OPINION: A Better UWS is Waiting at the Curb

This is an op-ed written by Carl Mahaney, the Director of Streetopia Upper West Side.

Upper West Siders can all agree: it’s time to rethink how we use the curb. Whether you’re a car owner looking for scarce parking, an elderly neighbor needing a little more time to cross the street, or a delivery worker just trying to do your job, the current chaos at the curb isn’t working for anyone. The New York City Department of Transportation thinks so too. That’s why they’ve chosen the Upper West Side for a pilot program to consider the many uses (and users) of our scarce curb space, and to begin to modernize how that space is managed. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that we should all embrace.

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Community District 7 is one of the densest residential neighborhoods in the country, with truly mixed use blocks, quiet residential side streets, and bustling commercial corridors. We enjoy some of the best public transit in the city; over a dozen bus routes traverse the neighborhood — an accessibility lifeline for our seniors — and there are major hubs for seven subway lines. It’s no wonder that Upper West Siders overwhelmingly prefer walking, biking or public transit to get where they’re going. Only 6% of people commute by car, and approximately 73% of households don’t even own one — that’s one of the lowest vehicle ownership rates in the country. Despite all this, our streets aren’t working nearly as efficiently or safely as they should be.

The idea of the Smart Curbs pilot program is to make curbs more responsive to New Yorkers’ actual needs. Designated loading zones could be placed in high-delivery areas so that the same truck isn’t always double parked. Trash bags could move to the curb lane, freeing up precious sidewalk space. Rain gardens could green blocks and help prevent the flooding that’s becoming more common with intense storms. Pick-up/drop-off zones for car services would allow passengers to get in and out using the sidewalk rather than having to walk into the street first. Safe, protected bike lanes would allow families to bike together with confidence. Designated bus lanes could ensure speedier service to, from, and around the neighborhood.

All these potential changes would make the Upper West Side a better, more inclusive place for everyone. Rethinking our curbs doesn’t mean that on-street parking would disappear – in all likelihood, a great deal of curbspace parking will remain. But this pilot is our chance to explore how that space can solve other needs, too. It’s a chance to consider who might benefit from this public space that isn’t able to right now. 

It’s also worth noting that the small minority of car owners who park on the street stand to gain just as much as anyone else. Car owners are also pedestrians and benefit from things like daylighting and curb extensions; they bike their children to school, too, and need protected lanes; double-parked delivery trucks inconvenience and endanger everyone on the street.

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Some business owners worry about losing nearby parking, but the truth is that most customers arrive at businesses on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or on public transit; trading a few spots for a more efficient, welcoming streetscape will only benefit local shops. Rebalancing the curb doesn’t transfer the exclusive benefit from one group to another, it enhances convenience, accessibility, and safety for everyone.

The impacts of these changes would be transformative. Imagine a future where your kids, grandkids, great-grandkids know the joy and independence of biking around the city; where loading zones and micro-hubs have significantly cut down on emissions from trucks circling the block resulting in cleaner air; where the curb is home to so many reliable bus routes, safe bike lanes, and convenient car share options that we gladly unburden ourselves from costly and time-consuming car ownership. This future is possible, and the Smart Curbs pilot is the first step toward realizing it.

Upper West Siders should be honored that the city has entrusted this neighborhood to lead the way. Being a New Yorker means sharing space, caring for your community, and celebrating diversity. The Smart Curbs pilot is our chance to do that; to help shape a sustainable and equitable city, on the Upper West Side and across the five boroughs. What if we could solve everyday annoyances and entrenched issues, just by making small changes to our curb? By listening to each other, considering everyone in the community, and working together, we have the chance to help answer that question.


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