The curb is an often overlooked feature of street design, but behind its unassuming presence lies the intermediary between pedestrian and driver, automobiles and bipedalism. Curbs are the mediator of urbanity — marking boundaries, dictating movement, and ensuring safety in a realm where vehicles might meet human vulnerability. 

But what happens when this aspect of road planning is neglected? How might we better utilize curbs to increase street safety for all transit modes? Better curbs, to me, start from building them for pedestrians who use them instead of constructing them with only cars in mind.

Deterring speeding vehicles

Think of curbs as traffic whisperers that use their cues to keep the streets orderly. This is what their purpose should be. However, curbs have often been built to the convenience of cars, with wide angular designs and inaccessible ramps. So what can we do to make roads safer using curbs? 

The first solution is easy: make dangerous driving harder.

Dutch intersections are Netherlands-inspired junctions with an emphasis on transit separation, priority signalling for cyclists, and pedestrian protections — one of which is, at the time of writing, undergoing construction on-campus at Bloor and St. George. These intersections often feature corner islands, which are raised platforms located at the corners. The islands extend the sidewalk into the intersection, reducing the crossing distance for pedestrians and providing a safe waiting area before crossing the street. 

“The road is explicitly designed to help its users — whether they’re pedestrians, cyclists or motor vehicle drivers — know where to go and how to behave,” said Benjamin Wolfe, assistant professor of psychology at UTM, for the Toronto Star.

Further, bike lanes that separate cyclists from both pedestrian and vehicular traffic through raised lanes or bollards, which are traffic posts, along those bike lanes provide a clear and safe path for cyclists. Additionally, curbs at intersections can be designed with gentle angles and wide-radius corners to facilitate smooth transitions for cyclists and minimize the risk of collisions with turning vehicles.

Curbs at Dutch intersections often feature rounded corners known as “corner refuge,” which help to slow down turning vehicles and improve visibility for pedestrians and cyclists. By decreasing the turning radius, these rounded corners encourage drivers to make slower and more controlled turns, reducing the risk of collisions with vulnerable road users. 

Accessibility and mobility

You might have felt a “roller coaster effect” while walking along Toronto’s streets — a common phenomenon where the height of the sidewalk drops at the entrance of a traditional driveway. 

Picture a sidewalk that slopes down to be level with the road. The City of Toronto’s official standard for “vehicle entrance[s] in combined curb[s] and sidewalk[s]” describes that when a segment of sidewalk contains a vehicle entrance, one side of it can have a maximum slope of 10 per cent, and the other side of the sidewalk can have a slope of two to four per cent that must create a flat space for about 3.5 feet.

Essentially, by City of Toronto standards, sidewalks only have to be flat for less than four feet at a time! These types of sidewalks can be found all over Toronto: just walk by any residential area on Ossington. This makes for a hostile walking environment for wheelchair users, people with visual impairments, children, and older folk.

The city’s standard also overlooks that, as far as I’ve seen, many roads are now almost all bordered by paved driveways, requiring a downward slope convenient for cars but inconvenient — or even hostile — to pedestrians.

By keeping curb heights consistent, the city can ensure a predictable and accessible environment for everyone — whether they are in a wheelchair, an older person, a child, or with a stroller. It’s all about creating a harmonious streetscape where everyone can move freely and safely, without fear of tripping or stumbling.

I would also like to mention tactility and accessibility — like clearly detectable surfaces, an example being textured surfaces — which make life easier for everyone, but especially for people with disabilities or impairments. The City of Toronto defines a tactile walking surface indicator as “intended to be detectable underfoot when walking or by a long white cane.” 

For someone with a visual impairment, these tactile cues serve as vital navigational aids. By feeling the warning strips and detectable surfaces with their feet or cane, people with visual impairments can orient themselves within the environment and understand the intersection’s layout. With tactile cues in place, everyone, regardless of the situation, can navigate the intersection with greater confidence and ease. 

Tactile roadmaps for navigating busy intersections allow everyone to travel confidently and independently. It’s a small touch that makes a big difference, turning a potentially daunting journey into one of safety.

The growing role of curbs in cities

I know some people may be wondering how large trucks can turn with corner islands and smaller lanes: that is, if Dutch intersections and trucks can ever exist simultaneously. I’m not too sure. Still, I’m more concerned with road safety between standard vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists: a problem that causes 19 per cent of fatalities in Canada for pedestrians and cyclists.

The International Transport Forum’s 2018 report, “The Shared-Use City: Managing the Curb,” claims that cities across the world should move away from the idea that curbs are “static and inflexible installations and more as highly flexible and self-solving puzzles.” When cities prioritize features that enhance safety, accessibility, and functionality, they send a message that they value the needs of all citizens, regardless of their abilities.

Emily Carlucci is a third-year student at Trinity College studying political science and English. She is the Urban Planning Columnist for The Varsity’s Comment section.