Between the Roadway and the Sidewalk: Learning to live together at the curb (War on Cars Watch)

The curb is a simple demarcation between two spaces: the roadway and the sidewalk. While their origin had little to do with transport, they became ubiquitous during the industrial revolution as a means to manage the movement of vehicles, people, and water. The curb today is a highly contested piece of urban real estate in many cities across the globe. It has accommodated and served as a space for pedestrian access to and from the sidewalk, emergency vehicle access, access to public transport, wayfinding for visually impaired people, goods delivery and pick-up, cycling infrastructure, passenger pick-up and drop-off, repair and maintenance, waste management and surface water runoff, commercial activities (kiosks, restaurants, food trucks, cafés, ambulant vendors), and leisure. These and other concurrent demands around the curb space involve a wide range of stakeholders and authorities whose activities are often disjointed and infrequently aligned with broader strategic objectives.

Seemingly mundane, the importance of the curb derives from its role in fixing vital space required for the negotiation of cohabitation between humans and non-human entities. This light piece of infrastructure has also become a crucial reference for driverless vehicles, as it allows them to safely navigate our cities. Driverless cars have the potential to either reduce or increase traffic, make affordable transport more or less accessible, and lead to denser cities or even more urban sprawl. A century ago, cars appeared as a solution for cities immersed in heavy traffic from horse-powered vehicles and animal detritus. The broader social consequences of cars, both good and bad, were entirely unforeseen. Most architects and city planners did not respond actively to their implementation and, as a result, cities around the world bulldozed their city centers and the global explosion of suburban sprawl occurred.1 If we treat driverless cars as a mere a technological solution to the problems associated with cars, once again, their wider impacts will be overlooked.