I Love Alleys

Alleys! They’re in the news! To be honest, they’re generally pretty boring places, perhaps undeserving of a love letter. Most people might even dislike them, even avoid them at all costs. As with most small, mundane details of the built environment, I think we sometimes take alleys for granted in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and it’s worth discussing their virtues. Especially since nearly all development in the Twin Cities since the mid-1950s has been alleyless.

A dense, but residential, Minneapolis alley at dusk.

A dense, but residential, Minneapolis alley at dusk. With many windows and decent lighting.

Benefits to the Public

When we evaluate any individual urban design element (such as front steps or doors or window placement), benefits tend to look pretty small. A great, safe street or place typically comes about when the sum of each of these parts is added up. And we urbanists need to admit that not societal every problem can be solved by land use or transportation. With that said, I believe alleys contribute positively to the public (not just private owners) owing to their design. A few examples (in no particular order):

  • Alley_UndesirablesHiding things from the primary pedestrian realm: Alleys are a great place to tuck things that detract from a pleasant walking experience like garbage cans, dumpsters, utility poles and lines, and bland garage faces, which would otherwise be the primary face fronting the street (more on that later). These may not be too terrible on a low-density single family detached residential street owing to the relative lack of garbage and low frequency of pickup. If you’re a fan of intensification over time (including slowly adding neighborhood commercial uses and denser multi-family buildings), this is important.
  • Reduce total curb cuts on a given block: A residential street without an alley will likely have a curb cut for every parcel. This is true even for denser buildings like townhomes or apartments. Some amount of parking will either be required or provided, and access will come from the street without an alley present. While most Minneapolis and St. Paul driveway curb cuts come up to sidewalk level and have slow-moving cars, this is still a safety issue for pedestrians; about 500 people a year are killed (and over 100,000 injured) in driveways in our country. A block with 30 houses and two curb cuts for alleys (with slow moving cars as well owing to the design) is better than a curb cut for every house.
  • Increase street tree coverage: Every curb cut and apron is roughly ten feet of boulevard space paved over in lieu of space for a tree or other plantings. These serve measurable benefits to society. While a narrow eight to ten foot driveway offset by 30 feet of trees and boulevard in a single family detached neighborhood may not be a huge deal, start densifying and your results may vary. For single family home teardowns on lots without alleys, a double garage and driveway will be worse than what it replaced.

    Front-facing double garages are the likely outcome without alleys for teardown situations.

    Front-facing double garages are the likely outcome without alleys for teardown situations.

  • Narrowed streets or re-purposed right of way: Related to the bullet above, every curb cut demands pavement to get cars in and out of a driveway, pavement that could be used for something else. The easiest option is more on-street parking, but it’s not hard to imagine the space being used for other things like stormwater retention bulbs. The same number of on-street parking spaces on a street with frequent curb cuts could be provided with a narrower street width with chicanes if an alley is present, or simply less total public infrastructure with only one-side parking (in practice, the city would turn land back to owners on each side at the next street reconstruction).
  • Garbage collection costs: This one may be a stretch. I have no data, but I have to believe running a truck down a 12′ wide alley can collect garbage from both sides quicker, and therefore at less expense, than running down a 40′ wide street with the same number of homes.
  • Limiting stormwater runoff: I discussed street space elements that can mitigate runoff without curb cuts, but a shared 12′ wide alley for an entire block, even for single family homes, presents an opportunity to maximize total permeable surface area given similar home and garage sizes:
    Alley_Driveway_Configurations_1I compared a 30’x30′ house footprint with a 15′ required setback on the front yard in various layouts on a standard Minneapolis lot (40’x125′ plus half the width of a 12′ wide alley). I was surprised to see the best case for limiting impermeable surface coverage from driveways is the front-facing garage “snout house,” with the attendant public realm issues discussed earlier. However, lots with alley-facing or -abutting garages made up the next four best results, keeping paved surface to under 10% of the lot. Side driveways fared much worse. And, contrary to (what I believe to be) widespread public opinion, backyard space isn’t really sacrificed, though this is more of a private benefit anyway, and would be weighed against the benefit of having your garage attached to the home’s living space.

Redevelopment is the Key

To me, the biggest benefit of alleys is the ability to support infill and redevelopment, which has overall positive benefits to neighbors (via supporting more shopping, better transit, etc) and the city’s tax base. The natural path to adding density along alleys are Accessory Dwelling Units. I’ve talked about them before, and Minneapolis legalized them last year, so it’s not worth saying much.

Detached ADUs in Boulder, CO

Detached ADUs in Boulder, CO

Yes, an ADU could be tucked at the back of the lot with a side-driveway lot configuration (above). I suspect homeowners are less likely to build one in this situation; sharing the driveway with the tenant and likely having the unit’s windows face their yard is less desirable than an ADU that mostly faces the rear. Alley-fronting residential also upends the benefits of tucking away the nasty parts of urban life from pedestrians, turning them into a public space resembling many Japanese streets (which is still probably okay). It also raises questions on accessibility given the state of alley surfaces (again, we’ll discuss this later).

Beyond ADUs, if we want to encourage small-scale infill, alleys play a major part in making them both pencil out as well as mitigate the issues discussed earlier in the post. For example, a single-lot project is going to be difficult to squeeze a building, side setback, and driveway onto a 40′ wide lot and still fit the units required to maintain profitability (to say nothing of ADA compliance, etc). Without an alley, a developer might choose to build something like this (if it’s even allowed by zoning code):


Schematics taken from the wonderful Let’s Go LA blog.

Even this could only be done with the parking minimum reduction passed earlier this year in Minneapolis. If an alley were present, we could instead get something more like this:


If a developer wants to piece together just a few lots for a courtyard-style building, an alley once again greatly improves the frontage:


I suspect that not building alleys in many suburbs, even ones that retained a rigid street grid, was at least in part an intentional move to keep redevelopment out.

Drawbacks, Room for Improvement

The major drawback of alleys is the cost. They don’t pave, re-surface, or plow themselves, and a city would spend less each year without them. One could also make the case that they constitute a publicly-provided space primarily for private uses: parking cars or bikes, especially since alleys tend to not meet pedestrian accessibility requirements and have poor drainage owing to the lack of stormwater infrastructure.

I’m not sure on the latter points. Pro-urban people typically support filtered permeability or other measures to keep through-traffic (at least, motor vehicles) off residential streets. Walker Angell would call this a rat-run, and several Minneapolis neighborhoods (such as Lyndale) have implemented them. That vehicle traffic is almost entirely for private access doesn’t make the streets any less public. I’d also challenge the notion that most alleys are worse than many critical sidewalks in our cities from an accessibility viewpoint. This doesn’t excuse the current condition of our alleys or our sidewalks for pedestrians, only that the woeful condition isn’t specific to either. Further, while I’m not an expert on legal requirements for accessibility, many beautiful pedestrianized alleys seem to violate side slope, passable width, and surface requirements.

An alley for people, but I doubt this meets ADA requirements. Source

Increasing the publicly maintained pedestrian networkThat said, alleys are narrow and therefore relatively cheap to resurface. We should do this more often in areas where they’re experiencing redevelopment or already have denser buildings with frequently-used back doors. It’s also not crazy to envision the city identifying places to increase the pedestrian network as redevelopment or infill occurs, focusing on using alleys as anchors (right).

Chicago has a great guide for greening alleys and implementing simple stormwater solutions for ones with poor drainage as well. And of course, even just a little bit of art goes a long way to making an otherwise bland stretch of garages into something interesting to walk by. Cities with alleys would also do well to update their lighting strategy to mitigate safety issues (or, perception of safety which is just as real). For those of you who made it this far and clearly care about cities, what do you think about alleys?

32 thoughts on “I Love Alleys

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I love this graphic, showing a very helpful comparison of driveway impacts.

    A couple minor quibbles:
    1. Setback is 25′ feet in R1 and 20′ in R1A. This seems most relevant to R1 areas, so I’m confused where 15′ came from.

    2. For front driveways, I think the curb cut area and the area that is now illegal to park in should also be counted in the driveway’s impervious impact. You showed as a 15×18′ driveway. Per #1, I would do a 25 x 18′ driveway. I don’t count the sidewalk, since that’s there anyway. But also add a 8 x 20 for the driveway apron in the boulevard (rounding up to help account for the flare of the apron). Then add 30 x 8′ to account for the parking space that is no longer usable in the street (since it is illegal to park within 5′ of a driveway. Rather than taking up 270 sq ft, my snout house driveway estimates 450′ + 160′ + 240′ = 850 sq ft of impervious surface created or rendered unusable for anything else.

    Of course, those same additions would also apply to the long narrow front driveway.

    3. I think you were a little generous in your assumptions of what a side-loading alley driveway looks like. I do occasionally see those triangle-shaped driveways for a one-car garage, but I don’t think it’s all that common. I have never seen it for a two-car garage; it’s almost always a rectangle, that sometimes adjoins the neighbor’s driveway (if facing each other).

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      As to 3, there are definitely triangles in my neighborhood, but so too are there many extra-large rectangle and other extra paved areas too.

      As much as I like south Minneapolis alleys, when I go through them I’m kind of appalled about how much impervious surface is back there. Like half-cement backyards that drain immediately on to cement alleys that drain… into the creek or lake.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      1) You’re right. I simply picked a consistent setback, not that it matters much but for calculating back yard space
      2) Yes, but I also counted the space of a side/front driveway that would be impervious anyway where the sidewalk cuts across.
      3) Perhaps, yes. In my back alley most side-loading ones are triangular, and I also helped my friend build one last year with a similar shape. You could make the same case that many 2-car garages in side-driveway situations have much larger pads than what I depicted as well. For example, this image didn’t make the cut but shows a smaller pad at 15.5% lot coverage (pretty close to my estimates), but much larger ones surround it. But it’s a point well taken that often the side loaders are more rectangular.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    A couple more broad comments:

    I love alleys, for many of the reasons you’ve described. I am very glad to live on one — I think it makes the street vastly more attractive, and I find more convenient than many of front driveway alternatives. (Less to shovel, don’t have to move trash cans, etc).

    However, although I am glad good planning afforded us so many alleys, I think the more interesting or difficult problem is what to do where none exist. Perhaps on a tiny handful of streets, it might be worth retrofitting them (say, where many private driveways intersect a busy streets, creating a traffic danger). But in the vast majority of the streets, the cost and disruption would make it completely unfeasible. So what to do then? The long narrow driveway to the back is certainly more attractive, and provides many of the benefits of the alley (more tree planting space, less curb cut). But it’s more expensive and environmentally problematic.

    Lastly, although you touched on it, the question of who should pay for alleys, and how homeowners feel about the expense, is another difficult one. I personally think that alleys serve 99% the homeowners, so I do not have any principled objection to their maintenance being wholly assessed to the homeowners.

    Even that only considers construction. I live on an alley-served lot in Richfield, but about 2/3 of Richfield streets don’t have alleys. Is it fair that they all pay the same (as part of taxes) toward snow-clearing when my lot gets an extra plow route to serve it?

    1. Christian Huelsman

      In the Louisville metro area, the government actually passes upkeep obligations down to the abutting property owners, up to the street center line. That includes clearance of brush, overgrowth, and litter.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      On the cost vs assessment issue, this is obviously a tricky one. I don’t think it fair that my family of 3 who rarely drives devotes an outsized share of our property taxes toward street maintenance for the 60% of Minneapolis residents who almost never walk/bike/bus. Nor do I see the fairness in the MVST/vehicle registration fees at the state/county level being flat regardless of road use (spatial/temporal, specifically). So I absolutely sympathize with the notion that alley maintenance/construction, primarily serving a private use, are levied against to everyone (even those without an alley).

      That said, like anything the city/county/state provides, the question is are the added costs outweighed by the public benefit? I can’t boil all the things I listed in the article down to a dollar value, I’m not sure anyone can. Most streets – even in very-dense Manhattan or London or Paris – serve almost entirely local travel. I’m thinking all the side streets that see 100 cars a day or less, most of them (and almost all ped/bike) traffic is accessing private property. So for alleys, if we can improve them a little bit in terms of meeting (or coming close to) ADA requirements and making them safe with good lighting (plus slowly adding eyes), they’re only marginally different than any other residential street/sidewalk in terms of who uses them. Throw in the benefits they give to the public realm and I’m inclined to think the added cost shared among everyone is worth it.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        According to Title 15, Chapter 385 of the Minneapolis Code of Ordinances relating to Offenses-Miscellaneous: In General, prohibiting use of alleys for through pedestrian traffic, except for abutting property owners, tenants, their guests and invitees, law enforcement personnel, emergency medical or fire personnel, persons performing public service activities or inspections, and person performing services for public or private utility, garbage collection, or communication companies.

        From Dumblaws.com

        Knowing that I am legally forbidden from utilizing a Minneapolis alley which I do not live on (as I am not in law enforcement, emergency personnel, or other public services in Minneapolis) I would have to say that alleys are not public space. They cannot be used by the public, and therefore the city should no longer be involved in any maintenance or care taken of them. It is a club good, excludable and non-rivalrous, and therefore Minneapolis should actually make its alleys more like the libertarian StP.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Good point. I had heard this rule before, but never bothered to look it up. I assume the intent is to provide for easier enforcement against possible thefts from cars or garages.

          It seems generally problematic for the public at large to pay for something that not all have a right to access — but downright strange that it specifically excludes pedestrians. Presumably, vehicular cut-through is also a pretty big deal.

          I wonder how this bit of city code plays out for this pedestrian overpass over TH 121, which is only accessible (on the west side) by going through an alley. Or this alley which continues the 62nd Street sidewalk to the interchange of Penn and Crosstown. Presumably, the only legal users of that sidewalk would be those specifically enumerated in the code you cite.

          In Richfield, my alley sees a lot of pedestrian traffic, and parents in particular feel safer letting their kids walk and bike there because of drastically lower speeds.

        2. Rosa

          That law is such a problem – to the extent anybody follows it, it reduces safety by reducing the number of people using the alley. And what really happens is that it’s not enforced except for people who “look wrong”. It’s like suspicious lurking and other laws that are basically tools for discriminatory policing.

          (I like the “no driving through the alley as if it is a through street” law, for safety reasons – people bomb out of alley exits & entrances without looking at the sidewalk even worse than at street corners, and many of them have terrible visibility anyway. But pedestrians are not a safety hazard!)

        3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          I wasn’t aware of that law. In practice, is it enforced? People troll through alleys for scrap metal/etc all the time (a massive cast iron pipe I removed from my wall was in a bagster for maybe 4 hours before being picked up earlier this year). Aside from people who “look suspicious” (which, if we’re being honest, will basically boil down to the races of the walker & person looking at them), is anyone ever ticketed for this? To that point, they aren’t excludable *in the general sense* because no one is requiring payment at either end or patrolling them with enough frequency to matter.

          I guess, it seems like this is a dumb law (limiting pedestrian through-traffic) rather than a case for making alleys a club good by payment. I see alleys as a less formal/built-out (and certainly less attractive) version of this. If we’re allowing development directly abutting alleys (ADUs) along with larger multi-family buildings with many windows (even doors) facing them, why should we restrict pedestrian through-traffic?

    3. Rosa

      In theory, keeping the electrical & trash & other uses of those same lots on the alley side keeps them off the street. We live on a pretty busy street (Bloomington Ave in S. Mpls) and I’m sure it’s a service to everyone who uses the street and sidewalks that it’s not blocked as often by repair and delivery trucks, garbage cans, etc.

      That deal might break down in less dense areas – fewer high-use streets and less even distribution of alleys.

  3. Christian Huelsman

    I really enjoyed your commentary on the rational utility of alleys, a love letter nonetheless!

    I run a non-profit in Cincinnati that addresses that accessibility and viability of public alleys. For the past four years, we primarily worked to make many abandoned and trashed alleys into viable community space. We’ve held alley pop-up events, such as film screenings, art installations, micro-festivals, and even walking tours. Now, I’m looking to grow the organization as a data and information hub for alternative public space, including alleys and hillside stairways, as well as developing inclusive art programs that utilize the alleys to attract resources for their betterment. (Your conceptualization of mid-block, lateral, formalized pedestrian space certainly falls into that category. All the world needs is an easement!)

    I am looking to relocate to Minneapolis by spring, all the while hoping to manage operations here in Cincinnati and new programs in the Cities in tandem. You would be a great person with whom to have coffee or a 2-for-1.

    Outstanding commentary.

  4. Monte Castleman

    ” I suspect that not building alleys in many suburbs, even ones that retained a rigid street grid, was at least in part an intentional move to keep redevelopment out.”

    I suspect it wasn’t some anti-redevelopment conspiracy, but that a lot of people (including myself) absolutely hate alleys, and different values by people that buy houses in the suburbs.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I think you both are reading way too much into it. I think a lot of it has to do with the “wild west” at the time the lines were drawn. Many of Richfield’s alleyless blocks are unplatted — an artifact of old minor subdivisions from an original farmstead. In the cases where there was a plat, it was largely up to the developer’s preference.

      I think by the 60s, there was a modern appeal of an attached (front/side) garage, but I don’t think that was the case for much of the inner ring’s development. There are earlier eras of building that also don’t seem to favor alleys — like the otherwise very attractive 1920s-era of winding streets in a modified grid. See Minneapolis’s Tangletown, Edina’s Country Club, or Richfield’s Oak Grove/Woodlake Shores.

      Curiously, my subdivision (from the 30s) includes alleys on .15 acre lots. But the later-platted ones to the east, by the same developer, include 0.25 acre lots and no alley. Perhaps the market was changing.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Sean is right, and I wasn’t trying to imply some conspiracy. It is *mostly* about the convenience of an attached garage in places without alleys. That said, many parts of Edina, even Bloomington, had side driveways with rear garages. All the negatives of a detached garage plus a longer driveway to shovel. Perhaps slightly less hassle getting in and out of the driveway than an alley? I think alleys signified a more urban place, something people wanted to get away from. Perhaps young suburbs just didn’t want the cost of building them. But as I pointed out, re-development is a *bit* tougher without alleys, and walkable development is tougher still when lots are 50′ or 60′ wide instead of 40′ to accommodate a side driveway + similar to slightly larger yard. Also, it’s not like suburbs and their residents didn’t put ordinances into place specifically to keep certain development types (and demographics) out.

      1. simval84

        I don’t think very narrow lots are a good idea. A narrow lot is harder to redevelop to build multi-family buildings on, and if you need to build a big building, collecting two wide lots side by side to assemble them is much easier than collecting 3 or 4 narrow ones that happen to be adjacent to one another.

        Wide and shallow lots have an additional advantage that they have a lot more frontage in the front and back. Which means more possible windows per floor and more potential rooms.

        For example, look at this image:

        These are one narrow but deep (10m x 40m) lot and one wide but shallow (14 m x 28,5 m) of the same surface area. There is a 12 m x 7 m building on both, but the narrow sides are front-facing with the narrow lot, while the wide sides are front-facing with the wide lot. As a result the narrow lot only has 14 meters of street- or backyard-facing walls on which to install windows. The wide lot has 24 meters of them. Which means that the first building could maybe have one common room and 2 bedrooms on the ground floor, the second could instead have one smaller common room and up to 4 bedrooms.

        In general, it is best to have more but smaller bedrooms than a few big rooms, it allows for more privacy as an household grows. This is especially important for multi-family housing where units are usually just on one floor, this allows for units with more bedrooms, which are family-friendlier, all without having a second story (which can be a disincentive for the old who struggle with stairs).

        Plus, from the street, the perceived density of the wide and shallow lot will be much less than that of the narrow and deep lot, which makes the wide and shallow lots more socially acceptable for a given density.

        Of course, in most places, this discussion is moot, lot depths are already fixed by street design.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          Can you explain why bedrooms can only be on front or back facing walls? My house has a bedroom with a side-facing window only. This may be less desirable (especially if side-setbacks are less than 5′) because there is less light available and privacy concerns. There’s also a personal preference baked into your argument for more/smaller bedrooms/common rooms – many people like a very large/open common space and/or like larger bedrooms (or closets, or additional bathrooms). 2 children with their own 10×10 bedroom take up more space than 2 sharing a 15×10 bedroom, the only difference is preference for how to use the extra 50 sqft (another bathroom, for example) vs giving kids privacy.

          As you say, the discussion is moot unless we all want to buy a few square miles of land and plat out our urban utopia, in which case this is a very good discussion we’d need to have 🙂

      2. Monte Castleman

        I don’t care for the side driveway thing. It’s not like winter maintenance is a big deal- even with front driveways most people in my neighborhood either used mechanized snow removal equipment or hire it done, neither of which is expensive relative to the other costs of owning a house. It’s more taking up prime back yard real estate as well as being detached from the house.

        Having said that, avoiding an alley makes the back yard a lot more private; In a neighborhood of one story suburban ranch houses putting up a 6 foot cedar fence around the backyard makes it almost completely so. It’s true you can still fence your backyard with an alley, but then part of your garage and any cars parked on the driveway are out of eyesight from the house.

  5. simval84

    I know there are arguments for alleys, but I still hate them with a passion. They create extremely unsafe, unwelcoming spaces, they attract graffiti and delinquents because they create a part of the public realm that have no public vigilance, since no resident has any window on them. They also increase the amount of roads on the public upkeep, whereas driveways are (if regulation allows it) only an owner’s choice.

    That’s why I prefer narrower lots to start with rather than oversized lots due to the presence of a alley in the middle. The only thing I really see as a positive is the redevelopment potential, but note that if redeveloped, the alley disappears to become a street, just a narrower one. There is no more alley behind buildings, lots are split in two at the middle.

    I’ll point out too that the side driveway is sold short because you don’t seem to consider tandem parking (one car behind the other). Therefore, image 5 in your comparison actually allows 2 (or more) cars to be parked off street, and so is functionally similar to images 2 and 4 while preserving 20 to 35% more back yard (which means that the lot could be shallower).

    My preference for off-street parking for multi-family buildings is an option not mentioned here: off-site parking lot. One parking lot could service many buildings if some kind of off-street parking space market can be set up. For example, instead of saying a developer must build two parking spots on his lot, he could be asked to secure or build two parking spots, so if there is an unused parking spot in a nearby parking lot, he could buy it instead of building a new spot.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Thanks for the reply! I should have linked to your post on alleys as it’s what really started my mind turning for this post a while back.

      Regarding parking and side-drives, I guess I don’t consider them sold short. An 8′ wide driveway can park a car in tandem with the garage (or third), but only one (the one closest to the street) can be accessed at any given time. This is important if your building is going to be subdivided – would a duplex/triplex really count a tandem spot as a viable parking space if it means they can’t get their car out if the other unit/s have their parked behind them? The alley-fronting single stall has the flexibility to add multiple parking spaces perpendicular to the alley (whether covered or on a pad) and everyone can access them when needed.

      On the public upkeep, there is an efficiency to each individual. Yes, driveways keep the $ off the public dime, but then every person is paying for their own, likely larger, driveway. An alley uses less total space for access. As discussed above, whether or not this should be privately assessed in total or spread out over all city residents is up for debate (like any other piece of public infrastructure, really).

      1. Monte Castleman

        Tandem parking is really a pain even you live with the person. The one thing I really hate about my house is the have a tandem garage, and we’re constantly either swapping cars around, driving the other persons car because it’s the one accessible, or leaving cars parked (against city code) on the street if the weather’s nice due to not wanting to deal with it.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I don’t think it’s against city code to park on the street in Bloomington, except during a snow emergency or if posted. The only limit I can find is no more than 4 cars parked outside. (And cars on the street count against that limit… no idea how that’s enforced.)

          1. Monte Castleman

            Actually you’re right: It says vehicles must be stored in driveways, parking bays, or garages when *on the lot*. So off the lot on the street is OK.

            I don’t know if I’ve always been reading it wrong or if they changed it. I clearly recall the original limit on vehicles was the number of licensed drivers +1, not 4 so they did change that part.

      2. simval84

        Where you see a bug, I see a feature. Tandem parking does make accessing the cars in the back harder, but that just provides an incentive not to own more than one car or to rely on other ways of getting around. Inconvenient parking location can be a great incentive to walk or bike for local trips. I lived with it for a while too, when I started working, I lived at my mother’s with my two brothers for a couple of years. We had a wide driveway (maybe 18 feet wide) but we had 4 cars all in all. It was a pain when there was a snowstorm (I live in Québec, plenty of them during the year), but otherwise fine.

        Anyway, tandem parking has a lot of advantages from an urbanist perspective:

        1- It is supremely space efficient, I think it’s the most efficient way of having two parking spaces while taking as little space as possible, unless you have underground parking.

        2- It can fulfill requirements of two parking spaces/unit easily without making it look different from if there was just one parking space.

        3- It limits curb cuts to a narrow 8-foot area, leaving most of the front yard untouched, it avoids transforming the public realm into a vast expanse of asphalt

        A side driveway is also more adaptable than you give it credit for, even if it is just 8-foot wide in front of the building, it can be widened in the back to double the width and thus have parking for a duplex (your image 7), or the back yard can be converted to a parking lot for a big multi-family building. From experience, back yards lose their usefulness quickly in a multi-family building because it becomes shared and you lose privacy in it. So you sacrifice the back yard for parking and preserve the front as a grassy, leafy yard (or you can have buildings built to the curb.

        Here are examples of this, first in my natal suburb of Boucherville:

        Then in a recent development in Montréal (the lots here are just 20-m deep, 65-feet)

        In a way, it’s almost like introducing a back alleys when needed, but a back alley that is privately owned and left to the discretion of the developer or owner.

        Of course, it’s not ideal, but I’ve long come to the conclusion that there is no perfect way to add parking, especially not surface parking. Either you sacrifice the front yard (front-loading garages and wide driveways), the back yard (alleys and back parking lots), density (with side parking lots) or affordability (underground parking). Pick your poison as they say. Side driveways have the advantage of sacrificing an area that is essentially just a buffer in a detached housing neighborhood, leaving the front and back of the house almost untouched.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          Parking facing the rear alley, detached from the house is also a deterrent. Your points 1-3 could all be said for alley-adjacent parking as well:

          1. a parking space facing the alley requires no navigation space but the alley itself. It can be 8’x18′ right off the alley, and you can add as many or as few as desired while leaving unused space for other uses (yard, grill, garbage cans, etc)
          2. From the street, a unit could have 0 or 4 parking spaces and no one would know.
          3. Alleys limit curb cuts to near zero per lot for a given block, as mentioned in the post

          Ultimately, you’re right that accommodating parking is a “least bad” scenario. It’s a delicate balance between affordability, site constraints, preferred yard location/privacy, impacts to the public (realm and costs), etc, and parking can get in the way of all of those in different ways.

  6. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Having lived in homes without alleys and with alleys, I prefer alleys. Neighborhoods and blocks feel generally tidier.

    Alleys in neighborhoods that are leaning towards the “edgier” certainly do feel less safe than the street, and can feel like a magnet of disorder. I understand that. I have a sense that happens when the properties withdraw their attention from the alley and treat it like a utility rather than as a public space. It’s one reason I love alley gardens and planted one myself.

  7. Grant Simons

    They really really messed this up near the U. There are so many parking lots or inlets for parking it drives me a bit insane. Alleys can be so wonderful.

    But they can also be awful. Such as the ones downtown. They’re either too wide or too small. There are very few in between.

  8. GlowBoy

    Wait … what? Alleys aren’t actually public ROWs? You can be ticketed for using one you don’t live on? WTF?! I’ve walked, biked and driven more alleys I don’t live on than I can count. I love them.

    I say this having moved to Minneapolis from a city (Portland) that mostly lacks them. Portland’s standard blocks are very short, so alleys would have resulted in very shallow building lots. There are a couple neighborhoods that were designed with different block sizes and do have them, as well as a fairly small number of isolated alleys scattered through the city – many of them unpaved, a handful impassible by cars. BTW, even in alleyless Portland most building lots are only 40, 45 or 50 feet wide, and the vast majority of older homes have (one car) side driveways. You certainly don’t need 60′ to have a side driveway.

    Ironically, although I’ve lived on one of Portland’s rare blocks with an alley, I now live on one of Minneapolis’ rare residential blocks that doesn’t have one.

    As for ” it’s not enforced except for people who “look wrong”. ” … Yeah, we all know that means white people can walk down alleys and black people can’t.

    1. Rosa

      Minneapolis is actually white enough that some white people get targeted for this too. Not proportionally, of course. But it happens.

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