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An enthusiasm for kerbs as living spaces – there are competing visions

Phil Goodwin
08 June 2018

Over the last 25 years or so (some would say much longer) there has been a growing recognition that streets perform many functions, of which provision for moving traffic is clearly important but never the only one and not always the most important. A quarter of a century ago there was an insightful (but poorly titled) project initiated by the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund in 1993, ‘The use of roads for ‘static’ purposes’, in which the universities of Huddersfield and Westminster dealt with the standing needs of freight, Carmen Hass-Klau of ETP wrote guidelines on the then best practice of ‘Streets as Living Space’; the  University of Oxford wrote on the needs of interchange; and the University of Newcastle did a path-breaking but now lost study of the importance of streets for the utility services that lay beneath them. It was ahead of its time.

On occasion this defence of the importance of streets for activities other than moving traffic has seemed to be a heresy, so alien to mainstream thinking as not even to need rebuttal, but completely ignored. Not before time, it is now closer to being part of the mainstream, notably in the 2007 ‘Link and Place’ approach of Peter Jones and his colleagues, advocating an approach based on streets as movement conduits (links) and destinations in their own right (places), and in the long-term campaigns waged by my esteemed co-columnist, John Dales.

An important new territory in this is opened up by a very thoughtful report published last month by the International Transport Forum under the title ‘The Shared Use City: Managing the Curb’. I can’t help resisting the American usage of ‘curb’ rather than our spelling of ‘kerb’, but let that pass. These things happen. But the report itself I read with excitement and in places even wonder, its argument seeming at the same time so practical, obvious, revolutionary and highly contestable. Its authors were Crist, Martinez and Grosso, and the work was supported by a corporate partnership board whose projects are designed “to enrich policy discussion with a business perspective”.

Essentially their argument is that new patterns of movement require a shift away from the use of kerb space for parked vehicles, especially in dense urban areas, so that more is available for other purposes, notably taxis and businesses providing ride-sharing services. In terms of the battle of functions, this expresses the greater claim of stopping than parked vehicles. It does so by advocating a form of dynamic, flexible, management of functions that can change from time-to-time and place-to-place, in response to new systems of monitoring and data collection. A key example would be to make life easier for shared ride services by providing more room for very short-term stops – they speak of the “move from a ‘parking city’ to a ‘pick-up and drop-off city’”. They propose to do this by establishing a classification system of street designations according to their primary purpose. 

The authors argue: “City streets serve a broad range of functions, from through-traffic routes to pedestrian thoroughfares. Many have mixed uses where motorised and non-motorised traffic compete for space. Treatments to ensure safety and manage traffic flow will vary according to the principle purpose of each street section. Arrangements for curb access will range from no-stopping zones to residential on-street parking. Policy towards access for shared ride services will vary with location. Identifying and categorising road sections by primary purpose will greatly facilitate policy-making on curb access management”.  

The manifesto is to: “Rethink streets and their curbs as flexible, self-adjusting spaces and plan accordingly. With new technologies, new rules and new use cases, curbs are no longer static, inflexible installations. Instead, curb use will resemble dynamic, highly flexible, self-solving puzzles.”

Now the idea of defining a ‘primary’ purpose of each road section is apparently simple but problematic in practice (as indeed is the equivalent tradition of defining a hierarchy of roads according to the ‘primary’ purpose of providing for local, medium and long distance trips, which has never been completely successful). As they correctly write, their proposal is “only one part of a broader shift to re-think and manage streets and curbs as flexible-use and self-adjusting spaces”. 

This broader shift is seen, with a telling synchrony, by a news report in The Guardian at the same time as the ITF was publishing its manifesto for the ride-providers. This dealt with battles in the small suburb of Segbroek in The Hague. 

Car-owning residents were offered the chance to swap their resident’s parking permit for an entirely non-transport use of kerb space – plants, a sun terrace, a play area. The car would be moved to a free nearby car park, and the participants would themselves choose what to do with the vacated space, within the general theme of ‘green and pleasant’. 

To the surprise of the organisers, the local responses were highly charged and controversial, involving great enthusiasm but also protests and abuse shouted  at the small number of residents who put flower-filled tow carts in front of their houses. At first sight, this seems odd. It wasn’t clear where the opposition came from, but it seemed to be those drivers who wanted to use not only their own frontage, but also the frontage of their neighbours, for parking. The municipality defended the scheme as a simple way of giving choices. “People get the opportunity to choose themselves what they want to do with the public space. They can park their cars in the street or start sharing cars and fill up the free parking spots for other purposes like green, bicycle parking or picnic tables.” 

So we already have at least five legitimate claimants on the use of the kerbside: the moving traffic (itself divided into cars, public transport, freight, cyclists, and pedestrians). This is about movement. The space under the space, for utilities and services, providing functions that are absolutely vital to public health, safety and comfort. The very short-term stopping inherent to all vehicle trips, including bus stops, cars, vans and deliveries. The long-term parking of all vehicles when they are not in use, which in the case of private cars will be most of the time. And the flowers, trees, stalls or works of art that make life more pleasant and enable people to talk, meet, play and relax. 

I think the problem is essentially the long-standing one of a conflict between the complex but formal legal reality of the ownership of public land, and a simple, informal but inaccurate sense of ownership of that specific land which is immediately outside your house. On the one hand, it is easy to see that to have thousands of cars parked, in many cases for 23 hours a day or more, is a huge use of space, causing obstruction, danger, difficulty of access and widespread irritation. On the other hand, when it is your own car, in front of your own house, it gives a sense of comfort and reassurance, in some cases pride, and enhances the definition of home. After all, a moving car expresses an unfulfilled desire, but a parked car symbolises an achieved objective, success, fulfilment. 

So if the problem is about ownership, let’s try – purely as a mind experiment, I insist – to think about one of the more seductive ideas of privatisation – of the kerbspace immediately outside houses in residential streets. Suppose this was up for sale. One would obviously have to make restrictions on the use of the space by the new private owners to allow emergency access to drains etc. (as indeed is done now). That’s not a new problem. But who would be allowed to be the new private owners? The simplest – and to my mind fairest – solution to this would be that ownership should be, in perpetuity, restricted to the house frontage, and added to the deeds of the house, not accumulated into a huge land bank. It’s your house, and some of the rights of ownership would extend beyond the front door to the kerbspace outside. The biggest issue of principle and practice immediately presents itself. It would have to include non-car owners. If it did, there would still be other sorts of unfairness here – what about tenants, for example – but the core idea is simple and, wouldn’t you say, rather attractive?  

Phil Goodwin is emeritus professor of transport policy at both the Centre for Transport and Society, University of the West of England, Bristol, and University College London. Email: philinelh@yahoo.com

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin

Phil Goodwin is professor of transport policy at the Centre for Transport and Society, University of West of England, Bristol, and emeritus professor at University College London. Email: philinelh@yahoo.com



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