By Dom Nozzi
While Europe offers many admirable urban design and transportation lessons that America would do well to emulate, we need to be careful about transferring a lesson of a more modest use of on-street parking from Europe to America.
On-street parking provides a large number of beneficial impacts on a healthy downtown. There are reports that on-street parking is not as common in Europe, and yet wonderful urbanism is found in most of their cities.
However, many older European cities have a lot more residential density and commercial intensity than in the US. They also tend to have more narrow streets in their commercial areas.
Given all the pedestrian vibrancy and human scale found in such European urban centers, it seems to me that the need for on-street parking would be substantially less. In such a place, there is less need for on-street parking to slow cars—they are already fairly slow—or humanize streets by making them safer and more human-scaled.
In the US, by striking contrast, nearly all commercial areas feature high-speed, excessively wide streets and building setbacks. Typically, in almost all cases it is essential for such places to be humanized and slowed down by on-street parking.
As for giving back space to bicyclists, pedestrians and transit by removing on-street parking, I’d again point out that doing so tends to be a lot more appropriate in commercial areas that already have large, active volumes of pedestrians. Due to densities and human scale, European cities can often successfully create places where pedestrians and bicyclists take over the street (or take up quite a bit of it) via “pedestrian streets” or “pedestrian malls.”
By sad contrast, “pedestrian malls” nearly always fail when attempted in the US. I believe the failure here is due to the lack of sufficient densities surrounding human-scaled streets (and the excessive free car parking found in most cities). So again, while I can imagine removal of on-street parking being an appropriate and perhaps beneficial tactic in European cities, I suspect it would nearly always be counterproductive for vibrant urbanism in the US.
I think a big part of this is that in the smaller, human-scaled spaces often found in European cities, motorists often (and rightfully) feel inconvenienced when using a space-hogging car in a European city—even without on-street parking.
Maybe after the revolution, when gas prices reach $20 per gallon, we might see more potential for using on-street parking less often in America.
I very strongly recommend The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup. It is the best book I’ve read in my career as a city planner. An important message from the book: parking subsidies are, by far, the biggest subsidy in America, and induces a lot of driving that would not have occurred had we not subsidized it.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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