No Parking and De-Signing Streets


I was traveling down St. Anthony Boulevard with my then 3 year old daughter. She was learning her alphabet and noted the P on a lot of street signs. Every time she saw it, she shared her observations. “P with a slash through it”, “P with a slash through it”, “P with a slash through it”, “P with a slash through it”, … “P with a slash through it”.

Well, this is one of the joys of parenthood, teaching reading and the alphabet through road signs. But it brings up a relevant policy question:

Why is the default assumption that we give away scarce public right-of-way for the free storage of private vehicles?

That is, the default assumption could be no on-street parking except where permitted, which would result in fewer signs on St. Anthony Boulevard, and more elsewhere.

There are three aspects of this:

  1. Scarceness of public right-of-way. Are you not complaining of congestion? Are you not complaining of the cost of maintenance? If we make streets wide enough to store vehicles, we increase their construction and maintenance costs.
  2. Storage of vehicles. Might we store private vehicles on private land? Would this not increase the cost of private vehicles (i.e. by removing one of the subsidies we do provide to cars)? Would that not diminish the amount of private vehicles (demand curves are downward sloping).
  3. Free. If you do want to store private vehicles on public land, at least charge for it. This does not require meters, it could involve permits with enforcement.

Now I know we don’t want large areas of surface parking lots either, and if we have already built roads that are too wide for the purpose of moving vehicles, we might as well use them for storage, they aren’t earning interest doing anything else. But we are not done building and rebuilding roads, why are we building them with the intent of using roadspace for vehicle storage?

Perhaps it should be obvious where parking is permitted (the road is marked as one lane and more than say 15′), and where it is prohibited (freeways, right lanes narrower than 15′). Perhaps we need only sign when parking restrictions differ by time of day (no parking in peak hours). Perhaps we can paint the curb instead of putting up ugly signs. Perhaps we can change paving materials.

Certainly there are technological solutions with augmented reality which would overlay virtual signs on the environment, and if we all walk around with Google glasses, or their future equivalent, this might eventually happen. And certainly driverless cars will have a lot of this pre-programmed. But given the time it takes to fully deploy these advanced technologies, we are probably 30 years out before we can remove regulatory signs from our environment wholesale. There should be some intermediate solutions that can help us de-sign our streets.

16 thoughts on “No Parking and De-Signing Streets

  1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I wish streets were more intuitive about where parking was and wasn’t permitted. In some areas, bumpouts and differentiated pavements can be used to pretty clearly frame where parking is permitted and not permitted. Signs are ugly, but are far more visible and flexible than using paint (if you paint a curb red to signify no parking, then later decide you do want parking, how do you remove/cover the paint?). In total, I would assume more signs would be needed to mark where parking is permitted than where parking is not permitted.

  2. Ross Williams

    Streets should not be designed for the exclusive purpose of providing mobility. They are should be designed to give people access. Having a place to stop and park is part of using an automobile for access. Its as important as having traffic lanes.

    Moreover, parked cars are a significant traffic calming feature. Those parked cars cause drivers to slow down and pay attention. In many cases, they also provide a buffer between pedestrians and traffic. You will find very few pedestrian friendly streets that do not have parking along them.

    As the author notes, the alternative to onstreet parking is large parking lots. That off street parking creates barriers of unattractive pavement between destinations that discourage people from walking. That put peoples back in their car to get from one place to another, people literally drive across the street.

    Should we charge for onstreet parking where it is in short supply? By all means. But you can see the result of having every business provide parking for its individual customers in every suburban strip, Huge empty lots around every business designed for the peak of the Christmas shopping season and people driving everywhere. That isn’t the kind of place I want to create.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      Ross, the assumption that “the” alternative to on-street car storage capacity is off-street car storage capacity creates a false dichotomy. Of course the demand for on-street parking (which, with notable exceptions, has a price point of zero) is nearly infinite.

      With regard to off-street parking, we’ve regulated our way into this situation with mandated parking minimums and a built environment that gives people no reasonable alternative to driving. We’ve set up a system where car storage is bundled with all sorts of other transactions (employment, consumption and business services, and even transit fares). If we are able to unbundle car storage, that will be the biggest win for changing this.

      If the market was determining the price for car storage, my guess is demand would go down quite a bit especially in urban areas where there are economic substitute goods.

  3. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

    @Ross, I think the traffic calming effect of parked cars does occur on streets that are too wide just for mobility. However narrow streets (with large trees adjacent) would have similar calming effects. The example of St. Anthony Blvd, which is a parkway with effectively no adjacent structures (at least for the relevant part here) is not a speedway, though could be slower with more traffic calming feature. It is a road more for mobility than land access.

    The street in front of my house, geared to land access more than mobility, with parked cars is certainly slower than it would be without. But it is not as slow as the alley behind my house which has no “on alley” parking, and lots of driveways.

    @Reuben, yes, current laws would undoubtedly require more signs to denote where parking is permitted. It would be nice if there were intuitive rules to achieve this effect. It can’t be that hard to identify the general set of rules under which parking in permitted / prohibited, for which only exceptions would require signs.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Also, even though it’s somewhat assumed the natural state, areas where on-street parking is permitted still have signs. Since there are so many hours where we give away free car storage on street, signs usually need to tell the drivers where they can park (No parking here to corner), what hours they charge, and any other specific items (seasonality issues like snow routes, etc). Not to mention the meters (or new numbered poles), pay stations, etc that also have signage/info on them.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt

    David, Thanks for referring to parking as car storage! I’ve found in my casual conversations that this simple change in vocabulary helps people snap out of their rigid culturally-based assumptions on this topic.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt

        When I was working to start a car sharing organization back in college, this was our biggest selling point to institutional partners… reduced demand for car storage. It’s also one of the biggest drivers of cost savings for consumers. Many people are paying to store, insure, and maintain an expensive asset with extremely low utilization — cars are stored 90%+ of the day. It makes so much sense for all parties involved to optimize to a higher usage rate which is inversely proportional to car storage expense (both expense to the consumer AND the difficult-to-quantify externalities to the public and our built environment).

  5. Ross Williams

    “Ross, the assumption that “the” alternative to on-street car storage capacity is off-street car storage capacity creates a false dichotomy. ”

    As long as you have streets devoted to automobiles, they serve no purpose without “car storage” at both ends of every trip. So its not false dichotomy, its a real choice. Would reducing auto dependence reduce the need for “car storage”? Yes. But it wouldn’t change the trade off between on-street parking on off-street.

    As for “free” parking, most off-street parking is “free” for the user, whether paid for with taxes or through product costs. In places where off-street parking is not free, neither is on-street parking. The issue is not the cost, its where the parking is located.

    “However narrow streets (with large trees adjacent) would have similar calming effects.”

    No, they don’t. A street canopy slows traffic, but parked cars have a much greater impact. Part of what on-street parking does when it is used is to create “narrow streets”. Usually when it is eliminated, the traffic lanes are expanded, not narrowed. Narrow lanes and on-street parking is better than either one without the other.

    Obviously, if there is no need for access there is no need for parking. But that is a different issue than the situation with probably over 90% of on-street parking. We don’t allow parking on freeways and roads that are designed almost exclusively for mobility.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      My point is that if we unbundled parking from transactions and charged market rates for it, people’s habits would change. Demand is not fixed. We have induced demand for car storage by providing it for “free” nearly everywhere just like we’ve induced demand for VMT by providing nearly limitless roadway capacity.

      1. Ross Williams

        “We have induced demand for car storage by providing it for “free” nearly everywhere”

        I think that there is some truth to that. The cost of parking and what the market will bear are not in synch. But that has little to do with on-street parking. Its the “free” off-street and other subsidized parking that is distorting the market. One way to end that is to put a tax on parking to help pay for roads and transit. The amount of parking around those suburban stores would shrink in a hurry. They might even start charging for it to encourage people to come in a single vehicle.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Ross, you bring up a good point that as long as our streets are devoted to automobiles we’ll need car storage at both ends. I would say we’ve done a good job at devoting land to roads and street space to auto functions (including giving anyone access for autos even in the pedestrian ‘space’ with curb cuts anywhere anyone wants).

      However, we STILL need below-market rates (ie, usually free) for car storage at one end of the journey for demand to meet the supply. People pay for car storage on their own end (garages cost money, so does a parking spot at an apartment, these may be bundled in to the price or separate), even with all that street space currently devoted to autos.

      It’s such a fragile system we’ve built ourselves in to – we’ve demanded 98% of our parking spaces to be “free”, built out an auto-dependent environment, and even still we’re seeing reduced VMT and auto trips per capita as gas prices continue to rise (still well below true market price, though).

      Yes, let’s stop dedicated so much space to autos on our streets. Use shared space techniques or carve out lanes for transit and bikes. Widen sidewalks. Reduce curb-cuts. These things will take time – a good thing as if we simply eliminated all on and off-street parking today a vast majority of people could no longer get around (it will likely take us 30-50 years even if we are diligent to remove auto dependency from many of our places. Finally, while I agree that parked cars provide safety for pedestrians, we must remember that they are providing safety from the very vehicles that park on the street to begin with and drive at unsafe speeds due to overly wide lanes.

      1. Ross Williams

        Alex –

        Curb cuts are there to store cars somewhere other than on the street. So you want to limit on-street parking and limit access to off-street parking. This sounds like traffic engineers who want to “manage” access, close intersections, eliminate parking, discourage pedestrians and get bicycles off the road on to trails. They are interested only in mobility, while the real issue is access. And on-street parking and curb cuts enhance access.

        I now live in a small town in northern Minnesota with two state highways. MnDOT has eliminated all the on-street parking, they have sidewalks with no buffer from traffic. The speed limit on the highways is 30, but they are designed for 50. The downtown is a sea of parking lots where buildings used to stand.

        Commerce has moved to a suburban strip with huge parking lots between the un-walkable sidewalks and any stores you might walk to even if you did brave the sidewalks. That is a direct result of MnDOT making the downtown both largely un-walkable and eliminating access for people in autos.

        Using the right-of-way for parking is a hell of a lot better idea than using it to move more motor vehicles. Conflicts between bikes, sidewalks, and parking are a different issue.

  6. Jeff

    As far as signs go, there does seem to be a lot of unnecessary ‘no parking’ signs. Apparently it is not common knowledge that one cannot park where it would impede the flow of traffic. Some motorists apparently don’t understand that a 12′ lane cannot accomodate through traffic and parked cars at the same time, perhaps these drivers will need to experience the joy of handing their credit card to the friendly clerk at the impound lot. However, it is still nice to have signs for most other situations. A sign placed 30′ from an intersection negates the need to get out the tape measure.

    As far as parking, in areas where parking is scarce, the market indeed sets the price. One cannot easily park anywhere in downtown Minneapolis, for instance, during the day without paying for parking. Night time is a different story, but demand is also considerably lower. In areas with ample on-street parking, nobody will pay for parking anyway so it makes little sense to charge for it.

    Ultimately things will not change until the typical consumer demands it. A typical suburbanite owns a vehicle and uses it for almost any trip greater than 1/4 mile. Automobile dependency is so ingrained in most people that they won’t give up their automobile even if gas prices hit $10/gallon tomorrow. They will still drive (maybe a bit less) but they will constantly whine about it.

    There are few alternatives at this point. Transit is slow and still costs money ($3.50 to $4.50 round trip for regular service, less than the cost of gas for most shorter trips), biking isn’t an option for all but the diehard bicyclist for half the year, and walking long distances can take an eternity. Until more light rail, BRT, and other services are available, things will not likely change soon.

    In the mean time I think it is best to focus on the low hanging fruit. I agree with Ross that parked cars can create traffic calming effects, on-street parking is also usually a much more efficient land use than surface parking lots (which are taxed lower than buildings). When roads come up for replacement, advocate for a complete streets approach with narrower/fewer traffic lanes, bike lanes, and better sidwalks. Parking can be placed appropriately (and priced if demand is high) to calm traffic and prevent the spread of surface parking lots.

    One final thought: A large portion of the money spent on roads (CSAH and MSA routes) comes from the taxes that motorists pay to drive, so inevitably on-street parking is paid for by the users.

    1. Garrett

      Jeff, just to clear something up, user fees and gasoline taxes really don’t cover as much of road costs as people think they do.

      Here’s an excerpt from a document from local non-profit Fresh Energy:

      “Direct user fees cover only half of road spending in
      Minnesota. The state gas tax funds just 17 percent of
      total road spending, vehicle registration fees about 14
      percent, and fees and tolls about 1 percent. Federal
      funds—which mostly come from the federal gas tax—
      account for 18 percent of road funding.”

  7. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    If you want a truly amusing overuse of No Parking signs, you should drive down Cedar Avenue toward Northfield. In southern Lakeville, it’s a sort of exurban expressway — divided road with 90% of the frontage being cornfields. And in case you were wondering, no, you may not park there.

    I continue to have very mixed feelings on the value of parked cars. Especially in the City of Minneapolis, the parked car seems to be king, and keeping the motionless cars happy often means damaging effects on pedestrians and bicyclists. However, I agree with Ross that parked cars can be more effective than simple narrowing. (I became acutely aware of this as a passenger of my boyfriend, who was doing 40 on Theodore Wirth, despite as narrow a lanes as American engineers would ever permit.)

    As to the issue of aesthetics: I’m sympathetic to the long-term maintenance burden created by painted curbs. I am just glad that Minneapolis has finally warmed up to the simple No P symbol. “NO PARKING ANY TIME” or “NO PARKING THIS SIDE” was getting ridiculously tedious.

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