On-street parking is important to good urbanism on many counts. Let's have a look at some of the most important reasons why it's essential:
Commercial Parking Lots
If people can't park on-street, then off-street parking lots are essential in all but the most highly walkable places where cars are unnecessary (think Manhattan.) Surface parking lots do lots of damage. First, if they are built in front of a building, then they pretty much guarantee that nobody will ever walk on the sidewalk that runs between the parking lot and the street. Pedestrians aren't stupid… you'd be taking your life in your own hands by walking in a place like this because you have no protection from cars zipping by just a few feet away from you.
The second-worst place for a parking lot is beside the building because this creates a big gap in the urbanism. This condition is known as a "snaggletooth streetscape." One of its worst features is that it interrupts the continuity of the street face, making the place seem incomplete, or decaying. Another really bad feature is the fact that it bores the pedestrians, because when they're walking beside it, they get a steady view of cars that doesn't change very quickly. Unlike a parking lot in front, which completely kills pedestrianism in only one block, parking lots beside buildings only injure it, and the extent of the injury to walkability depends on how big the gaps between buildings are.
The third place for a parking lot is behind the building. This isn't as bad as the other two places, but it has problems as well. If everyone parks in back, then it seems logical to the building owner to put the front door in the back. This not only creates a weird and confused floor plan, but it also means the building is less likely to pay the proper attention to the street, usually resulting in boring the pedestrians. And all parking lots have the unfortunate distinctions of being really bad heat sinks, and of creating lots of stormwater with all that impervious asphalt or concrete.
Subdivisions that ban on-street parking force the paving of much of the lot because you've gotta have enough parking places for all of your family plus all of your guests… at your biggest party or other gathering of the year. Many builders will build a double-wide driveway all the way to the front facing garage of their "snout houses" so visitors can park on all that extra paving. This has all of the environmental problems that parking lots do: double-wide driveways are big heat sinks with lots of stormwater runoff. Big heat sinks aren't just environmental problems; they hurt walking as well. By heating up the micro-environment around them, they make it more uncomfortable to walk in their vicinity. And if driveway crossings take up a big percentage of the length of the sidewalk, then much of a walk along that sidewalk is spent subconsciously aware that cars might back out of the driveways and hit you. When fear arrives, pedestrians depart.
A parking deck next to a sidewalk creates a terrible pedestrian environment, as you can clearly see here. First, it's the most boring thing possible to walk beside, and most of the time, it's terminally ugly because people don't generally lavish a lot of money on a parking deck.
Bore the pedestrians, and they won't walk there. Build ugly buildings, and they'll abandon your sidewalk as well.
But that's not the worst of it. Parking decks are broadly perceived as being scary places. How many movies have you seen where the ax murderer waits in a dark corner of the parking deck for his next victim? The only thing worse for pedestrians than boredom and ugliness are danger and fear. So put a parking deck right beside those sidewalks where you never, ever, ever want pedestrians to walk.
It is possible to fix parking decks by building what is known as a "liner building" between them and every adjacent sidewalk. A liner building is a thin building that "lines" the parking deck's outer edges. You see the storefronts of the liner building's shops at the first level and you see the windows of the offices or apartments above. It looks like any perfectly normal downtown building… it just happens to not be very thick, and to have a parking deck behind it. Liner buildings are hardly ever more than 30 feet thick. 18 feet is a good thickness because that's often the depth of a parking space. But they can be even thinner, like the one shown above.
The Pedestrian Shield
Clearly, forcing cars off the street has lots of negative consequences. But on-street parking isn't just a car storage device. There are other benefits as well. Remember what we said earlier about "when fear arrives, pedestrians depart"? One major source of fear is the possibility that a car might run off the street and hit you. On-street parking alleviates this fear, because each of those park cars acts as a shield of several thousand pounds of metal between you and the moving traffic. People don't consciously realize this all the time, but you've never seen a sidewalk cafe next to the expressway, have you?
Retail expert Bob Gibbs says that every on-street parking space in a thriving retail district is worth $250,000 in sales to the nearby merchants on that street. People will walk much further along an interesting Main Street to get from their parking space to the store they're going to than they will walk from a parking lot. I blogged about Pedestrian Propulsion a couple years ago; that post explains why this is so. Simply put, if you want to kill the businesses along a thriving commercial street, just remove the on-street parking. Works every time.
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Rather than a liner buildings to mask parking decks, all that is necessary is a speed ramp to get cars to an upper level. That allows for the entire ground floor to be commercial space. The building's facade has to be presentable above the first floor, which may mean treating the upper openings as closed louvered shutters. There are a number of parking decks in the French Quarter that are done this way.
This is a wonderful post. Many urbanist allies of mine do not seem to understand these points -- they see any accommodation for cars and drivers as a threat to urbanism rather than an integral part of it.
I approached a few of these issues on my blog a few weeks ago, with lots of pictures of Savannah's streets: http://www.billdawers.com/.../guide-downtown-savannah.../.
Great post! We live in Carmel, CA where on-street parking is limited to 2 hours (but free) in the commercial district. What are your thoughts on free vs paid parking and the impact on Retail and restaurants?
One thing just occurred to me that I should have put in the original post - on-street parking is also a great traffic calming device. All but the idiots slow down when there's parking on the street. Maybe I'll do another post about the best natural traffic calming devices (NOT additive ones like speed humps, but rather the integral parts of street design that slow traffic.) what do you think?
Your insight about outdoor cafes avoiding expressways is great. Chain restaurants have noticed the popularity of outdoor eating. So they put tables out on a deck or under a canopy--overlooking the parking lot and dumpster, because there is no sidewalk and no one wants to dine by the highway. It'd be funny if it weren't pathetic. Score one for good urbanism!
Parking and traffic calming. If you allow parking only on one side of the street, alternate the parking side every few car lengths. I actually saw this work once when a truck parked illegally on the no parking side of my street, opposite some empty spaces. It slowed traffic more than the numerous speed bumps do.
More advantages of on-street parking. 1. the spots function as "teaser" parking, meaning drivers will attempt to find a free spot close to their destination, before going into a garage. Without that possibiity, that tease, they might avoid the area entirely (short term parking times keep this tease real and prevent employees from hogging all the closest spots) and 2. slow moving traffic, cruising for parking, makes mid block crossing safer and adds eyes on the street, from the street. It's funny how the sport of hunting for a close spot, the gamble and luck of it, is part of the fun of visiting a popular place. Easy parking, say at a shopping mall is dull by comparison. It's notable however, that the the sport of parking works much better in entertainment districts than in places where we do daily errands.
While I agree with most of this post, do you think the statement "Simply put, if you want to kill the businesses along a thriving commercial street, just remove the on-street parking" will be used by anti-transit folks? Because it's the exact argument being used to fight proposed or existing bus stops along the prime downtown commercial corridor in Columbus, Ohio -- the kind of corridor that needs transit.
I just think that as advocates for good urbanism, discussing on-street parking in absolute terms without considering on-street transit seems dangerous. Particularly that $250,000 number -- I can just imagine a business owner demanding compensation for lost parking spaces to a bus stop!
Still enjoying this post, Steve, about the Importance of Parking.
check out the latest Original Green post that just went up last night:
Dealing with Parking Fatigue in downtown Regina where some streets are noted for their abundance of parking lots.... and not much else.
"This condition is known as a "snaggletooth streetscape." One of its worst features is that it interrupts the continuity of the street face, making the place seem incomplete, or decaying. Another really bad feature is the fact that it bores the pedestrians, because when they're walking beside it, they get a steady view of cars that doesn't change very quickly."
I know this is an old post, so hopefully you'll see this - When you don't have enough space for bike lanes, and car traffic volume is too high/fast for bikers to feel comfortable riding on shared lanes - what do you do?
here's an example of a particularly treacherous stretch of road:
cars will often tailgate and honk at bikers through here - and/or will pass dangerously close. while there is actually a segregated bike path about 1/4 to the east (sw corridor path), this is the most direct route between points south and the emerald necklace path or the main business district in Jamaica Plain. You can't just throw up speed limit signs.
btw - cars regularly run off the road/speed through here.
The Select Board of beautiful coastal community of Wiscasset, Maine is in the process of eliminating street parking along the entire thriving Main St shopping district. It will kill businesses!