The curb lane where the sidewalk meets the street is an important piece of public space that can address quality of life issues in NYC neighborhoods.

The latest publication from DOT is an ambitious look ahead at the agency’s priorities when it comes to how NYC manages curb space. Over the past few years we’ve seen programs emerging that give a renewed sense of purpose for our streets. The curb lane (where the street meets the sidewalk) has innumerable pressures and public service functions beyond car parking: trash collection, deliveries, outdoor dining, pick up and drop offs, CitiBike and more. These competing interests have made what was once a free to low-cost amenity, increasingly more valuable for the city to capitalize on.

With the Alfresco NYC coalition, Design Trust and public space advocates have long been fighting for a focus on streets as collective spaces with shared amenities. Open Streets and outdoor dining have paved the way for reimagining the long-term potential of the curb lane. Alfresco NYC successfully recommended a number of policy changes that have been coming to fruition over the past year and with this new curb management plan we’re seeing yet another taken into consideration: democratizing the parking lane to allow for community use. Whether a non-profit wants space for delivering services or a library wants to provide a mobile option during the warm months, the right-of-way should not be limited to restaurants only.

Now that legislation for the permanent outdoor dining program has passed, we’re starting to see a blueprint for pricing this curb space. Dining Out NYC, recommended by Alfresco NYC, lays out sliding scale fees for restaurants based on geographic location and demand. This Curb Management Plan builds off of that with goals like creating a demand-based pricing proof of concept over the next year for commercial corridors while also looking at how to charge for non-transportation, private uses of curb space like construction. Unfortunately, there is very little mention of the three-million non-metered parking spots across the city that incentivize car travel and give away our public space to private storage. 

However, there is a plan to use our curbs for more public amenities, like moving bike parking and street furniture off of our cluttered sidewalks. Increasing the number of bioswales to absorb rainwater would greatly reduce the level of street flooding we are witnessing from climate change cloudburst events. Waste containerization pilots can also mitigate loose trash that clogs storm drains and our overall rat population.

Piloting the first “Smart Curbs” neighborhood on Columbus Ave on the Upper West Side is an exciting opportunity for NYC to begin testing out new technologies and policies that make curb access more adaptable. Sensor technologies can monitor how curb space is used throughout the day to better understand the flow of needs for a neighborhood. Loading zones for deliveries to businesses can take place early in the morning, followed by pick-up and drop-off for students or parents heading to school, afternoons might bring a lunch rush for outdoor dining and metered parking for shopping in the evenings, while at night trash pick up is prioritized. Starting from a blank state will allow for BIDs, businesses, and residents’ needs to begin on equal footing.

The most crucial aspect of the Curb Management Action Plan is flexibility. Allowing the DOT the chance to test out different approaches and management tools in an iterative process will go a long way in managing these spaces long-term. With the looming agency cuts proposed by the mayor it’s crucial that DOT be able to prioritize these new programs and not have pilots fail due to funding shortfalls.

We’re excited to see the City highlight the many other uses of this often forgotten public space. We hope to see more pilots evolve as the engagement process begins creating an even more interconnected and activated public realm that better serves community needs.