Urban Planning and Design

The importance of coding the curb

Who says infrastructure management isn’t sexy? A digital street asset inventory can improve parking, planning, transparency, and more.

By Willa Ng

Construction on the sidewalk

Runs With Scissors / Flickr

Live in a city long enough and you're bound to get frustrated with some aspect of street maintenance. Why doesn't anyone take down the "30-minute parking" sign in front of the dry cleaner that closed up years ago? Why doesn't anyone write back when you notify officials of a pothole? Couldn't better coordination prevent work crews from tearing up your street three different times in the same month?

These situations can lead residents to feel like their government isn't paying attention or just doesn't care. But that's not the case. What's often behind these frustrations is the fact that most cities don't have the tools to coordinate what's happening on, above, and below their streets.

Cities manage a huge network of public curbside assets, a list that includes everything from parking signs and bike lanes to fire hydrants and street trees. Ideally, a city would know every asset's exact location and condition, and be able to coordinate projects across departments. But that's a very difficult task without a full digital inventory. Instead, when a job request comes in, the city has to comb through paper archives or send someone into the field --- laborious efforts that cost a lot of time and money.

Some cities have recognized the problem and launched programs to digitize their public street inventory. But not every city can afford it. Asset digitization projects can run in the millions of dollars just for partial, one-time inventories. Smaller cities without the budget resources to conduct street inventories stand to fall behind.

That's the bad news. The good news is new technology offers unprecedented ways to map, manage, and maintain street assets in real time. Advances in computer vision and machine learning can dramatically reduce the cost and increase the speed of street surveys. A number of tools and services can help cities catalogue their curbs, from Google Street View to Mapillary to Mapbox. And when all this information is combined into a single digital inventory, agencies have a powerful way to share information and coordinate projects, reducing disruptions to busy city streets and planning investments with greater insight.

In the course of meeting with cities to discuss their transportation challenges, Sidewalk's Flow team has heard many ways that digitizing inventory can help local agencies do their job and improve quality of life for residents:

More efficient parking. With an accurate parking inventory, cities can know how many parking spots exist on the street, and what rules govern those spaces. This insight can help officials identify out-of-date parking regulations, like the "30-minute parking" sign in front of the dry cleaner that shut down. It can also help cities build tools to guide drivers to a parking spot more directly, reducing the congestion, pollution, and frustration caused by excessive circling.

Faster planning. Consider a simple request: a merchant asks for bike parking to be installed in front of a store. A city without a full digital street inventory gets slowed down every step of the way. First a staff member has to visit the site to see if the bike rack will fit, then someone has to figure out what's below the curb, then someone has to make sure a new bike rack doesn't conflict with any utility work, trash pick-up, or planned cycling infrastructure in the area. From a public perspective, the wait for such a seemingly easy project can be infuriating. A digital inventory can help officials process work requests faster and reduce costs.

Smarter planning. Digital inventories carry a number of other benefits, including coordinating street closures and planning optimal paving schedules. Trade-off analyses can help allocate street space among transit vehicles, delivery trucks, parking, and other users. Real-time data about asset conditions and travel volumes can help prioritize capital investments.

Greater public transparency. Cities with a complete digital street inventory can make better use of tools like SeeClickFix or 311 apps that help residents lodge complaints about potholes and the like. The result is a more empowered community and a more transparent system for public feedback.

More reliable funding. Federal funding is often tied to the performance of infrastructure projects --- wonky metrics like street sign reflectivity or asset depreciation. Documenting every street item can be super difficult and time-consuming, but failure to do so can result in loss of funding. Digital inventories can help local governments remain compliant and keep projects on track.

Digitizing street assets faces plenty of challenges, including keeping the inventory current; an obsolete database quickly becomes useless. But one of the biggest barriers to adoption is getting the public to see these inventories as an urgent need. As John Oliver would say: Infrastructure is important, but it's not very sexy. Progressive urbanists can help bring sexy back to city streets. That bike rack you want installed, that bus stop you want improved, that pop-up park you want piloted --- coding the curb is the first step to accelerating them all.