Sussman, Zipcar’s Public Partnerships Manager tweeted that it “is the year of the curb.” More recently, in May 2021, (begun in 1987 to inform state and local government officials) started a publication series, The Billion Dollar Curb, to help communities identify strategies to better manage the kerb. They claim that poor kerb management is costing cities billions of dollars in lost revenue and productivity.

Why the new attention?

So, what has changed over the past decade that has focused attention on the kerb? There are a range of factors including:

  • Online shopping resulting in an upsurge in parcel deliveries; on-demand /app-based services particularly for food deliveries
  • Ride hailing resulting from the growth of TNCs (Transportation Network Companies) where many rides either begin or end in the CBD or other high-density areas that have limited curb space; and
  • the growth in bike and scooter use – both private and shared services that require curb space for storage (and in some instances for bike paths)

Even experienced transport and planning professionals would be surprised by the number of kerb uses/users. A comprehensive list was developed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in its 2020 Curb Management Plan. It divided the curb into five broad functions:

  1. Access for people (bus stops, bike parking, curb bulbs, passenger loading zones, short-term parking, taxi zones)
  2. Access for commerce (commercial vehicle loading; parcel delivery
  3. Social space activation (food trucks, parklets, street eateries, public art, street festivals)
  4. Greening (plantings, rain gardens, bio-swales); and
  5. Storage (bus layovers, long-term parking, fire hydrants, reserved space for government use, construction)

Why the new attention?

As Laura Bliss and Andrew Small note in the subtitle to their 2019 article The Race to Code the Curb, ‘Everyone – from ride hailing cars to delivery trucks to bike and scooters – wants a piece of the curb. How can smart cities map and manage this precious resource?’

In response to this call there have been a number of new start-up companies that focus exclusively on the kerb. However, many other long established consulting firms have initiated curb management specialities. One of the new curb start-ups is Coord, a 2016 spinoff from Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. Their platform helps cities to inventory their curb space; analyse, allocate and price this space; and operate the curb through smart zones (digitally managed and operated curbs). The company currently manages 4.9 million curb spaces across 15 cities in North America. Another of the curb start-ups is Populus.

One of the first in-depth analyses of the kerb was in San Francisco in 2018. The study was commissioned by Uber Technologies, for whom the consultants (Fehr and Peers) developed a Curb Productivity Index (CPI) that considered three factors:

  1. Number of passengers using kerb space by mode
  2. Time period the activity was observed; and
  3. Total space dedicated to that use

Since this study Fehr and Peers have been involved in developing a number of resources with the U.S. ITE (Institute of Traffic Engineers) to help cities begin to think about an overall curb management strategy. These include: The Curbside Management Practitioners Guide and the Curbside Inventory Report.

In addition to San Francisco, a few other U.S. cities (Seattle and New York City) have begun to developed curb management strategies that acknowledge the changing role of the curb. To undertake a curb management plan, cities must first determine:

  • How much curb exists?
  • What functions and who it serves
  • What types of land uses are adjacent to the curb as these land uses, activity levels and density are critical to determining optimal curb use?
  • What curb regulations and signage exist?; and
  • What data exist on curb use and whether there are any potential new data sources that could be tapped

Kerb vs curb

One way to get a sense of what is happening is to do a Google search. “Kerb” is the spelling used globally, except for the U.S. and Canada where “curb” is used. The different spelling is helpful here as we can assume that most Google hits for “curb” are related to either the U.S. or Canada.

A search for “curb management” resulted in 49,500 hits, while a search for “kerb management” resulted in only 96 hits – a dramatic difference given that “kerb” would be used by all other countries except the US and Canada.

The results of these searches suggest that Australia, as well as most other countries, have not yet engaged with kerb management as vigorously as North America.

COVID and the curb

The place that competition for the kerb is greatest is in the CBD and surrounding inner urban area. Given that many people are working from home during COVID, there has been less activity in these areas so there has been less competition … for now.

However, given that more people are living in these inner urban areas than was the case a decade ago, COVID has resulted in a significant increase in deliveries of online purchases and food. This, in part, has been the result of COVID lockdowns which meant that home deliveries were the only option available. The COVID lockdown experience may well result in longer-term changes in behaviour. People will realise the convenience of door-front delivery – a trend that began years ago but brought to prominence by COVID.

Another direct impact of COVID has been the repurposing of curb lanes and in some cases entire streets for cycling, walking, dining and recreation. Some of these ideas have been on the drawing boards for years, but COVID provided an opportunity for temporary implementation. It is too soon to tell if these changes will become permanent. For more discussion on this, see Is temporary the new permanent? COVID street experiments open our eyes to creating better cities.

In September 2020, Melbourne was one of the cities to implement an outdoor dining experiment that involved expanding dining on footpaths and car parking spaces. This was modelled on New York City’s initiative to help restaurants survive COVID restrictions on indoor dining. The Melbourne experiment was due to end in earlier this year but was extended and discussions are underway about whether to make it permanent.

Planning kerb management

In view of the increased kerb space demand, we need to be planning kerb use as we do with other areas of land and transport use. How should a city begin to develop a kerb management plan? The first step should include: an inventory of existing kerb management regulations, kerb use and who the kerb users are.

When beginning to think about the kerb a critical issue involves data standards. The Open Mobility Foundation in the U.S. has formed a working group to establish curb data standards that will help those cities wanting to digitise their kerbs by making kerb inventory tasks easier and more robust.

Once the kerb inventory is completed and existing uses are known they, along with any other key stakeholders, need to be consulted. Once the consultation is completed priority kerb use can be established along with any new regulations and strategies for enforcement. The penultimate step is to develop an implementation strategy along with the necessary funding. Finally, but often overlooked step is to establish a plan (and funding) for monitoring and evaluating the plan.

It is important to recognise that managing the kerb is more than an enhanced “parking” plan because a well-crafted kerb strategy can achieve a range of other objectives as noted in SFMTA’s Curb Management Strategy.

While these may differ from one location to another, doing a better job of kerb management can: enhance traffic safety and help achieve Vision Zero; speed up public transport by keeping access ways clear of obstructions; reduce greenhouse gases resulting from traffic congestion and vehicles cruising for curb space; increase equity and accessibility for all users; integrate the strategy with adjacent land uses; and increase the transparency of curb regulations.

Building a kerb strategy

It is important to begin thinking about dealing with the kerb now before the problems become worse in a post-COVID economic recovery environment. The place for cities to start is to assess what they know about the kerb, who the range of users are and what data they hold. Cities shouldn’t underestimate the size of this task, but it is the necessary foundation upon which to build a comprehensive kerb management strategy.