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The Curbs of New York
New outdoor dining rules, EV charging and congestion pricing progress
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Big Apple, Small Curbs
There are myriad songs and movies titled “Streets of New York” and of course even more referencing the roads of the Big Apple. But as far as I can tell, the curbs of NYC haven’t caught pop culture’s eye enough to warrant memorializing in song or film. Perhaps the past few week’s developments, which add up to some big time revisions, will be enough to change that…
New Rules for Outdoor Dining
Starting with the freshest development, New York City Council finally released its plan for permanent outdoor dining, codifying a popular — if divisive — dining option that helped the city maintain vitality during the depths of the pandemic. While the changes make for permanent legislation, it looks like all the dining setups are actually going to be a bit on the ephemeral side: the new plan requires on-road dining sheds to be dismantled and removed every winter.
While that may appease neighbors that fear underutilized dining sheds falling into disrepair, this actually strikes me as a lose-lose. Restaurateurs won’t have a rationale to invest in, or maintain, particularly well-done setups, given that they’ll only last eight months. With some restaurants having spent as much as a million dollars on their current setups, expect to see a whole lot more plywood and glue once this becomes a Jingū-esque annual tradition of destruction and rebuilding.
Some in the restaurant industry are taking a glass half full look at things, as the fees look pretty reasonable (with different pricing for prime vs suburban neighborhoods, and permits for build-outs taking up parking spots priced slightly lower than for those on the sidewalk. Chatting with NYC Hospitality Alliance’s Executive Director Andrew Rigie (you may remember him from Curbivore 2020,) he seems happy:
The legislative process is a negotiation, and it requires comprise. We felt it was better to have year-round sidewalk cafe dining and eight months of streeteries, than no streeteries at all. The city can make adjustments in the future and there’s still a whole process that must occur to develop the design guidelines. I wouldn’t be surprised if a whole other market is created to assist restaurants with their outdoor dining, their structures, the set up and storage. But overall, we will have a much better outdoor dining system than we ever had, which has less red tape, cost significantly less, will permit thousands and thousands of restaurants that we’re never eligible to have outdoor dining before the pandemic to now have it, and have roadway dining which only a few years ago was unthinkable.
Toronto, a city not exactly known for mild winters, figured out how to make a truly permanent program. Perhaps Big Applers can look North when making the next round of adjustments. As is, the current proposal is said to have the Mayor’s backing, and should be signed-off on in June.
Trash, Chargers and Parking - Oh My!
The debate over outdoor dining runs headlong into a few other local hot-button items, especially trash management. The city has a slow-moving plan to finally join the 19th century by requiring (some, still not all) trash to be stored in cans and containers, as opposed to thrown into leaky bags on the sidewalk. While a recent report by the Sanitation Department (PDF) believes on-curb bins and containers are possible in 89% of the city, some advocates believe the new rules will mean certain restaurant-heavy streets will end up with trash bins on both sides of the sidewalk, creating a not particularly pleasant pedestrian environment.
That could be ameliorated by taking away more parking for trash containers (something the report suggests for certain neighborhoods) but NYC’s most dedicated parking enthusiasts are already up in arms about the thought of having to park a few feet further away in the United States’ most transit-served city. One way to solve this would be to charge for parking; as is, 97% of curb space in NYC is free. Establishing parking benefit districts would not only free up spots for those who most need them, the revenue could feed into programs to spruce up the streets (including keeping those trash bins tidy.)
It’s worth mentioning a few other things coming to NYC streets. NYC DOT released a new report on curbside EV charging, finding the city’s small Level 2 network achieved 99.9% uptime, and hit as high as a 34% utilization rate in December 2022. Hardware innovators Itselectric also look to be making good progress on their initial deployments at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
On a less cheery note, Mayor Adams doesn’t appear to be much of a Vision Zero fan. His latest budget, already highly contested, looks to have the NYPD cut nearly 500 crossing guard positions. Combined with recent attrition, the city’s crossing guard count will be about 700 workers smaller than it was in fiscal year 2019. Oh, and the city also looks to be cracking down on street vendors. Better look both ways before crossing the street!
Congestion Pricing Squeezes Forward
Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of commuters into Manhattan travel by public transit, (see above) New Jersey politicians continue to grandstand about the city’s plan to add a congestion pricing cordon to its prime business districts. While an effort to overturn things at the Federal level seems to have stalled out, New Jersey State Senators are working on a plan to stop the sharing of driver registration information with New York, which would hamper billing and enforcement.
It’s worth reiterating that by using market dynamics to tame demand, cities with congestion pricing create much more livable, healthy, and walkable streets. (See this 279 page TfL report on London’s results, if you’re truly geeky.) The other upside, of course, is the revenue it brings in. While the estimated $1 billion in new revenue (less maintenance costs) isn’t enough to make a big dent in the MTA’s overpriced capital budget, it would certainly make an impact on funding operations. As is, the agency is looking to increase fares in August, which will likely hurt the city’s nascent ridership recovery. For the city’s most marginalized commuters - congestion pricing can’t come soon enough.
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HOT INDUSTRY NEWS & GOSSIP
Another delivery bot company enters the fray… Despite much of the action happening in the U.S., Europe has developed its own players in the autonomous delivery space. Now one of the largest — Delivers.AI — is planning both a push into America, starting with Georgia, as well as a 1,000 unit deployment in the U.K.
Minnesota magic: Despite possessing the narrowest of legislative margins, Minnesota’s progressives are quickly getting to work on updating the state. One new law means highway expansions can’t proceed unless they’re paired with other projects that would keep the state on track to reduce VMT 20% by 2050, which should basically stop new highway building dead in its tracks. Next up looks to be a law that would guarantee a minimum wage for TNC drivers; the bill currently awaits the governor’s decision.
Texas tunnelin’ trouble: Governance is looking less good down in Texas, as Austin’s plans to build an urban rail system have taken an ugly turn. The original “Project Connect” promised Austinites dozens of miles of rail, centered around an underground subway section downtown that tied multiple lines together. The most recent proposal has slimmed that down to a 9.8 mile system that runs entirely at-grade, averaging a pokey 15 miles per hour. Despite now being no better than a streetcar, cost estimates still peg the project at at least $4.5 billion dollars. While we’ve highlighted the diminishing returns America’s reduced state capacity tends to produce on civil engineering, this is a new low. At nearly $500 million per mile, this is more than double the price per mile that European cities are paying to build fully grade separated, automated subway lines through dense, historic city centers.
The dirty air caucus: At the federal level, the House passed a bill that would overturn a recent EPA ruling that improved truck emission standards, teeing up a likely veto from President Biden. It’s worth noting that the passage of its companion bill in the Senate can be blamed squarely on Senator Manchin’s performative “centrism” and Senator Feinstein’s dereliction of duty.
In California news: Lots of policy updates this week, it seems. The California Coastal Commission needs to bring its idea of “environmentalism” out of the 1950s, as it put the kibosh on many San Diego streateries, some as far away as 2.5 miles from the beach, in favor of ever more parking. In happier news, AB-645, which would legalize speed cameras, looks to still be alive in the state assembly. Governor Newsom is championing a plan to speed up CEQA challenges to vital infrastructure projects. And Representative Robert Garcias (D-Long Beach) has introduced a bill to discourage parking minimums nationwide.
LA transit breakthrough: LA Metro announced its Regional Connector will open on June 16th, tying together three of the region’s rail lines with a new tunnel through Downtown. By reducing transfers and speeding up travel time, the project will surely put not just more butts in transit seats, but get more feet on streets and curbs countywide. It’s worth noting this project could have essentially opened 30 years prior, were it not for former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. (This newsletter keeps scores!)
Yelpi’s List? Activist investors are pushing to merge Yelp into Angi (née Angie's List) in what would be a sad end for a storied brand. Remember when that little red app was the first place you'd look to discover a nearby restaurant? In early 2018, "services" overtook "restaurants and retail" as Yelp's main revenue driver. It's hard to get excited about opening an app that shows you 100 sponsored reviews for HVAC repair...
Dash cash splash: Evidently the labor market is still hot, as DoorDash is planning to spend some big bucks as it looks to onboard more delivery workers. Expect to see a big OOH (outdoor advertising) campaign, specifically targeting Dasher acquisition, in SF, D.C., Atlanta, Detroit, Miami, Baltimore, Louisville and NOLA.
Them’s some big trucks! Ford CEO Jim Farley inadvertently almost acknowledged the continued gigantification of America’s trucks - both electric and gas powered. “I have no idea what’s going on in this industry right now,” he claimed, adding “These batteries are huge.” Not only do bigger trucks require more batteries or gas to power, they’re slower to stop and generally feature worse pedestrian visibility. As this handy diagram illustrates, pedestrians are actually safer crossing in front of an M1 Abrams tank than they are in the way of certain late model pickups.
On to the links: Food and wine drama from West Coast to East Coast. Letting your staff go and not paying them severance leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Chinese group-buying juggernaut gets into delivery. Mickey a YIMBY? Uber and Waymo serve Phoenix curbs. Fresh ideas for shared mobility in India. Fundraising activity cools. Meet the "donut logistics company." Deliveroo expands in Qatar. Microcars make big trouble in Amsterdam.
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- Jonah Bliss & The Curbivore Crew