As we move into the post-COVID era, many cities wonder if their costly office towers will ever be full again. Perhaps they are asking the wrong question, as the humble street curb is becoming the hub of commerce around the world.
Curbivore, a recent conference in Los Angeles discussed the amazing transformation of the curb in cities around the world. The conference was co-founded by ride-share and delivery expert Harry Campbell, aka The Rideshare Guide.
Curbivore participants included Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles, leading companies like Uber, Uber Eats and Alto, startups like instant delivery app JOKR, which recently raised $260 million, academic experts and business leaders, and a big gaggle of delivery robots.
The premise of Curbivore is that in cities around the world, a battle is being waged for use of the curb lane. Will it just be metered parking for cars, or will it remain as reimagined during COVID, as a place for outside dining, food, grocery and pick-up of ‘vice’ products like alcohol, cannabis and nicotine?
Curbivore defined itself as “not just the act of eating or drinking on the street or sidewalk, but a reflection that curb space is limited, and cities and businesses must work together to equitably share these prized pieces of real estate.”
The stakes, for cities like Los Angeles and many other destinations, are real.
LA Mayor Garretti (awaiting confirmation as Ambassador to India) welcomed attendees after what he called “the worst two years of our lives,” the COVID pandemic. Some 120,000 restaurants shut down in the US in 2021, according to conference participants. For others, use of the curb was critical to their pandemic survival. Garcetti noted that 80% of LA restaurants said they who’ve shut down if not for online delivery or the 1700 outdoor dining permits that were issued.
According to the conference participants, a lot of confusing but exciting developments are taking place at the curb, in this new era of takeout ordering and informal outdoor dining. These include pop-up kitchens and cloud kitchens, dark kitchens, and e-bike, scooter and robot delivery over the ‘last mile.’ Then there are even delivery drones.
Robot delivery companies like Coco, often working with giants like Uber Eats, had a jamboree at the show. Different designs from Coco, Serve Robotics, Kwikbot and more showed off skater-like grace scooting around the lot. Several bots are already in action on the streets of Hollywood and in Westwood around UCLA. While the robots have the issues you’d expect, like the problem ED-209 from Robocop had with stairs, advocates insist they can work in environments like a college campus or an airports and cut down on delivery costs.
As organizers put it, “Commerce has moved to the curb, and the new normal relies on delivery and pickup, and on retrofitting curbs, sidewalks, and dis-used real estate into civic spaces that work to serve everyone.”
This evolution is already making a difference for travelers around the US and the world. Word-class destinations like Barcelona and Paris have long been known for curbside dining. US cities like New York and Los Angeles, not so much. It was particularly striking in LA, where the Mediterranean climate makes outdoor dining possible more than 300 days a year.
Driven by COVID (no inside dining was allowed for many months in Los Angeles), then by customer demand, restaurants and bars have claimed that curb, sidewalk or parking lot space for al fresco dining. Meanwhile, these and other businesses survived via through curb-based delivery apps for food, booze and other necessities.
Curbivore explored the changing curb and the city around it. The show also showed how to reimagine the conference and trade show model while COVID-19 is still an issue.
The conference, which attracted over 500 attendees and exhibitors, was held on the asphalt of a temporarily repurposed parking lot. Speaker panels were held in a large tent open on all sides. Exhibitors met prospects at open tables under canopies. Vehicles of all kinds, from food trucks and delivery e-bikes, drones and robots, were on display the parking lot.
Organizers had asked, “Join us in sunny LA for an all-outdoors event on March 4th” It was chilly and rainy, but the outdoor format was still well-executed and reassuring in a city just coming out of restrictive COVID regulations. Panelists spoke to the crowd of 500 under the tent, revival style.
As one urban planning expert, Professor Donald Shoup of UCLA put it, “There’s an obscene amount of asphalt and the city makes it hard to use for anything else.” Meanwhile, “Parking hasn’t changed since 1935, when the parking meter was invented.”
Still, entrepreneurs and visionaries have figured out ways to reuse that asphalt, from a night market in Miami to the popular Cicalevia bike and walk event that take over parts of Los Angeles.
Such innovation is key to survival. Canter’s Deli on Fairfax’s has long drawn tourists from around the world to enjoy its thick corn beef and pastrami sandwiches, its sassy waitresses and late-night hours. But Alex Canter, a 4th generation operator, says, “Not many restaurants are 90 years old. My family has always taken this “adapt or die” mentality.”
In 2013, Alex began experimenting at Canter’s by adding fourteen online ordering services. Online orders flooded in, and revenue grew 30%, but managing all the services was unsustainable. Canter and his team created Ordermark to enable Canter’s and other restaurants to reach their full online ordering potential.
“We have gluten free products and avocado toast, which a Jewish deli should never have,” said Canter. “We even have a presence on TikTok. It’s so important to go out and get the customer wherever they are, not sit around and wait.”
As City Council Member Alex Fisch of Culver City put it, “Cities are magic.” And imaginative use of a city’s curbs will help keep that magic going.