By Jenni Bergal
The National Association of City Transportation Officials estimates that at least 100 U.S. cities have created curbside pickup zones for restaurants, according to spokesperson Alex Engel.
That's been a lifeline for restaurant owners, says Mike Whatley, a vice president at the National Restaurant Association. Since the start of the pandemic, the association estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 restaurants and dining establishments have permanently shut down, and it projects the final number will be much higher. It also forecasts that the industry is on track to lose $240 billion in revenue by the year's end.
"These curbside pickup zones are incredibly helpful. During COVID they've become essential," Whatley says. "The ability to pull right in front of a restaurant and have someone come out and give you the meal is efficient. And if you're nervous about coming in, you don't have to step inside."
For Justin Gallus, owner of Plates Neighborhood Kitchen in Raleigh, having the special zone is important because without the revenue from pickup and takeout, his business would be "in more dire financial straits" than it is already. "It's going to be an integral part of our business model at least in 2021, and maybe longer. Who knows?"
Pickup zones and pop-up patios
Local governments have tried to help restaurants with parking in other ways. Some temporarily suspended enforcement in the early months of the pandemic, although many have begun ticketing again.
In Kansas City, Kansas, for example, parking enforcement stopped in March, and transportation officers responded only to safety issues, such as blocked fire hydrants and handicapped parking violations. Regular patrolling and enforcement resumed in June.
Some cities and counties also started allowing sidewalk dining, or closed off parking lanes or even whole streets to make space for curbside cafes. Tampa officials suspended city code to let restaurants expand onto public sidewalks and offer outdoor seating. In Oklahoma City, officials created an administrative permit process for restaurants to temporarily operate in adjacent on-street parking spaces.
Some cities and counties established both streateries and curbside restaurant pickup zones.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, transportation officials closed off entire streets in some areas to permit restaurants to set up tables for outdoor dining, and the county created 42 temporary curbside pickup zones.
"As engineers, we have a certain perspective about how the road was to be used. Then we thought maybe it could be repurposed to help restaurants," says Michael Paylor, traffic engineering chief for the county's Department of Transportation. "We wanted to help keep these businesses viable during this emergency."
More than temporary?
Months into the pandemic, all but a handful of states now allow indoor dining, typically with limited occupancy and other restrictions. That means growing demand for street parking.
In Austin, which had created 71 food priority zones for restaurants using about 500 parking spaces, officials decided in June to change plans after the state allowed businesses to reopen and no longer prohibited indoor dining.
"We knew it was going to be important that we had plenty of parking space availability for people to go to the brick-and-mortar places and the businesses downtown," says Jason Redfern, Austin Transportation's parking enterprise manager. So the city did away with its restaurant pickup zones in June and instead used its existing parking app to give customers two free validations for 15 minutes each for use at any of the 3,000 downtown metered parking spaces.
"Carving out parking spaces in front of a business just for that business's use is not something we are wanting to continue," Redfern said. "As demand picks up, we have to go back to paid parking transactions, so that the businesses that are open continue to have people coming into their business."
But some cities, such as Raleigh, are keeping their curbside pickup zones, at least for a time.
"Restaurants are the lifeblood of our downtown," says Matthew Currier, the city's parking manager. "By providing these zones, it helps give them a leg up."
The city now has about 120 zones adjacent to restaurants and retailers, mostly downtown and near North Carolina State University, Currier says. He doesn't know how long the city will keep the zones, as it's a balancing act between retailers that don't do pickup and want parking for their customers and restaurants that need the spaces for takeout. But for now, the zones are staying.
"At the end of the day, we're going to do everything we can to support our businesses that drive people to come to downtown," he says. "If nobody comes and these businesses fail, we've killed our downtown when we could have done something."
Whatley, of the restaurant association, says it's important for restaurant owners that curbside zones remain, especially for those customers fearful of dining in who like the convenience of pulling up to a free space and picking up their order.
"Post-COVID, I think there's going to be clamoring for that to continue," he says. "The habits being formed by consumers are becoming ingrained."
Even before the pandemic, cities already were exploring ways to transition hourly meter spaces into loading zones, says Anne Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon who studies parking and transportation policy. "COVID has accelerated the degree to which cities have already been thinking about ways to change parking," she says.
Jenni Bergal is a staff writer for Stateline. This story was reprinted with permission from Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.