Saturday, February 1, 2014

On-street parking: good or bad?

In this modern world, it is necessary to provide some form of parking space. However, not all parkings are identical, there are different types of parking. The main thing to know is whether they be on the street or off the street,

Off-street parking is what we are often accustomed to in North America, they are parking lots, but even there, they may take different forms, and be private parking or public parking...

For example, we have commercial parking lots, very frequent. These are private parkings, limited to the clients of the businesses that own the parking lot...

... homes  built after the invention of the car generally have a form of small off-street parking lot or garage...

... there are also underground parking lots...
...or parking garages, that may be public or private.

On-street parking in most cities tend to take the form of parallel parking on the side of the road:

 Sometimes, these parking spaces can also be angled, or even perpendicular to the road.
In terms of urbanism, the choice between on-street and off-street parking isn't innocent. Each type has its own effects on urban fabric and on the quality of the built area.

Points in favor of on-street parking

On-street parking is generally limited by the length of the street, which reduces the amount of land that they may take in a city. As they are distributed equally along the streets, they may cause less disturbance in the urban fabric and not be such an obstacle to density. Big parking lots can often create barriers to pedestrians, creating an hostile and non-inviting environment, a gaping hole in the urban fabric of a city. And that's hardly deniable, one only has to go visit commercial roads in suburbs like the Taschereau boulevard in Longueuil to become aware of what huge parking lots do in terms of the quality of a neighborhood. One doesn't feel in a city as such, but instead in a large field of pavement on which there are a few buildings here and there, as if businesses were farms amidst a field of asphalt.

Some would also add that on-street parking tends to be public and shared parking, which optimizes the use of each spot and reduces the need to have as many spots. That is generally true, but it's not an inherent advantage to on-street parking... off-street parking also can be public and shared, and it is possible for on-street parking to be reserved for the exclusive use of a resident or a business' clients. It may not be how it works most of the time, but it's certainly a possibility.

Generally, the main reason why north american urbanists like on-street parking is their ability to be a traffic-calming measure. If roads are too wide, they incite drivers to drive faster, which makes the street more dangerous and intimidates pedestrians and cyclists. But if there are two rows of parked cars on those streets, the field of vision of car drivers is narrowed and they have to be wary of fixed objects on either side of them, reducing the safe corridor they travel on. This results in car drivers slowing down and taking more care of their driving.

Here are illustrations of what common one-way or two-way streets look like without parked cars. The green blocks are moving cars, the red line with arrows on each end indicates the travel corridor the driver perceives:

Now, let's see what happens when we add parked cars (red blocks) on both side of the street:

The corridor is much narrowed, which has the result of car drivers slowing down and being more careful.

Points against on-street parking

On-street parking do not only have advantages. First, on an aesthetic level, these rows of cars permanently on each side of the street are a visual calamity for neighborhoods. But that's mainly subjective. A more objective problem is their cohabitation with cyclists, who are forced by the rules of the road to bike between the parked cars and the moving cars. This is an extremely unpleasant situation, you simply need to hit one of the side mirrors of the parked cars or to be hit by the mirrors of a moving car to fall and maybe get run over by a car. Then there are doors, if a careless car occupant opens a door in front of you, it's a disaster. In fact, on-street parking forces cyclists to do what they should NEVER do, which is to bike within the "door zone" of parked cars.

I speak from experience. After moving to the Montréal suburb of Lasalle, I decided to go downtown on bike, but not knowing the bike lanes, I ended up for a short while on Notre-Dame street (here is a Google Maps image, I would never have been taking that picture while there)

Imagine biking on this. You're doing cardio without going fast, adrenaline pumping and your heart beating a drum solo on its own. Here's how I saw it (mort=death, vie=life)
So, for cyclists, an overreliance on on-street parking looks like a death trap.

Finally, a major problem of on-street parking is that, though it is liked as a way to calm traffic and narrow streets, ironically building streets for on-street parking means building them too wide to start with. Without on-street parking, you don't actually need these very wide shoulders on either side.You can simply make one-way streets 4-5 meters wide and two-way streets 6-7 meters wide. These would be streets that wouldn't encourage speeding and that are very easy to cross for pedestrians and cyclists. They can also allow us to build higher density.

Of course, that argument is valid only for new neighborhoods, where we can choose what we can build. But what of older neighborhoods that already have wide streets? What can we do to narrow them and prevent them from turning into race tracks if we don't have parked cars? Well, we can just change the street, for example having bike lanes, adding trees as a buffer between cars and pedestrians or cyclists, or widen sidewalks.

I don't know for you, but I find these streets much more pleasant than the ones full of parked cars on either side of them, and safer too.

Finally, on-street parking makes all maintenance of the street much harder, especially for snow removal. You need to get rid of the parked cars to proceed, and these cars have to go somewhere. The result is that if on-street parking is the rule, there are often rules that forbid cars to be parked permanently on one spot. This is a disaster because it makes life harder for households who just want to have a car to use once in a while, it provides an incentive for people to use their car daily, to make sure they can park it according to the rules. Also, if there is no fees for using the on-street parking, it means that the community picks up the bill for the maintenance of parking spaces.

My opinion

  1. On-street parking should be exclusively used for short-term parking: in front of businesses for example, with places reserved for pick-up. This is a return to old habits, when cars were introduced, it was illegal to leave cars parked overnight on the street.
  2. On residential streets, on-street parking should be absent or rare, and reserved for visitors so that the places are mostly empty. Residents should have to buy and maintain their own parking lots, either on their lots or on private or public lots which they can rent. But off-street parking needs to be optional in zoning, not obligatory.
  3. It is preferable to have smaller parking lots spread around a neighborhood rather than just one or two big parking lots, to avoid having the parking lots damage the urban fabric. These lots should be open to all or to those with residential/job parking permits, and preferably have fees. This way, we avoid creating no-man's-lands and keep cars away from the streets when not in use

The worst of both worlds... typical suburban practice

On suburban residential streets, often we have the worst of both worlds... zoning imposes a lot of off-street parking AND streets are built way too large simply to allow people to park on the street too. The result is very large streets with no parked cars and very large fields of vision for drivers, thereby inciting them to drive really fast.

Here is an example in Québec City, the new neighborhood of Bourg-Royal:

The street is 11,5 meters wide (35 feet), which is more than enough for parking on either side of the street with cars in both directions not having to slow down when passing each other. And yet, every house has enough off-street parking to allow 4 or 5 cars to park off the street! So adding the off-street parking and the on-street parking, we have 7 parking spots per single-family house! Or 2-3 spots per adult in the neighborhood.

The result: likely speeding problems, a neighborhood hostile for pedestrians and a third of the land area being paved over, either for streets or for parking spaces.