Local officials throughout northeastern Illinois have already implemented new strategies for curb use as a result of COVID-19. Some of these innovations may be made permanent:
Enable outdoor and on-street dining. Communities across the region, including Arlington Heights, Aurora, Orland Park, and Woodstock, have allowed restaurants to replace parking and travel lanes with outdoor seating. In some cases, this has meant closing the street to cars and using it for outdoor restaurants and gatherings. In other areas, dining and car travel coexist side-by-side. For example, Chicago has implemented several car-free “café streets,” such as in Fulton Market, and added outdoor dining in place of parking, such as on 75th St. in Chatham. These changes were made after talking with local businesses and community members to determine the best mix of pedestrian, vehicular, and outdoor dining uses in the public right-of-way.
Outdoor dining facilities can often be installed temporarily at very low cost, especially if streets are closed to traffic. Separating diners from traffic does typically require barriers for safety, but in communities like Orland Park, officials have found local suppliers willing to provide them at a discount.
Create new public spaces. Local officials can also consider turning curb space into new public seating and green spaces, rather than dedicating them to one establishment. In northeastern Illinois, these have been most commonly installed through Chicago’s “People Spots” program, which predates COVID-19. Recent successful conversions across the region show that there could be a more widespread appetite for this type of change. These “parklets,” as well as curbside dining, may also continue to play a role even in winter months. Public officials and local businesses can experiment with new designs and activities that encourage and enable more time spent outdoors. To do so, officials should begin proactive planning on snow clearing and permitting.
Accommodate increased pickup and drop-off activity. Curbside pickup is now offered by many establishments, including restaurants in both Chicago and suburban communities, public services like libraries, and even churches. This service often requires space in the public right-of-way, either for pedestrians to enable physical distancing or for drivers to temporarily pull over without double parking. Delivery vehicles also need to find a place to unload, an increasing challenge as deliveries increase: A Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) analysis found that the volume of single-unit trucks (the type of vehicles often used for local deliveries) is now nearly 10 percent higher in northeastern Illinois than it was in March 2020.
To manage increased pickups and drop-offs, local governments can expand traditional loading or standing zone programs. Chicago, for example, has recently piloted user-paid commercial loading zones downtown. And cities like Omaha, Nebraska, are now exploring app-based systems that allow for easier reservations and payments for loading zones in commercial areas. Because the curb is also in higher demand in residential zones, cities like New York City are also experimenting with designated “neighborhood loading zones,” which allow daytime pickups and drop-offs of both people and goods in residential neighborhoods.
Many of these curb management strategies can be implemented at a low cost, with some requiring only signage coupled with public education and enforcement of the new rules. The more technologically sophisticated approaches, such as the Omaha pilot, would require additional investment.