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.
- CurbFlow has entered a 3-month pilot project with Washington, D.C.'s Department of Transportation to monitor curbside parking.
- Passport, a curbside payment software platform, has pilots in Charlotte, Detroit and Omaha to analyze scooter usage patterns to determine how to charge for curb space.
- Inrix, an analytics firm, partnered with nonprofit Open Transport Partnership’s SharedStreets to create a standard for street-level data, including curbs.
Be smart: As a public right of way, curbs are becoming a kind of network interface for new technology and transportation options.
- Cities need to know how much of this prime infrastructure they actually have and how it's used in real time. Most cities don't have that information, because they've never actually needed it.
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.
- Eventually, autonomous vehicles will demand a piece of the space, too.
- "On most streets, there's just not enough right-of-way to give everyone — buses, bikes, scooters, pedestrians, cars — a protected zone," Tregoning says.
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."