An Existential Lesson in Curb Space: When Parking Is Not Always Parking Kitchener, Ontario, Canada


Is there a successful downtown where curb space isn’t trying to serve multiple functions? The curb may be the most valuable publicly-owned real estate, exactly because it’s trying to accommodate so many users: pedestrians, parked vehicles, retail, plazas, and more. Kitchener, Ontario decided to allow the curbs on King Street (the city’s main street) to meet all of these needs, by recognizing that demands change throughout the day, week and year.

Designed to put pedestrians first, King Street was reconstructed in 2010 to include a wide range of elements that encourage slower speeds and pedestrian access. Beyond just traffic calming though, Kitchener installed European-style bollards that provide flexibility to accommodate events and festivals. The bollards—freestanding, removable posts that delineate on-street parking spaces—are used to convert on-street parking spaces into areas for outdoor cafes, patios and restaurant seating. The curb was also redesigned as nearly flat concrete on an angle that allows cars, strollers, and wheelchairs easier access up to the sidewalk. The redesign allows people to more easily and safely cross to where they have to go.

The bollards can be moved to either the road edge or into the sidewalk. This allows the same curb space to be used as either on-street parking or a pedestrian area, depending on the activities occurring in town that day (or even during that hour). Each business is granted some control over the curb space in front of their property. If a restaurant believes more tables are valuable to them during warm weather, the bollards are placed at the edge and more sidewalk space is created. That same space during inclement weather, or early in the morning when people aren’t interested in sitting outside, can easily be converted to street parking. And each business on the same street can make the decisions that work for them without significant cost or energy.

The ultimate point of this flexible street design is to recognize that curb space, which is notoriously inflexible, can be shaped to meet time-specific demands. This is the same principle as demand-responsive pricing: when there’s demand for a space, let’s recognize that value and serve that need at a price the user can bear. When the demand for parking isn’t there, let’s not waste the space, but instead let it be something else—whether that be a plaza, restaurant, or better sidewalk.