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Digital Versus Analog Curbs: What’s the Difference?

According to the American Planning Association, the answer could be billions of dollars.

It costs between $18,500 and $36,700 to construct a parking space on an average city street. Add maintenance costs to this upfront cost and street level parking is expensive. It is also in high demand from ride-hailing, delivery vehicles, customers, and tourists. Pricing for these locations is inadequate to capture this value, and the consequence is that cities are losing out on billions of dollars of potential revenue.

Data from 50 US capitals show that across these diverse cities there is a common theme: the majority have “failed to demonstrate the value of the curb to the public, resulting in the impression that people and businesses have a right to free or extremely low cost and long-term parking.” A clear case in point is that parking garages are often more expensive than parking on the street.

“On-street parking at the curb is arguably more valuable to customers and businesses than off-street parking lots and garages, and it should be priced to reflect this demand and create turnover. It's good policy to set off-street parking rates lower than on-street rates to encourage long-term parkers to use these facilities.”

Taking into consideration the cost per parking space on the street, and the growing demand from ride-haling and delivery services, the street is a highly valuable space in the limited downtown environment. Given this pattern of cities persistently undervaluing the curb space, the American Association for Planning make the argument that now is the time to change this. Coupled with increasing digitalization, growing curb demand trends, and the convergence of pandemic-related parking revenue loss, cities should be motivated to rethink and improve their approach for the dynamic future of the "digital curb."

Analog curbs are primarily used for parking private vehicles, with limited space for loading zones and bus stops. The analog curb is also characterized by payment by the hour, and often in spaces that are either ‘on or off’ with customers only paying during working hours. This is predominantly how most cities have and continue to plan for their curbs.

Digital curbs, on the other hand, are multi-dimensional spaces for passenger pickup and drop-off, reserved commercial loading zones, bike and scooter parking and lanes for travel, transit stops, parklets for outdoor dining, and short-term private vehicle parking, with space flexed by time of day based on demand. In other words, this is the curb of the future. Pricing for digital curbs is also dynamic - changing according to need, and demand, but encourages movement to make the most use of what is essentially prime real estate.

Personal comment:

It is not just cities that are recognizing the need to do something about curb management, the Open Mobility Foundation is a good example of a group looking to turn these spaces into something more than a single file parking lot. With the rapid increase in digital services from MaaS to food delivery, these spaces are under pressure, and it make sense that companies and cities are looking for ways to utilize the space more efficiently.

There are complications, however, as Google found out with its ill-fated Sidewalk Labs development project in Toronto, which aimed to create the world’s first truly smart city – including, amongst other things, a very digital approach to curb management. Digitalizing public spaces can certainly bring efficiencies, but it can also bring unwanted surveillance, control, and profiteering. Facebook has also come under scrutiny for using public spaces for their own ends.

The commons are there for everyone, paid for by public money. Clearly cities should manage them in ways that recover costs and improve public utility, safety, sustainability, and quality. It is also clear that people from restaurant owners to street performers use that space as part of their business. But it is equally clear that these public spaces should not be used for the sole gain of any one private actor. Balancing this in the digital age is a challenge, but one that cities need to address. Those that manage to do so in a way that benefits citizens and businesses alike could unlock a lot of previously wasted value while enabling innovations in mobility services that depend on access to the curb at the same time. 

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Människa-autonomi)