TAPAS.network | 11 July 2022 | Commentary | John Dales

Let’s really think about the role of the kerb before our EV enthusiasm takes over

John Dales

The kerbside is a hugely significant resource - and increasingly competed over. It’s only half a century since we began to charge for vehicles to be parked there and to regulate it with all sorts of usage restrictions. The arrival of the electric vehicle era has brought a new set of expectations for its use. John Dales argues that we must keep the bigger picture firmly in mind.

FULL DISCLOSURE. I have never seen a single episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm – the well-regarded comedy show created by and starring Larry David that began in 2000 and, after 11 series, is still going. Several people I know recommend it highly, but I’m not much of a TV watcher and simply haven’t got round to trying it out. I like to think it’s also because they spelled ‘kerb’ wrongly. Over the years, I have been called a kerb-nerd as well as a street-geek, I hope affectionately. But my reason for writing this piece has nothing to do with what might charitably be described as an over-developed interest in some of the more niche aspects of street design. Rather, as is often the case with the way my mind works, it arises from the confluence of some things I have read recently with some things I am doing. 

On the reading side, my ‘Exhibit A’ is the last episode of this very publication (LTT848, 27th June). One thing that caught my eye (just possibly because it was the first item on the first page!) was the fact that new guidance on preparation of Local Transport Plans is due to land in local authority in-trays this coming autumn. Scrolling down through the piece, I was particularly interested to find that an electric vehicle charging strategy will be required as one of a number of detailed supporting documents to each LTP.

Reading yet further in LTT, it seems that these EV charging strategies will have to cover such matters as: commitments on the scale and type of charge-point deployment required to meet local needs; the maximisation of opportunities to draw in private investment; engagement with local businesses about the needs of their fleets and consideration of how these can be addressed; consideration of how charge-points will be integrated within their surrounding urban environment; and the interaction of EV charging provision with that for active travel and bus priority (amongst other matters).

Reflecting on this news, and on the Government’s own EV charging strategy, published this March, a feature piece in LTT848 noted that the lack of on-street residential charging is set to become a particularly big issue, and went on to ask what it described as ‘the big question’: What’s holding councils back in the drive for more facilities for those without driveways? (see https://bit. ly/3uWkPSv). More on that question shortly.

But first, I simply can’t pass up on the opportunity to draw attention to the title of the EV strategy, which was (wait for it) ‘Taking Charge’. Geddit? I mention this because it occurred to me that the person responsible for this strategy has previous when it comes to giving documents corny titles. Interestingly, the Foreword from the Secretary of State for Transport with which the EV strategy begins does not actually bear the name or mugshot of the person in question. That may be because of some prescience on the part of the incumbent relating to the present state of flux regarding ministerial roles, or it may be that Grant Shapps – for it was he – couldn’t decide whether to use his own name or one of the pseudonyms he has adopted in the past, such as Michael Green, Sebastian Fox, or Corinne Stockheath. 

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As I reported in May 2016 (LTT697), Grant once published a document entitled, We’re Jammin’. It was an ill-informed and even less well-argued diatribe about the evils of traffic signals and the magic of so-called ‘shared space’. However, I suspect (and devoutly hope) that no-one gave it any consideration after turning away, horror-stricken, at the imagined sight of Mr Shapps bobbing to the sound of reggae while sporting dreadlocks and a rastacap. But I digress.

So, what IS holding councils back in the drive for more facilities for those without driveways? Well, the LTT feature piece cited several factors, including: the lack of space outside homes; the lack of a statutory responsibility; a dearth of officer know-how; concerns about rapid obsolescence in a fast- changing technological field; challenges relating to the number of players involved (both within an authority and in relation to private sector operators); and the usual (but still reasonable) concerns about the cost and time involved. Oh, and the matter of getting residents and other stakeholders on board.

These are undeniably all part of the EV charging picture. Indeed speaking of pictures, it might be illustrative to briefly visit the world of art to reinforce my take on the situation. In particular to reference La Parade de Cirque (1888), a pointillist work by Georges Seurat (pictured above). Look at the inset first. Think of it as the many aspects of the EV charging question. Now think of all those dots as making up the whole of the kerbside management question. Where in the larger picture does the EV part fit? And what are the many other constituent parts that complete the whole? Surely, in order to be able to answer the particular ‘big question’ about EVs, we need to think beyond any of the individual parts, and indeed beyond how they appear in a single picture. In fact, we need to ask a different question, and a much bigger one.

That’s because it would be entirely possible to answer the domestic EV charging question and yet, by the very means of doing so, raise many others that we would not then have answers for. In other words, we risk solving one problem but thereby creating more. 

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These photographs illustrate some of the many uses and pressures to which the kerbside is put

green quotations

It’s wrong to think of the kerbside only in terms of how it relates to the carriageway and the interface with wheeled vehicles of one kind or another. We need both to think of how it relates to the footway, and to recognise that it is a place in itself

The bigger question, I would argue, is this: how can we get a grip on the kerbside?

I only seriously started asking myself this question a few years ago, when I was doing a piece of work for the Department for Transport as part of a team led by the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds. But it’s one that, in my professional experience, has loomed larger ever since. Looking back, I see that I previously treated my readers to some initial reflections on this in February 2019 (LTT766), and that I then saw fit to say the following:

“To be frank, the kerbside in most towns and cities is a basket case; a shambles. The real-world use of the kerbside typically bares no relation to what was intended. There are sections laid out for a certain kind of use that are used in several different ways. There are kerbside access ‘controls’ that are routinely misunderstood, wilfully ignored, or simply invisible... (and) the evidence of observation is that we routinely apply very little science to how we allocate kerb-space.”

A little over three years on, and a new client commission has required me to revisit the challenges of designing and managing the kerbside, and the picture is even less pretty than it was back in the pre-Covid era. What I’ve heard described as the ‘explosion’ in domestic deliveries – be that of clothes, other non-perishable goods, hot food, or (most recently) just a bag of stuff from a local supermarket – has hugely increased demand for kerbside access; and it is nigh on impossible to enforce even the simplest and most draconian waiting and loading restrictions (e.g. double yellow lines with double kerb tags) when those infringing the regulations are workers in the gig economy who are sitting on their mopeds most of the time, or van drivers who are only away from their vehicle for a few moments.

As part of this latest commission, I have been speaking to a number of people who have an interest in what does, might, or should, happen at the kerbside, in an attempt to try and better understand what is an almost bewilderingly complex environment. These people have been from local highway authorities, public transport authorities, bus operators, active travel organisations, parking providers, groups representing disabled people, micro-mobility operators, delivery companies, tech companies, and academic institutions. The list could easily have been much longer, and would have been if I’d had the scope.

I also spoke to the officers at the DfT currently tasked with trying to make sense of all that’s happening at the kerbside, and was glad to find they had recently commissioned a ‘Discovery’ project into the Provision of Kerbside Management. This is shortly to report, and I hope you will be able to read about it in LTT before too long.

In my conversation with DfT colleagues and the lead consultant for the project, I was particularly struck by the fact that someone said, “Maybe the EV charging ‘behemoth’ will be the thing that gets local authorities to sit up and take real notice of the wider kerb management challenge”. I think they might be right, and I certainly hope so.

Not that this is a challenge that needs to be, can be, or should be met by local authorities alone; because the complexity demands a concerted response from public and private sector actors alike. It also demands a very strong lead from the Government and, putting aside any private reflections you or I might have about the present state of that institution, it seems to me that the forthcoming guidance on LTPs would be a great place to get this vital ball rolling.

Perhaps the most important contributions such guidance could make would be, firstly, to establish ‘the kerbside’ as a thing that needs consideration, and then to require local authorities to produce a Kerbside Management Strategy as a detailed supporting document.

The importance of the first of these cannot, in my view, be over-estimated. A large part of the kerbside management problem is that we don’t have a fully-formed conceptualisation of what the kerbside is. Indeed, probably the only time we’ve ever thought of it in any comprehensive fashion is in the context of waiting and loading restrictions, and they’re by no means the only important consideration. Apart from anything else, it’s wrong to think of the kerbside only in terms of how it relates to the carriageway and the interface with wheeled vehicles of one kind or another. We need both to think of how it relates to the footway, and to recognise that it is a place in itself – between the footway and carriageway – where many important features might be located and where people move through or dwell a while. A place of exchange and transition.

I have never encountered any Council officer whose job description specifically embraces the many facets of kerbside management, and I think there is still only one Kerbside Strategy in all of the UK – which is the London Borough of Southwark’s and it’s been in draft form since 2017!

So, to answer my own question, the first step in getting a grip on the kerbside is a backward one, in order that we can see the challenge as a whole; that we can see the wood, not just the trees. As for the second step – which must be forward – what better than for the Government to require local authorities to prepare Kerbside Strategies and, crucially, to give them clear guidance and the necessary funding to enable the strategies to be both formulated and implemented. 

John Dales is a streets design adviser to local authorities around the UK, a member of several design review panels, and one of the London Mayor’s Design Advocates. He’s a past chair of the Transport Planning Society, a former trustee of Living Streets, and a committee member of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. He is director of transport planning and street design consultancy Urban Movement.

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT849, 11 July 2022.

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