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Cashing In on the Curb

Smart cities are paying more attention to the fixtures that define their streets, looking to improve mobility and maximize the value of these assets.

Sidewalk in Los Angeles with construction sign.
Smart-infrastructure projects informed by sophisticated analysis of data have the potential to transform millions of linear feet of curbs and sidewalks. The fixtures that define our streets have never been more in demand with the proliferation of shared-mobility options and consumers' ever-increasing expectations of near-instantaneous delivery services.

Yet for those outside of local government, it may come as a surprise that a number of cities around the country are unaware of exactly how these spaces are utilized or even which traffic signage lines their streets. This blind spot has widened over the course of decades as new rules and regulations were layered atop older ones, with little ability to maintain an exact, mapped and central locational ledger.

The importance of tracking what is going on at the curbside usage is growing as ride-hailing, dockless shared bikes and scooters, and, eventually, autonomous vehicles compete with parking and pedestrians for access. Cities can capitalize on this opportunity by creating open-source databases that track curbside regulation and usage in real time, allowing for private companies to quickly build applications and solve problems that might otherwise be years away on a city's to-do list. Moreover, the demand-responsive pricing of curbside locations could go a long way toward solving a major problem that cities are dealing with: how to appropriately generate revenue from a disrupted transportation market.

While several cities are addressing the many problems of the curb in a piecemeal fashion, Los Angeles leads the country in its tech-centered, holistic approach. The city's Code the Curb initiative, announced in early 2016, had a low-tech start with an initial plan to have workers manually record information about curbside signage. Shortly thereafter, though, the city began to embrace new technologies, installing curbside sensors and making large amounts of information public through open-source data feeds. This approach is a natural outgrowth of the city's work on dynamic parking pricing, Express Park, and Mayor Eric Garcetti's emphasis on open data.

In other cities as well, these data feeds have formed the basis of a new market of third-party apps that generate useful data for transportation planners. Chicago, for example, receives important management information from its mobile parking payment app, ParkChicago, which is privately operated under a concession agreement.

Los Angeles has demonstrated that City Hall can take a further step to reduce friction for the development of these collaborations. The city has pre-qualified 95 product, software and manufacturing companies, easing the path for them to create systems that will help the city realize its vision for the future of mobility. "We're using what we know about procurement as a considerable hurdle and have created a new model for actually getting this stuff done on a week-by-week task-order basis rather than a year-by-year RFP basis," said Seleta Reynolds, the city transportation department's general manager.

Among the next steps for the city is to build out the capacity to direct traffic away from areas of high congestion to less-disruptive curbside drop-off spaces, much like what's been done in San Francisco. There, Lyft piloted an effort to reroute traffic away from the Mission District's busy, heavily gentrified Valencia Street toward less-congested side streets.

But while Reynolds' vision for how the city should manage its curbside assets has been clear, the technological implementation has been more challenging, requiring the development of new software. A first attempt at digitally coding Los Angeles's curbsides, relying purely on video, generated too many errors to be reliable enough as a source of data for traffic enforcement and third-party app development. "You have a real problem any time a car's bumper is overhanging from one colored curb into the next or there's a tree that's obscuring a sign or a shadow that's covering up some wording," said Reynolds. In the spirit of rapid iteration, the city is already undertaking a new approach utilizing promising technologies.

Dramatic changes in urban mobility will create commercial winners and public costs. Accordingly, the new model of curbside management exemplified in Los Angeles should better protect taxpayers and enhance the experience of on-the-move city residents. Better understanding of streetside assets and the pricing of their use will have a cascading effect throughout a city's mobility ecosystem: Traffic incidents will decline along with pollution and congestion. At the same time, a city has the opportunity to create new funding streams and better define the character of its streets. Now's the time to get on board.

Stephen Goldsmith is 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. He can be reached at
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