COVID-19 offers opportunity to rethink curb space

Key ideas

  • COVID-19 has changed demand for curb space in communities across northeastern Illinois.

  • Local governments have piloted new curb uses, including outdoor dining and designated zones for curbside pickup and deliveries.

  • Public officials may consider making these innovations permanent, while taking into account the impact on all community members.

A busy curbside is a good indicator of a healthy economy. In many municipalities, the curb is primarily used for parking. Other purposes include loading zones, taxi stands, outdoor seating, and lanes for bikes, buses, or cars. The curb is especially valuable in places where land is at a premium, from Chicago’s Loop to the downtowns and main streets of communities throughout northeastern Illinois. 

Photo of a bike lane and intersection

Now, COVID-19 has introduced new demands for the curb. Safety measures restrict the use of enclosed spaces and require that all establishments — both indoor and outdoor —accommodate “physical distancing,” reducing overall capacity. In many of the region's denser areas, the nearest and sometimes only available alternative space for dining, social gathering, and community convening is outside the front door: on the sidewalk or in the street. Many residents have also embraced curbside pickup and deliveries, because they are unwilling or unable to spend time in a shared public space during the pandemic. As a result, local governments and businesses have had to innovate overnight while working together. 

These innovations now offer an opportunity. Communities across northeastern Illinois are evaluating whether the curb changes piloted during COVID-19 — from outdoor dining to curbside pickup — should be continued through the coming months, or even made permanent. But it will take thoughtful consideration to address the many competing demands for this space.

 

The future of curb use

Some behaviors may persist even after the COVID-19 crisis ends.  A survey conducted by McKinsey & Co. found that 40 to 50 percent of respondents were interested in continuing behaviors like curbside pickup and grocery deliveries. Furthermore, residents and business owners alike may grow to prefer curbside outdoor dining. 

Even before COVID-19, behaviors that increase demand for the curb, such as e-commerce, were already growing. Other uses, such as curbside electric vehicle charging may emerge in coming years. And communities are increasingly adopting and implementing  “Complete Streets”  policies — roadway redesigns that allocate space to a multitude of users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. Recently, cities like Seattle and San Francisco have taken this philosophy a step further by explicitly prioritizing curb uses like non-motorized travel, commerce, and green space in lieu of parking.  

These approaches are also supported by ON TO 2050, the regional comprehensive plan for northeastern Illinois. The plan calls for communities to develop compact, walkable communities, by managing parking and adapting the street, curb, and sidewalk to meet new demands.  

 

How to implement curb innovations

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. 

Photo of a street with cars and trucks
 
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.  

 

Key considerations for public officials

When evaluating permanent conversions of curbside parking spaces to people spaces, such as restaurants and public gathering spaces, local officials need to consider the following:    
 
Parking and transit. Identify how much parking you actually have within one-quarter and a half mile of attractions. Despite popular opinion, many commercial districts now have more parking than they need. Do people know where parking is located? Is parking area signage easy to see and understand? Consider developing apps or maps to help people find the closest parking or transit to their destination. Work with businesses to educate their clients on parking availability and access to other options, such as public transit and biking. 
 
Accessibility. How will the change affect people who experience mobility challenges, including seniors, individuals with disabilities, and parents with small children? Consider engaging impacted groups to map out how you might be able to provide new curbside spaces, while still ensuring safe travel for everyone.   
 
Community engagement. Use technology to further engage businesses and community members to hear what they want on their streets and inform residents of these new offerings. Be prepared for residents who have a hard time with change. How might you allay their fears? 

Related resources:  

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COVID-19 offers opportunity to rethink curb space

Key ideas

  • COVID-19 has changed demand for curb space in communities across northeastern Illinois.

  • Local governments have piloted new curb uses, including outdoor dining and designated zones for curbside pickup and deliveries.

  • Public officials may consider making these innovations permanent, while taking into account the impact on all community members.

A busy curbside is a good indicator of a healthy economy. In many municipalities, the curb is primarily used for parking. Other purposes include loading zones, taxi stands, outdoor seating, and lanes for bikes, buses, or cars. The curb is especially valuable in places where land is at a premium, from Chicago’s Loop to the downtowns and main streets of communities throughout northeastern Illinois. 

Photo of a bike lane and intersection

Now, COVID-19 has introduced new demands for the curb. Safety measures restrict the use of enclosed spaces and require that all establishments — both indoor and outdoor —accommodate “physical distancing,” reducing overall capacity. In many of the region's denser areas, the nearest and sometimes only available alternative space for dining, social gathering, and community convening is outside the front door: on the sidewalk or in the street. Many residents have also embraced curbside pickup and deliveries, because they are unwilling or unable to spend time in a shared public space during the pandemic. As a result, local governments and businesses have had to innovate overnight while working together. 

These innovations now offer an opportunity. Communities across northeastern Illinois are evaluating whether the curb changes piloted during COVID-19 — from outdoor dining to curbside pickup — should be continued through the coming months, or even made permanent. But it will take thoughtful consideration to address the many competing demands for this space.

 

The future of curb use

Some behaviors may persist even after the COVID-19 crisis ends.  A survey conducted by McKinsey & Co. found that 40 to 50 percent of respondents were interested in continuing behaviors like curbside pickup and grocery deliveries. Furthermore, residents and business owners alike may grow to prefer curbside outdoor dining. 

Even before COVID-19, behaviors that increase demand for the curb, such as e-commerce, were already growing. Other uses, such as curbside electric vehicle charging may emerge in coming years. And communities are increasingly adopting and implementing  “Complete Streets”  policies — roadway redesigns that allocate space to a multitude of users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users. Recently, cities like Seattle and San Francisco have taken this philosophy a step further by explicitly prioritizing curb uses like non-motorized travel, commerce, and green space in lieu of parking.  

These approaches are also supported by ON TO 2050, the regional comprehensive plan for northeastern Illinois. The plan calls for communities to develop compact, walkable communities, by managing parking and adapting the street, curb, and sidewalk to meet new demands.  

 

How to implement curb innovations

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. 

Photo of a street with cars and trucks
 
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.  

 

Key considerations for public officials

When evaluating permanent conversions of curbside parking spaces to people spaces, such as restaurants and public gathering spaces, local officials need to consider the following:    
 
Parking and transit. Identify how much parking you actually have within one-quarter and a half mile of attractions. Despite popular opinion, many commercial districts now have more parking than they need. Do people know where parking is located? Is parking area signage easy to see and understand? Consider developing apps or maps to help people find the closest parking or transit to their destination. Work with businesses to educate their clients on parking availability and access to other options, such as public transit and biking. 
 
Accessibility. How will the change affect people who experience mobility challenges, including seniors, individuals with disabilities, and parents with small children? Consider engaging impacted groups to map out how you might be able to provide new curbside spaces, while still ensuring safe travel for everyone.   
 
Community engagement. Use technology to further engage businesses and community members to hear what they want on their streets and inform residents of these new offerings. Be prepared for residents who have a hard time with change. How might you allay their fears? 

Related resources:  

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