Curb Lanes Should Be A Public Good: How Publicly-Collected Open Data Can Make That A Reality

Jake Belman
July 16, 2021

What Good Is Open Data?

In 2005, Google joined forces with public transit agency TriMet to create the first-ever open-source transit dataset. Their data, packaged in a lightweight format we now call General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), comprehensively described the transit system’s schedule and service. Since then, hundreds of transit agencies on six continents have released open-source GTFS feeds. Folks around the world have used GTFS to build better transit direction apps like Transit App and Citymapper, design tools to help transit agencies communicate better with passengers, track subway cars in real time, and demonstrate racial inequities in high-frequency transit service. Not only does GTFS allow transit users to ride smarter— it also gives regular citizens a say in how their transit system looks. None of this would be possible without open data.

Curb Lane Regulations: What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

If GTFS acts as a detailed map of Transitland, Curbland is a vast, uncharted wilderness. True, it’s not too hard to figure out what rules apply to a curb space when you’re standing next to it. After all, there are signs. But all these signs are spread far apart from one another, and you can’t take them in all at once. In other words, there’s no parking map. A map allows you to plan, to measure, to understand and improve. Parking, loading and no stopping signs scattered across your town only allow users to answer one question: Can I park right here, right now?

You might think that most cities maintain a comprehensive dataset of their curb lane rules. You might think they update that dataset every time they change the rules. That isn’t the case at all. Here’s how most North American cities update their curb rules:

  1. A municipal staff member files a change order to change a curb sign
  2. A worker drives to the location on the change order and replaces the sign
  3. That’s it.

No digital documentation. Maybe no paper record, even. In most cities, the sign’s rule rules. If you put up a convincing enough No Parking sign on your street, your city probably wouldn’t be able to tell if it was one of theirs (do not attempt). In other words: your city probably doesn’t have comprehensive, up-to-date data about its curbside regulations.

Maybe this is all well and good with you if you’re happy with the way streets are managed where you live. Or maybe you aren’t, and you’d really like to have a say in how curb space is designated. In that case, you might want some data on existing curbside regulations. That curb data doesn’t exist… yet.

Curb + Your Enthusiasm = Curb Data

We could wait forever for municipal agencies to collect and share curb regulation data, or we could do it ourselves. It’s not hard, and we already have all the tools we need to do it.

A Standard Data Format

Transit has GTFS – and curb lanes have CurbLR. Created by SharedStreets, a project of the non-profit organization Open Transport Partnership, CurbLR is written in a simple, lightweight format that is still comprehensive enough to represent every specific type of curb regulation, like “No Parking, Mondays and Thursdays 4-6PM, due to parking space yoga class” or “Free Parking for Scooters with Dogs Only”.

Mapping The Curb

CurbLR describes the location of a curb rule as the distance from the start of the block – so to collect CurbLR formatted curb regulation data you’ll need a linear referencing survey tool. SharedStreets provides these in the form of little measuring wheels called CurbWheels. They also have iOS and Android apps to automatically convert the regulations you find to CurbLR here.

Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you could create CurbLR data without any of these tools— just head out with a pal and a measuring tape, and get friendly with the CurbLR data format.

Sharing Your Data

Once you’ve collected some curb regulations for your block, your street, or your neighbourhood, you can upload your CurbLR data to a public repository via GitHub. That way, other people in your city can use your work to study the curb, lobby the city for better curb regulations, and make cool apps.

What Could We Do With Open Curb Data?

What, indeed. So far, we don’t know of any cities that have open curb data. But here are some ideas we have, based in part on what folks have done with GTFS:

1. Identify Curb Inequities
Just like the racial disparities in access to high-frequency transit, there are likely to be curb access disparities, too. Do wealthier areas have disproportionately more free parking? Are parking prices higher in more racialized communities? Researchers and concerned citizens can dig into the data to find out.

2. Justify Repurposing Parking Spaces
Open curb regulation data could allow users to identify long strips of under-utilized free parking that could be replaced with something better — like a bike lane. Or a row of restaurant patios, so customers can social distance and restaurants can stay open. With open data, folks can prove that these changes won’t hurt the city’s bottom line.

3. Build an App to Reduce Cruising for Parking
Drivers spend a lot of time going in circles looking for parking. In the meantime, they create noise, congestion, and burn fuel. And when they’re distracted looking for an available spot, they’re less likely to notice a cyclist passing by. An app based on open CurbLR data could direct drivers to the nearest stretch of legal parking, and make everyone safer and happier.

4. Plan our Curbs Openly and Collaboratively
Together, we can develop an open, community-driven, chaotic-but-smart process for suggesting new curb lane rules to our cities. Once a city’s curb regulations are all uploaded to GitHub, folks can suggest changes directly on the document for their city to review. Whether or not your city takes you up on your suggestions, having an open forum to raise complaints about curb regulations and propose improvements will put pressure on them to act. And with software like CurbIQ that allows city planners to seamlessly create and update CurbLR curb regulations, your city has no excuse not to.

In short, we could use open curb data to improve the way we use the curb and hold our elected officials accountable when the curb doesn’t meet our needs. Through collective awareness and action, we could accelerate improvements to our city streets and create the curbs we want.

There’s no question that this is a lot of work. There are a whole lot of signs to map. But we’ve improved our cities before, and we have the collective power and gumption to do it again. Here’s to mapping the concrete wilderness. Happy Curbing!

Jake Belman
Jake is a Transit Technology and Data Analyst who specializes in the design and development of custom intelligent transportation system solutions. He is an experienced computer programmer and received his bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from McGill University.
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