Reforming the Curb: Using Technology to Create a More Equitable Streetscape

November 23, 2020
Professor Stephen Goldsmith
Stephen Goldsmith urges city leaders to reimagine regulations for a changing mobility landscape in the nation's cities.

When Stephen Goldsmith, the Derek Bok Professor of Urban Policy and Director of the Ash Center’s Government Innovations Program, served as mayor of Indianapolis, Indiana, “I thought I was the mayor of parking. I don’t think anything mattered except parking in downtown Indianapolis.” Since Goldsmith last held the reins at city hall, the debate over how cities should best put to use curb space and sidewalks has only grown more intense as online delivery companies, ride sharing services, and commercial businesses all vie for the same small patches of urban real estate. In an online discussion last week hosted by Eno Center for Transportation, Goldsmith urged local government leaders to press ahead with reforms towards managing how curb space and sidewalks are used and valued – particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed much about how city-dwellers shop, dine, and travel.

Cities, equipped with new digital tools, are able to capture increasing amounts of data about curb and sidewalk usage and make more informed decisions about how best to capture value from these public assets. “When I was mayor of Indianapolis, these digital tools didn’t exist,” said Goldsmith. In fact long before the arrival of many of the apps, phones, and other technologies that aid much of everyday urban life, city governments, including Goldsmith’s own Indianapolis viewed these same sidewalks and curbs as liabilities, not as the assets they are universally viewed today. “I was a city attorney, and a curb and sidewalk was a place where people fell and sued you.”

Armed with this new trove of data, Goldsmith, speaking during the online discussion, pressed cities to incorporate curb space and sidewalks into their broader strategies concerning mobility equity. “The other issues that we see that are so dominant that were less dominant over the last ten years are an important emphasis on equity.” While transportation equity debates have raged in cities for decades, particularly over the quality and location of public transportation modes, the development of ridesharing has forced cities to rethink how these private services can perform a public good by connecting lower income communities with expanded job opportunities, for example. Cities are also grappling with how to make sure these digital tools are available to everyone regardless of their English language proficiency, smartphone ownership, or whether they have access to traditional banking services.

In fact there are a number of low hanging fruits that Goldsmith argued cities and other local governments can adopt to reform curb and sidewalk management, including partnering with parking apps that use more languages than just English, ensuring that micromobility service providers such as scooter shares are available not just in high-income neighborhoods or central business districts, and pricing parking so that the full value of each space is full captured. By failing to price parking at market rates in commercially high value areas, Goldsmith said that cities are in essence “subsidizing the parkers in those high-rent districts.” Revenue generated by market priced parking can be used to cross subsidize expanded transit opportunities in heavily transit dependent communities.

The challenges to unlocking the value of these once overlooked pieces of municipal real estate lay less with the technology and more with leadership in city hall. In fact, the technology tools themselves are the easy part. It’s the work that goes into crafting what Goldsmith termed the “mobility narrative” that local government leaders should focus. “The job of the mayor…is to paint a narrative that says our city needs more equity in the way it advantages transit and transportation.” As a former mayor himself, Goldsmith understands the tensions that local government leaders face when balancing so many competing interests when it comes to regulating how and who uses curbs and sidewalks, but “let's keep in mind the values that we're trying to protect as city officials.”