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COVID-19 Gives Rise to ‘Slow Streets,’ Curb Creativity

Cities across the nation have fast-tracked bold moves to expand dining and other business activity into city streets. The repurposing of these public spaces have positive effects that extend beyond simple economics.

A normally busy two-way street in Sacramento, Calif., has been partially closed to through traffic
A normally busy two-way street in Sacramento, Calif., has been partially closed to through traffic in an effort to accommodate outdoor dining areas that comply with COVID-19 safety protocols. The street is open to pedestrians and cyclists.
Skip Descant/ Government Technology
The COVID-19 crisis has prompted cities to take fast, bold action to boost local businesses and improve for public safety by repurposing streets for uses like outdoor dining.

Almost overnight, city leaders across the nation put into action the seemingly radical idea to close certain sections of streets to vehicle traffic, giving them over to bikers, walkers and diners. The decision is often welcomed by struggling restaurants or other shops trying to maintain business amid the ongoing pandemic.

These moves — often referred to as “Slow Street” initiatives — have reshuffled the already-lively discussions around curbside management, given the rise of new users like on-demand delivery providers, ride-hailing users and the bevy of new devices like e-scooters.

“Our curbs and streets are still crying out for regulation,” said Rodney Stiles, head of policy at Populus, a digital platform to help cities better manage curbs and streets. 

“We need to have them be used more efficiently, and help us meet our goals around equity and sustainability,” Stiles added, during an Aug. 26 webinar with city transportation leaders. The webinar was focused on discussing the recent Populus report Curb and Mobility Management: Pricing, Incentives, and Data for Improving Curbside Utilization in Cities.

Aside from the reorganization of some city streets and curbs, when micromobility devices like e-scooters arrived about five years ago, numerous cities quickly saw the need to step up regulations in curb management. They turned to a number of policy models, including per-device and use fees on scooters and bikes, and opening up loading or unloading zones for ride-hailing or deliveries.

If anything, the business and lifestyle shifts brought on by the novel coronavirus have only highlighted the call for curbs to be more dynamic and the need for cities to quickly respond to these shifts, say experts.  

“Figure out what your biggest pain points are today,” advised Lauren Mattern, principal in the transportation demand management section at planning firm Nelson\Nygaard. “In some cities that’s been passenger loading, switching now to goods and other types of loading."

“I certainly see some freight and loading conversations heating up in some areas and needing some quick solutions,” she added.

The quick repurposing of the curb to dining does come at a cost, generally lost parking revenues, but cities should “worry about use first, and then pricing,” said Alex Pazuchanics, mobility solutions manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation, in his comments during the discussion.

“We are kind of taking advantage of 'pricing be damned.' There are sort of other imperatives at play,” added Pazuchanics. “And I think that enables people to be a little more creative about what use and activation of space looks like.”

Cities are not really thinking about the loss of parking revenue as they rapidly implement street dining and other creative options, say transportation observers.

“Fundamentally, it’s giving people an opportunity to not immediately jump to that pricing question and instead say, 'reimagine what activation and use of the right-of-way looks like,'” said Pazuchanics.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.