Welcome back! This week I'm exploring Williamsburg, Virginia, with the kids on a quick getaway before school starts.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios
The lowly curb has become a coveted piece of urban real estate.
It's also a chaotic mess thanks to exploding demand for street-side access — by hordes of delivery trucks, taxis and ride-hailing services; electric bikes and scooters; city buses; pedestrians; construction crews; garbage trucks; parked cars; and meters.
"Not only are more people entering and leaving the curb, but we're also putting more stuff on curbs. That 2-foot zone is getting really crowded."— Harriet Tregoning, World Resources Institute's Ross Center for Sustainable Cities
State of play: This mismatch of supply and demand has spurred cities and suburbs to think about treating curbs like a public utility and charging for access to them. That includes designating more zones for ride-hail pickup and drop-off, deciding where e-bikes and e-scooters should dock — and charging more when demand is high.
Enter tech: A slew of startups see a golden opportunity to restore order to the curb with maps, data, sensors and apps.
Be smart: As a public right of way, curbs are becoming a kind of network interface for new technology and transportation options.
For example: Coord, a New York-based startup that spun out of Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs, wants to make curbs more productive — i.e., serving the most people per unit of time per length of curb. To do that, it's providing a digital database of curbs to cities.
"We're seeing a lot of cities reallocate curb space away from parking into, for example, docks for bikes. That's an easy example of improving curb productivity by serving a lot more people in that space with those bikes than you would be with just the single parked car."— Coord CEO Stephen Smyth
Yes, but: There are trade-offs. Allocating space to e-bikes may mean fewer spaces for residential permit parking. A designated ride-hail passenger drop-off zone may take up space once used for freight and e-commerce delivery trucks.
The irony: These new tech startups are cropping up to solve the curb congestion problem that was exacerbated by the last wave of gig-economy-focused tech startups, including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, Bird and Lime.
The bottom line: "It’s not just about curb congestion," said Jim Barbaresso, of HNTB, an infrastructure design firm. "It’s really about serving all modes in new and dynamic ways that enrich the urban experience, while also providing a safer and more accessible transport system."
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios
The narrow curb zone is such a hot commodity — and such a headache — that Sidewalk Labs wants to redesign it altogether.
The big idea: In an ambitious and contentious bid to redevelop Toronto's waterfront neighborhood, Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs proposed "dynamic curbs" designed to be flexible spaces that respond to real-time traffic conditions.
How it works: The conventional cement ridge would disappear, to be replaced by lighted pavement that would direct pedestrian, cyclist and vehicle paths "on-the-fly, helping neighborhoods recapture flexible street space for public use in a clear and safe way," per the proposal.
Sidewalk Labs also envisions underground drop-off and pickup zones for shared fleets or autonomous vehicles, cutting down on street-level curb idling and double parking.
The impact: Sidewalk Labs' Willa Ng predicts urban curbs will soon have to handle 8 times the current capacity.
"We're putting stress on curbs like never before, but most of curbs in cities are underutilized. If we can actively manage it and set some policies to operate that curb, we can get more bang for the buck."— Willa Ng, Sidewalk Labs director of mobility, streets
What's next: Toronto officials are still vetting the overall plan.
Since we're on the topic of congestion, earlier this month, Uber and Lyft released a consultant's study they commissioned on how much their services are adding to vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in several major metro areas, Axios energy reporter Ben Geman writes.
Why it matters: The analysis arrives amid wider research showing how the growth of ride-hailing is adding to congestion.
But, but, but: Populus CEO Regina Clewlow, whose company provides a transportation data analytics platform for local governments, said increased VMT doesn't tell the whole story about ride-hailing's effect on congestion.
Separately: In a July report, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston estimated that the net carbon footprint from ride-hailing added about 0.5% to the total carbon emissions for all passenger transportation across Massachusetts in 2018.
Morning commute on a busy Manhattan street. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
How much cities should charge vehicles to drive on city streets and who should have to pay is the center of political debates, Chris Teale writes for Smart Cities Dive.
Driving the news: New York City is about to become the first to charge Manhattan drivers a congestion toll. Fees collected would fund public transit and infrastructure improvements.
The whole story is worth a read, but the disconnect in public opinion is what stuck out to me the most.
Bottom line: "[C]ity leaders likely need to do more to show people the benefits of congestion pricing," Teale wrote.
View of the U.S. at night. Photo: NASA via Getty Images
The impact: Light pollution — including from streetlights that cast excessive light — is associated with sleep deprivation, impaired daytime functioning and obesity.
What's happening: Cities are making strategic investments, including updating streetlights to reduce the span of light and installing energy-efficient LED technology.
But, but, but: LED deployment is not the end-all, be-all solution. At one point, Davis, California inadvertently over-lit the city with LED lights.
What to watch: Cities are exploring other tactics.
Karen Lightman is executive director of Metro21:Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
The Rickenbacker Causeway, connecting Miami to nearby barrier islands, is vulnerable to disruptions due to its exposure to climate change. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
Chicago. Photo: JaySi/Getty Images
Plenty of governments add green space to improve physical health. Few, however, consider the psychological benefits these spaces provide.
Driving the news: Research published in the latest issue of Science Advances explains the growing evidence that suggests contact with nature can improve psychological well-being and reduce risk factors for some types of mental illness.
At the same time, however, opportunities to experience nature are decreasing rapidly as more and more people move into cities around the globe.
Go deeper: L.A. hires first ever forest officer (Smart Cities Dive)
See you next week!