We Need to Completely Redesign Curbs

Crowded curbsides cause a huge amount of traffic and congestion in our cities. Could "flex zones" help?

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Apr 11 2019, 4:02pm

Image: Torbakhopper/Flickr

There are few priorities that bikers and drivers will agree on when it comes to where to invest money to make our roads better. But fixing crowded curbside spaces is where they might find some common, albeit threatened, ground.

In a blog post Wednesday, Thomas Madrecki, the director of urban innovation and mobility at UPS, called for transportation specialists and urban planners to think about designing streets for better curbs.

“Managing the curb probably isn’t the sexiest transportation topic on the planet, but its ripple effect on other aspects of how people and goods get around is enormous,” he wrote.

Madrecki is right. Similar to parking lots, curbsides are poorly designed and utilized spaces that lead to huge congestion problems. UCLA researchers found that cars searching for curbside parking or space account for 30 percent of the traffic in busy urban areas. And New York’s alternate side parking policy has also lead to layers of parked cars and cars circling in search for space. Then there are the double parked trucks dropping off packages, and the bikers attempted to avoid both the parked and moving cars to think about.

Curbs haven’t always been such a big problem. The advent of e-commerce like Amazon mean more packages being delivered in huge trucks, and urban freight traffic has doubled as a result. There’s also the surge of rideshare vehicles on the road, with pick-up and drop-off patterns requiring space to pull over.

Madrecki, who says he’s both a cyclist and UPS employee, calls on planners to search for innovative solutions like “flex zones.” These involve getting rid of street parking and replacing that space with a curbside that can be occupied on a rotating basis by trucks, rideshares, etc.

Gabe Klein, a transportation specialist who has led the department of transportation in Washington, DC told me the city chose to implement some of these flex zones to try and solve the curbside issue. The city got rid of metered parking on certain streets, and doubled the size of the loading zones so that trucks could fit without obstructing the flow of traffic. The city also asked companies like UPS to pre-pay for unloading.

“The design of the streets was causing the trucks to park illegally and then get parking tickets,” Klein said. “We were able to figure out what we were doing wrong. This is one of the things I call a ‘win win win.’ We’re often too lazy, not peeling the next layer of the onion back.”

But Klein pointed out that cities in the US are still far behind our global counterparts when it comes to road design. European cities like Stockholm and London implemented reforms like congestion pricing, which is coming to New York City, decades ago. And London has already sought to avoid delivery trucks altogether in the more populated parts of the city, replacing them instead with cargo-toting motorbikes.

For carless folks like me (and Madrecki, to some extent) there’s also the pertinent question of what happens to bikes as we rethink curbs. Anyone who is a cycling commuter in a city like New York is well aware of the risks we take as attempt to dodge car doors and trucks, sometimes unsuccessfully, for lack of protected bike lanes.

But apparently a curbside overhaul—even one that is truck friendly—would be good for us too. Klein says bike lanes could be positioned between the sidewalk and curbside loading area, making the stalled cars a buffer between bikes and moving traffic. In the Seattle diagram in Madrecki’s blog post, this is part of the “flex zone” solution as well.

Of course, people who have to deal with the hell of parking cars in crowded cities may not approve of these solutions. since it takes away from already limited streetside parking.

But when it comes to reimagining our cities and roads to account for our actual lifestyles, Madrecki might be onto something. But let’s not forget that the reason for the cars, trucks and congestion in the first place is still our mass consumerism (i.e. Amazon boxes) and poor public transportation options.

No amount of flexing will fix that.