Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The importance of impressions: how on-street parking gives a false impression of car dominance on urban streets

On-street parking is one of the main points where I strongly disagree with the New Urbanists, I've already spoken about it a few times, but I wish to come back to it. New Urbanists tend to favor on-street parking for a few reasons:
  • For traffic-calming, cars parked on the street represent obstacles to moving cars and narrow the streets, which incites drivers to go more slowly and carefully
  • For pedestrian protection, as parked cars create a barrier of steel between moving vehicles and pedestrians on sidewalks
  • For aesthetic reasons, to keep the front of lots devoid of driveways and garages (often pushed to a back alley)
These two images are both from Markham's New Urbanist development, within hundreds of meters of each other...
...they illustrate what effect relocating driveways to back alleys and relying more on on-street parking has
 I don't really disagree with what they say, I just think that these things are true only based on certain assumptions, basically taking a classic American suburb then tweaking it rather than really challenging its basic design. I would counter:
  • It is better to have narrow streets with objects like walls, fences and trees bordering them than to rely on wide streets and the presence of temporarily parked vehicles to narrow them. When you build a wide street in prevision of on-street parking and there are few parked cars, the street is wide and incites speeding.
  • A barrier works both ways, if parked cars prevent cars from going on the sidewalk, they also create a psychological barrier for pedestrians to keep them off the street and on narrow sidewalks.
  • Though on-street parking does keep house fronts from being laden with garages and driveways, unbroken lines of parked cars are no better esthetically.
One of the points I would add against on-street parking, especially urban areas, is how much of a claim it represents for cars on urban streets. What I mean by that is that on-street parking leads to the near permanent presence of dozens on cars on urban streets, wherever you look, you will always notice large amounts of cars everywhere. What is wrong with that?

Impressions matter

I think we must not underestimate the effect that impressions have on people's willingness to favor or oppose certain reforms. The fact is that the constant presence of dozens of cars on an otherwise pedestrian-oriented street gives the impression that cars are much more numerous and essential than they really are. This impression then supports the feeling that we cannot afford to take space away from cars. Cars are always occupying most of the space that was given to them, so if anything, the feeling we get is that they need more space, not less.

But in truth, on many urban streets, cars are actually pretty few, here is an example I've spotted recently, Sainte-Catherine street in Montréal, a main commercial arterial I've talked about many times. It's a one-way street with two travel lanes and parking on both sides of the street. Here are some pictures I took of it last week. This was a bit after the Friday PM peak, around 6 to 7 PM.

There's a lot of cars, isn't it? In every photo there is a least a dozen cars in the foreground. But what happens if I remove the parked cars? Sadly, I don't have Photoshop, but I'll add black blocks to cover them.

On this long stretch of road of maybe one kilometer, there's less than a dozen car (and a bus) visible
On this 150-meter block, there's 4 cars visible
Good visibility up to 300 meters and only 6 cars visible
Just one car on its lonesome in a space around 1 000 square meters in area (150 meters times 6 meters).
In all these cases, there tends to be one car moving per 30 to 100 meter of roadway. That's a quite small amount of cars traveling on the street. Meanwhile, the sidewalks are full, not least because about half the sidewalk is given over to trees or crap like parking meters and poles.

Of the 20-21 meters of right-of-way, fully 60% (12-13 meters) is given to cars, despite how few there are
Worse, only about half the sidewalk is a pedestrian corridor, the rest is a buffer for poles, trees and parking meters
Another section of Sainte-Catherine street, in green the pedestrian corridor, in orange the buffer zone for fixed objects
Any proposal to reduce the space for cars gets met with roars of disapproval and shock. And why shouldn't they? There are tons of cars parked permanently on the street, even when one leaves, another takes its place. So visually, people feel like cars actually need all of their space, meanwhile, half the sidewalk is largely empty because objects block the path of pedestrians and force them to stick to an unobstructed corridor that's only half the width of the actual sidewalk. Even pedestrians come to feel like car drivers need all the space they currently have, and maybe more.

That is part of what I mean when I say parked cars "claim the street for cars". The other part is in how they signal to pedestrians "stick to your sidewalk, on the other side of us is car space". Parked cars are like flags flying on the street, reminding us all that "the street is for cars". 

Out of sight, out of mind... but when you're always in sight, how can people ever get you out of their mind?

By the way, why put objects so far from the curb into pedestrian space? My guess is because parked cars are too close to the curb, so we put poles, trees and other fixed objects far from the curb to keep a buffer between them and cars and to allow car passengers to exit without dinging their door on objects near the curb. On the other hand, if you'd have 4 travel lanes rather than 2 lanes and 2 parking lanes, since moving cars stick to the middle of their lane rather than hug the curb (people maintain buffers while driving, but once parked want their car to be as far from moving cars as possible), you don't need to put objects far into pedestrian space.

In this image, moving cars are red, parked cars are blue and pedestrians are in green. The black circle is an object (pole, tree, etc...). On the left, it's a 2-lane, one-way street with parking like Sainte-Catherine, on the right, it's a 4-lane 2-way street without parking. As the cars next to the curb are farther from it if they're moving in their own lane rather than parked, objects can be moved closer to the curb while maintaining the same buffer with the closest cars.

My point is that impressions matter, and parked cars maintain the impression that cars are far more present and essential to the health of urban areas than they really are,. If we remove cars parked on the street, I think it would make it easier to get people to support narrowing streets or to reintroduce two-way streets.

Though here I spoke specifically of one street in Montréal, I think the same observations could be made on a lot of streets all over North America.


  1. The other problem here is that cars are big and take up a lot of space, so it's not even a question of how many cars are there compared to pedestrians, but rather how much car. Even if there's twice as many pedestrians as cars, it can look like the cars are more plentiful just because they take up more space.

  2. True, in the first picture of Sainte Catherine, I'd guess there are about 50-100 pedestrians compared to 18 cars between the two closest intersections. It definitely looks like the road is much more underutilized by cars compared to pedestrians when you hide the parked cars. And I bet the parked cars not only account for a fraction of the people that live, work and shop there compared to those who took transit, taxi, biked or walked but also compared to those who used off street parking (mainly garages). I suspect off street parking outnumbers on-street spaces by 5 to 1 or more in Downtown Toronto for instance.

    I agree that the traditional North American format of sidewalk - street parking - road reinforces the segregation of users somewhat. In the suburb where I grew up (similar to where you grew up in West Island) on street parking wasn't used much and there were no sidewalks, but the streets were somewhat narrow by North American standards too, about 20-25 ft. They did function more or less as shared space imo.

    As for under-utilized on street parking, supposedly this is an issue in Stapleton, Denver and causes speeding.

    1. There are effectively a lot of off-street parking lots, especially underground. Still, the reality is that there aren't that many cars on that street in particular, and some of it may be due to the masses of pedestrians who make right and left turns nearly impossible. But the amount of parked cars give a completely different impression. According to the trip surveys, only about 33% of people going to the downtown area come in cars, and a study on Sainte-Catherine street made 10 years ago revealed only 19% of clients came in cars.

      I didn't grow up in West Island, I grew up in Boucherville, on the South Shore. My street wasn't typical with its lack of sidewalk actually, most streets of Boucherville have sidewalks on at least one side, but streets, at least where I lived, tended to be relatively narrow, averaging maybe 7-8 meters (24-27 feet). We've also had bike paths (actually multi-purpose paths) since as long as I remember. As far as suburbs went, it wasn't that bad... it's just that I was in a place with nothing in walking distance (not since the corner store died maybe 15 years ago), seriously, walk score: 13 (thank God for the elementary school barely within walking distance!).

      It doesn't surprise me that streets designed for on-street parking become racing tracks without parked cars. Even if they are progressive and give only 10 feet to travel lanes, they still need to make the street 8 feet larger to accommodate parked cars. But without these parked cars, the 10-foot lane becomes a 18-foot racetrack lane.

      I've got to think that the Stapleton planners didn't account for a simple thing: on-street parking, in a place where it snows frequently in winter and where snow accumulates SUCKS. Yes, all-capital SUCKS. It means that after all snow storms, people need to get their cars out of the snow in time for the city's snow removal teams. In Boucherville, on-street parking at night during winter is even banned. That way, the snow plows can clean the street in the morning, then people wake up and shovel their cars out and park them on the street temporarily for the private snow plow operators who come clean their driveways. In Montréal, where on-street parking is frequently used, snow removal is hell every single time it snows because there's no place to park cars temporarily, so the city's plowing teams have tow trucks on call to tow cars away to be able to plow the streets.

      So if people in warm climes can park on-street even when they have driveways and garages, that's not the case in colder places, where people pick up the habit to leave their cars in their driveways or even garage all year long. I guess the people who designed Stapleton weren't aware of that.

  3. I certainly understand the new urbanist's notion about parked cars, but you're correct that it can be a bit one-sided and naive in a way. To take a page from Nathan Lewis, it's worth kicking them in their complacency from time to time to reveal just how un-critical the thinking can be. I guess when looking at an existing street, the thought is that space can only be reallocated within the existing curb line. So if you have a four lane street, you either have two travel lanes with two parking lanes, or you have four travel lanes. In that scenario then yes, having on-street parking is the better of the two, especially if the remaining space for the sidewalks is pretty minimal.

    However, if you took those two parking lanes and moved the curb in towards the center, so you now have two travel lanes and very wide sidewalks, that's a much better layout because now you can stick your trees and light poles and mailboxes and other street furniture in that reclaimed zone to act as a permanent buffer and have plenty of room left for walking and even cycling. Even if the street parking isn't eliminated entirely, taking spaces out here and there to install the necessary street furniture and trees, like they do in much of Europe, rather than spreading them along the edge of the sidewalk, prevents the street from becoming a raceway when the parking isn't being used, and it gives more room for pedestrian movement where it's clear.

    1. I've shared a few tweets with Jeff Speck on the issue of on-street parking. From what I gathered, he does think that streets are better off without on-street parking... but that's an opinion in a vacuum, without considering context.

      New Urbanism is largely a North American movement, and Jeff Speck, like other New Urbanists, is working in the context of low-density North American cities where most downtowns don't have the population density to thrive on their own, nor the efficient transit needed to bring a lot of people there quickly and efficiently. 80 to 90% of trips are made in cars, and they need to account for the need of parking. Plus, streets are extremely wide most of the time.

      So the focus on on-street parking is that this offers downtowns a way to keep attracting many people who still come by car and to use the extremely wide right-of-way of downtown streets. This way, they can have more people coming to downtown and narrow streets to reduce speeding, protecting pedestrians. In that context, I understand their attraction to on-street parking. In the North American context they work in, it does seem to make a lot of sense. Getting rid of on-street parking in many American downtowns may in the end kill them, at least as they are now. Speck frequently points out that most pedestrian malls built in the 80s have failed, by making getting to downtown in a car too difficult in cities where the only convenient way to get downtown for most people was in a car.

    2. I agree that the on-street parking preferences come from dealing with the overly-wide streets of industrial-age cities. Pedestrian malls are similarly handicapped in such an environment too, though I don't think the lack of parking is necessarily the deciding factor with them. A bigger one, I think, is that they need enormous amounts of activity and nearly perfect safety in order to work, especially on an overly wide street. Otherwise there simply aren't enough people to fill up the space and it becomes creepy and even dangerous, whether actually or just in perception.

      Chicago couldn't make it work with State Street despite being in the core of downtown and with a subway that runs under the street itself. Those sound like the ingredients for a slam dunk, but the mall was built to try to prop up an already faltering retail corridor with few or no residents living on it, so it became something to walk past rather than along. It wasn't a true pedestrian or transit mall either, sill having a small bus (and taxi?) street in the middle, so it couldn't benefit from being a 100% pedestrian oasis, while at the same time there wasn't enough traffic to activate the street portion either. Ugly uniform gray paving didn't help either.

      That said, I've heard of numerous successes with pedestrian malls in Australia, which has similar "hypertrophic" development patterns to here, though they seem to do more transit-oriented development. You could do a whole series of articles on why pedestrian malls work in some places and not others, but like I said before, I think it's more than just the availability of street parking that determines success or failure.