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Digital Curb Management Can Make Streets Earn Their Keep

Cities are no longer seeing their miles of streetscape as cheap parking spaces. Curbs are now considered some of the most in-demand pieces of urban real estate, and technology is stepping up to help manage them.

FedEx workers making curbside deliveries on a busy street in New York City.
Competitive, dynamic and comprehensive pricing for curbs and parking spaces, across all of modern urban life’s scenarios and demands, can help pay for public transit, street cleaning, safety campaigns and other community projects, local governments are realizing.

“I think what we’ve seen over the last 10 years, is, thinking about the curb and sidewalk moving from a liability to manage — as in who’s going to fall, or how to repair the sidewalk — to an asset that the city can utilize to accomplish a set of activities,” Stephen Goldsmith,* the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University, said during an online panel discussion Wednesday.

The concept of digital curb management emerged around 2010, Mitch Vars, technical development specialist with the Open Mobility Foundation (OMF), said during the panel, ticking off key developments like the launch of ride-hailing companies such as Uber, and the arrival of rentable electric scooters. Then, he said, came the COVID-19 pandemic with its flood of e-commerce deliveries and expanded sidewalk dining — all these markers illustrating the evolution of a prime piece of urban landscape from decades of parking space to everything else.

“While lots of people enjoy all of these new services, it’s placed a lot of increased pressure on the curb, that has led to more need for curb management,” Vars said. “By redefining the analog parking lane as a digital curb lane, we can better support all these changes.” OMF organized the panel, “Curb Management for Policy Makers.”

Portland, Ore., is one of many cities experimenting with reimagining the curb as a dynamic, digitally managed space. The Portland Bureau of Transportation is involved in a project to shape a zero-emission delivery zone within about a dozen blocks of downtown. The effort will be supported by a digital curb management ethos that includes digitizing the physical space, said Millicent Williams, director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

A network of sensors and other digital infrastructure like the curb data specifications can then collect and analyze the data to explore how the right of way can be better managed, and to expand the use of micro-delivery zero-emission operations. Parking sensor data will be combined with the baseline curb inventory to gain new insights around how the transportation system is used, she said.

“This is all new for us. We’re using data in ways that we had not before,” Williams said Wednesday. “We need to use our data well, and use it to inform our actions, and be able to explain what that data means for those who are trying to understand how they can partner with us.”

Officials in Hoboken, N.J., are working with transportation tech platform Populus and urban designers Kimley-Horn to digitize their curb space, creating a multidimensional map capable of identifying issues like congestion and double parking — and balancing space competitors like deliveries, ride-hailing and micromobility.

All of those parked cars need not go away — a politically fraught idea — but they should be priced smarter, experts said.

Dynamic pricing will be “adopted much faster than I thought earlier,” Donald Shoup, distinguished research professor in the Department of Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, said during the panel. He highlighted the relatively new concept of adjusting parking prices up and down to match demand and time of day — and other goals like discouraging the idea of driving.

“People think drivers will be confused if the prices change from one week to the next. But drivers don’t know what the prices are when they go to a meter,” said Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking. And to sell the idea of dynamic parking rates to the community, he suggested using the additional revenue to fund projects residents have identified as desirable.

“Everybody knows that there are things that they want, like clean sidewalks, or safe streets, or street trees, they want those, and the only way they can have them is to charge for curb parking,” Shoup said. “Some cities give free transit passes to everybody who lives in a ‘parking benefit district.’”

Designing and then launching a dynamic parking rate initiative requires essential pieces of data related to parking demands, economics and other considerations. Systems will also need better payment technology than the humble coin-operated parking meter, which dates to 1935; Shoup imagined a near future when parking payment will be handled by the cars themselves, via electronic technology.

“The challenge for the curb now is to change the politics of parking,” Shoup said. “The technology is going ahead much faster than the politics.”

*Goldsmith is a regular contributor to Government Technology magazine.
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.