Give the Curb Your Enthusiasm
The American city is wasting valuable real estate on parked cars.
Henry Grabar July 19, 201811:24 AM
In 1972, Berkeley, California, installed its first official curb cut. This little ramp descending from the curb into the street was the fruit of hard work by disability advocates. It was not, in fact, the nation’s first curb cut—that was in Kalamazoo, Michigan—but it would begin a revolution.
Hundreds of thousands of curb cuts followed, and what was born as a wheelchair convenience, and eventually mandated by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, soon provided a path for all kinds of street users, like kids on bicycles, parents with strollers, and senior citizens with shopping carts. Pedestrians are drawn to using curb cuts, and a street corner would look odd without them. It’s a story of how changes made for small groups wind up having positive, unforeseen externalities. It should also prompt us to look again at the stagnant, forgotten piece of infrastructure that is the American curb.
How and where we walk is a function of curb design—where is the curb cut, where are the parked cars, where are the trees? But so is the utility of emergency vehicles, taxis, public transportation, cycling, garbage pickup, and freight delivery. The space at the edge of the street plays a crucial role in stormwater management. It can provide desperately needed public and commercial space. Worth billions but given away for free, the curb is arguably the single most misused asset in the American city—and one that, more than any giant investment in apps, sensors, or screens, can determine the future of transportation.
Parking is one of the most popular words in the NIMBY lexicon.