The Practice of Sidewalk Parking
The Creative Destruction of Pedestrian Space
If there is one object that most closely defines the age of Modernity, it is the automobile. It is the perfect bringer of the "creative destruction" that Modernity calls for, from the bulldozing of urban neighborhoods for urban highways to the emptying of city cores for the flight to the suburbs. The automobile has enabled change on an unprecedented scale all over the world. It is still doing so, in developed countries but even more rapidly in developing ones, which are urbanizing and re-urbanizing at amazing rates. There are parts of the world where cars dominate the urban landscape, and there are parts of the world where cars will soon dominate the urban landscape. Perhaps that last sentence is overly-pessimistic, but for millions of people reaching for success, owning a car is the symbol that they have been successful in some measure, and many of them are willing to throw away huge parts of their built environment and historical memory to accommodate that symbol. The car is a totem.
As has been apparent in auto-centric places like the U.S. for a long time and is increasingly apparent in places now becoming more filled with cars, wherever there are cars there is a need to store them. The fantasy of the car, promoted by endless television commercials, billboards, and even ads on the sides of buses, is that of driving down an empty coastal highway. In fact, however, cars are usually at rest. The average car is parked 95 percent of the time. Acquiring a space for parking is an obsession on which people will spend minutes and hours (and cumulatively, years). When there is nowhere else to park, then, many people will turn to the sidewalk.
Sidewalk parking happens nearly everywhere where there are cars and sidewalks. Like road intersections, sidewalk parking puts pedestrians and car drivers in direct competition. But in the case of sidewalk parking, drivers are clearly infringing on the rights and space of pedestrians. While some people may not see sidewalk parking as a problem, even many people who themselves park on the sidewalk recognize that the practice is uncivil but do it anyway for convenience or because there is nowhere else to park. This is in spite of the fact that they are violating the rights of people who would use the sidewalk for walking.
In most places, sidewalk parking is illegal. However, at least in the United States, most policing is done from inside a patrol car. Officers are more likely to notice, and find problematic, persons or vehicles blocking the vehicular portion of the road than those blocking the sidewalk. Bringing infractions to the attention of law enforcement is often then left to the complaint of someone who has not been able to walk down their own street. Whether the law is then enforced depends on the attitude of the local police department, which is often unsympathetic to the concerns of pedestrians.
Sidewalk parking creates a variety of problems. This is true whether the violating car is blocking a sidewalk fully or only partially. The most obvious of these is the issue of pedestrian safety. If a sidewalk is fully blocked, a pedestrian will either have to double back and try another route, or more likely will be forced to walk in the street for a short distance to get around the violating automobile. This puts the pedestrian unnecessarily at risk of injury from moving vehicles.
In the case where a sidewalk is partially blocked and a pedestrian could walk around the vehicle, a pedestrian is still put at risk of injury from colliding with the vehicle. This is most likely at night in a poorly-lit area, but could happen at any time because a pedestrian would not expect to encounter a vehicle in the pedestrian space. This situation is dangerous in the same way that blockage of the vehicular portion of a street could cause accidents from inattentive drivers. Oddly enough, while the person who blocks the vehicular portion of the street is assumed responsible for creating the dangerous condition, the pedestrian on a sidewalk is assumed to be responsible for avoiding obstacles (parked cars) placed there illegally. This is in spite of the fact that a driver is more likely to injure others, while a pedestrian will mostly likely suffer the injury him or herself.
Disabled access is another major issue with sidewalk parking. This issue is becoming of ever greater concern as the populations of developed countries age. A person with limited mobility or in a wheelchair may not be able to get around a vehicle fully or partially blocking the sidewalk. In that case, the person's travel may be completely obstructed. Also, a person with limited vision is likely to have increased difficulty navigating a sidewalk full of parked cars. In addition to moral and equity issues involved, legal requirements for equal access such as the Americans with Disabilities Act make this a larger legal issue. Concern over disabled access prompted the city of Los Angeles to begin enforcing sidewalk parking laws in an area near UCLA which was long known for sidewalk blockages, as noted in an article in the Los Angeles Times.
Other concerns about sidewalk parking are important but less obvious. For one thing, sidewalk parking makes walking more difficult and less pleasant. Vehicle level of service (LOS) has been a much-studied topic for many years. Broadly, LOS measures how well a roadway serves the needs of drivers. But researchers are only now beginning to do serious thinking about pedestrian LOS. This topic is more complicated than it might first appear. For instance, while a perfect situation for a vehicle may be an open road with not a car in sight, pedestrian concerns about personal safety mean that a busy sidewalk can offer a higher LOS than a deserted one, especially at night. But blockages are blockages, for vehicles and pedestrians alike, and they reduce LOS for both. In subtle ways, this reduction in LOS may affect a person's choice about whether to walk to his or her destination or to use another mode such as driving. While difficult to discern the affect of this discomfort on an individual's transportation choices, a reduction in rates of walking and an increase in driving due to sidewalk parking runs counter to concerns about the environmental effects of driving as well as the newly-understood health benefits of walking. In other words, walking is good and we should be encouraging it, not blocking sidewalks with cars. Making walking difficult and unpleasant is exactly the wrong thing to do, and sidewalk parking does just that.
More generally, sidewalk parking sends a clear signal to both pedestrians and drivers that travel by automobile is more important and more respected than travel by foot. Allowing drivers to occupy up to 100 percent of the roadway makes it clear that travel by foot is not valued, even though it is non-polluting, healthful, does not create congestion, and does not require parking at the end of the journey. The automobile's value as an emblem of success and modernity seems to make the need of drivers to park more important and pressing than the needs of pedestrians simply trying to walk down the road. The automobile's "destructive" power extends into the pedestrian realm, destroying the very ability to get around without using an automobile.
Finally, sidewalk parking, by increasing the apparent width of the roadway, makes roads more prone even to vehicular accidents. In general, narrow roadways slow down traffic, making roads safer, even for cars. On first consideration, it would seem to make more sense to have wide roadways and no obstacles. However, the risk of increased proximity of fixed objects to moving vehicles is more than offset by motorists' reduction in speed. Narrow roadways and elements of "friction" which slow down traffic improve safety for everyone. Sidewalk parking, especially the practice of parking parallel to the street and placing two wheels on the sidewalk, increases the apparent width of the street and therefore reduces overall safety.
Of course, every driver who violates the sidewalk by parking on it has a reason, either justified or unjustified in his or her mind, but in any case strong enough to enable parking there. Common excuses for sidewalk parking are that there is not enough space to park on the street, that the violator is parking in his or her own driveway, or that parking on the street may lead to damage to the violator's vehicle. Any of these may be true, but none of these reasons justify breaking the law and putting others at risk. Few people would condone speeding in a school zone because someone is running late. This excuse, convenience, is no more reasonable in the case of the danger created by sidewalk parking. As for the driveway argument, in fact a driveway is not part of a person's property when it enters the public right of way, which typically happens at the sidewalk. The assignment of the sidewalk to use exclusively by pedestrians does not infringe on an adjacent property owner's rights to that space because it not that property owner's space. The sidewalk is a public space, owned by all of us. And as for the risk of damage to a vehicle if it is parked legally on the street, it is far preferable for a vehicle to be damaged than for there to be injury to a person. Sidewalk parking for prevention of vehicle damage is never an excuse for blocking the pedestrian way and risking injury for pedestrians.
Unfortunately, because many drivers do not and will not respect the rights of others, we must use many methods to defend the use of sidewalks for pedestrians. The use of law enforcement is by far the most widespread method, and can be effective if used widely and regularly. Unfortunately, enforcement is very often couched in terms not of safety or respect for others, but in terms of government fundraising. Especially in the current economic downturn, governments, like businesses and many individuals, find themselves in need of money to balance budgets. Stricter parking enforcement is one way which some use to fill some of the gap, as was done in Oakland, California. This practice unfortunately clouds the issue of sidewalk parking since these restrictions should have been enforced all along and for other reasons entirely. In an ideal situation, such enforcement would not be a revenue source for the entity doing the enforcement, so that the issue would not become clouded. A similar argument can be made for violations like speeding, which is a dangerous action that puts people's lives at risk and should be penalized regardless of any associated revenue potential.
Other enforcement methods are largely physical, since social control rarely seems to be effective. Cities sometimes try high curbs, though an enterprising parker can circumvent even that method, as seen in my photo in Amman, Jordan in the associated photo collection. Bollards are another method, very widely used in many parts of the world and typically quite effective.
In the end, things have lately come a long way from the high Modernist era characterized by people like Le Corbusier and Robert Moses, when the car was seen as the only use of the street deserving of respect or consideration. Current concerns about safety, climate change, traffic congestion, social equity, economic efficiency, and health have all combined to make walking a more highly-regarded activity, for travel as well as leisure. Thinkers like Jane Jacobs have shown that urban spaces are valuable for many reasons and that many aspects of them are highly interrelated. It isn't flashy, but walking is an important aspect of urban life.
While places like China and India add cars to their roads at astounding rates and the automobile seems destined to remain a great symbol of Modernity for many years to come, more people and organizations now than ever are working to strike a balance between transportation modes. Not surprisingly, there are some who see any limit on the use and storage of automobiles as an affront to Progress. But the ranks are growing of those of us who believe that a person walking down the sidewalk deserves as much consideration as the person cruising around the block, looking for a place to park.