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.