The Curbivore Conference’s Pandemic-Inspired, Civic-Minded, Robot-Pizza-Fueled Vision of the Future

Jason Tanz - Mar 7, 2023

Look, it’s not like the pandemic was a good thing. Far from it! But for cities, it did create certain opportunities. Streets that had been clogged by traffic were suddenly empty. Car-centric infrastructure was repurposed into pedestrian-friendly plazas and “slow streets.” And all those parking spots that were once filled with cars for hours on end? They were overtaken by restaurants’ jerry-rigged outdoor-dining extensions. Or they became micro-loading zones, hosts to a nonstop rotation of quick-turn delivery vehicles. If you were of a certain mindset, this wasn’t just a short-term adaptation to a freak disaster; it was a vision of a less auto-centric city, one that better served the city dwellers of today.

On March 3, more than 700 people of exactly that mindset poured into a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles for the Curbivore conference, a one-day outdoor event dedicated — in the words of its website — to “retrofitting curbs, sidewalks, and disused real estate into civic spaces that work to serve everyone.” That’s a broad mission, and it drew a wide array of attendants, including state Department of Transportation officials, delivery-vehicle manufacturers, garage designers, EV-charger installers, big-box retailers, venture capitalists, and a truck that sells pizza made by robots. (Lyft has participated in the Curbivore conference, but has not contributed financially to it.)

Jonah Bliss, who has a background in transportation technology and strategy, came up with the idea for Curbivore back in 2020. “Like everybody else, I had a lot of time on my hands,” he says. “And I was realizing how much the world was changing in a way that people were struggling to deal with.” Bliss saw restaurants, delivery vehicles, and land-use experts all “fighting for the same scrap of asphalt.” By getting everyone in a room (or at least a webinar — the conference was virtual until last year), maybe they could cooperate instead of compete. He pitched the idea to his friend Harry Campbell, aka “The Rideshare Guy,” who runs a website and podcast for gig workers. “I loved the name,” Campbell says. “The curb is such a focal point for so many things around transportation and mobility, and we were at a time where a lot of that was accelerating.”

The thing about curb space is, it’s basically impossible to increase the supply. And so when you increase the demand — when you introduce a wave of new uses for this limited resource — it creates a bit of a mess. You get double-parked delivery vehicles. Buses stopped in bike lanes. Restaurateurs feeding parking meters to keep their outdoor eateries open. One speaker, from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, called curb space “maybe our most valuable real estate because there are so many competing demands.”

Fortunately, there are several companies eager to help cities manage that property. One, called Automotus, installs cameras on light posts to capture usage patterns and helps cities establish dynamic loading zones that automatically charge drivers by the minute. “Commercial vehicle traffic is growing at insane rates — it’s expected to nearly double by 2030 — while passenger vehicle traffic is decreasing,” says Jordan Justus, Automotus’s founder and CEO. “The demand for the curb needs to be reflected in the supply and systems that manage it.” 

While Curbivore’s dominant mode was tech-conference optimism, there was an undercurrent of worry that, with the pandemic less of a public concern, a golden opportunity was slipping through everyone’s fingers. On one panel, Ben Schrom, a product manager for Lyft’s rideshare-optimized Maps, lamented that “we’re wasting the crisis.” During the pandemic, he noted, outdoor dining and plazas made it “fun to be a pedestrian.” “Now,” he said, “they’re tearing half of them down and turning them back into parking.”

But even if the window is closing, it hasn’t shut. One speaker from the San Francisco Department of Transportation still saw a chance to “fundamentally shift the way we do business.” Another from a curb-management company celebrated that “we are starting to realize we can reimagine the street.” Five years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine repurposing public streets in the way we have since 2020. And, at least for the people in this parking lot, it’s just as impossible to imagine ever going back.

Jason Tanz is Rev’s editor-in-chief.

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