On-Street Parking and Bicycling in a Town Center

By Dom Nozzi

I admire the desire of many “transportation choice” advocates to urge town centers to provide for all forms of travel. This is particularly important in (what should be) a low-speed downtown environment.

For a downtown to be healthy for retail and all forms of travel, low-speed car travel is essential, and a “park once” environment must be created. In a downtown, that means that the pedestrian, not the bicyclist (or car or transit), must be the design imperative. If we “get it right” for the pedestrian downtown, every stakeholder tends to benefit: not just pedestrians, but bicyclists, transit, retail, residential, children, seniors, well-behaved motorists, the disabled and everyone else.

However, if we suboptimize bicycling by, say, installing in-street bicycle lanes or removing on-street parking, the unintended consequence is that most everyone loses, because a healthy, equitable community needs a compact town center (and perhaps other places) where the pedestrian is supreme. This is also true, of course, if we suboptimize cars (or even transit) in a town center.

I believe that bike lanes and the removal of on-street parking downtown serve to suboptimize bicycling — and I speak as a bicycle commuter.

How do we make the pedestrian the design imperative downtown? Some of the more important tactics include reducing dimensions, avoiding excessive provision of obtrusive surface car parking, increasing commercial intensities and residential densities, and obligating slow, attentive speeds by motorists.

Probably the most powerful, affordable way to achieve the above-mentioned tactics is on-street parking. Such parking effectively slows cars and obligates attentiveness by adding friction to the street. Such parking is also essential for healthy downtown retail. And such parking sometimes dramatically improves pedestrian safety by reducing the street crossing distance.

In a downtown, bike lanes tend to undercut each of those design objectives.

Donald Shoup’s “High Cost of Free Parking” book is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read in the field of planning/transportation (a must-read for all planners, designers and elected folks). In that book, Shoup clearly identifies excessive parking as an enormous problem in nearly all American communities. However, he points out that it is subsidized, underpriced OFF-STREET parking, required in excess by nearly all local governments, that is one of the most important problems in American cities.

Shoup is a strong advocate of on-street parking (especially when it is properly priced and therefore efficiently used). I believe he would agree with me that for nearly all cities (even those with too much parking), an extremely important objective is to substantially INCREASE the amount of on-street parking and substantially reduce the amount of off-street parking. And that as much downtown street frontage as possible be lined with on-street parking.

In a properly designed downtown, car speeds are low enough that it is not only safe and pleasant for pedestrians and retailers and residences. Car speeds are also low enough to permit safe and pleasant sharing of the travel lane by bicyclists. And in a downtown, for those bicyclists who are uncomfortable sharing even a slow-speed travel lane with cars, there tends to be nearby parallel lanes off the main street for the bicyclist.vancouver gastown

There are at least two important downsides for bicyclists when removing downtown on-street parking.

First, smaller retailers tend to suffer so much that empty storefronts result and retailers flee to more remote locations that are inconvenient/unsafe to walk or bicycle or bus to. In other words, bicyclists should be strong supporters of a healthy downtown retail/residential environment, in part because it promotes a compact community with short travel distances.

Second, unless travel lane width is dramatically reduced, bike lanes tend to add asphalt width to the main street. That can mean longer, more dangerous crossing distances for pedestrians, and higher speed and less attentive (and therefore more dangerous) car travel. The large speed differential between cars and bicyclists that higher-speed car travel creates is particularly hostile for bicycling.

Again, downtown designers must be careful not to suboptimize bicycle, transit or car travel downtown, since doing so tends to be detrimental to the pedestrian, which is the downtown design imperative. The irony for bicyclists calling for the removal of on-street parking downtown is not only that it is detrimental to bicycling. On-street parking removal downtown was (and still is) most loudly called for by the motorist lobby (which fought to increase downtown street widths and car speeds beginning about 85 years ago).

And for the record, I am a strong advocate of in-street bicycle lanes on most all major streets in a city. I believe, however, that they tend to be incompatible with a low-speed, human-scaled pedestrian-friendly downtown.



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.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

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Filed under Bicycling, Urban Design, Walking

4 responses to “On-Street Parking and Bicycling in a Town Center

  1. I disagree that on street parking will solve any problems. Riding past opening car doors is dangerous, cars looking for on street parking are dangerous. Parked cars are not nice to look at, so people won’t stay in that environment, which is what a healthy downtown needs. I have kids, and they do not like riding around cars.
    If bike lanes are designed properly, and downtowns are pleasant environments-free from parked cars, then they will flourish.

    I do agree with the park once principle, I like that!

    You should take a trp to Copenhagen and see for yourself how removing parking, and taxing people out of their cars, heavy investment in cycling conditions has contributed to a vibrant city.

    I do hope we get more pedestrian friendly town centers though. I am Enjoying the blog!

  2. I appreciate your comments. While we’ll need to agree to disagree about on-street parking (I know of very little that is more important for pedestrians or downtown than on-street parking), I am flattered that you enjoy visiting my blog site. BTW, I’ve visited Copenhagen and really enjoyed it.

  3. yason

    I wouldn’t mind the opening car doors as without a bike lane you can just keep out of such a close proximity to the parked cars. Ideally, there’s a whole lane — shared by both the cyclist and cars — next to the parking spaces.

    I pedal a lot among cars and taking your space on the road is essential. (Those who ride motorbikes say the same!) If you ride on the very right side of the road, out of the way of traffic, cars will pass close to you and with greater speeds. If, instead, you reclaim your space on the lane then cars will have to slow down until they can overtake, and when they do they will do that farther, with greater margins.

    When I’m riding on a city road, I assume at least 3 metres radius around me. That means I’ll ride my bike at least 1.0-1.5 metres from the right side of the road. The cars will almost without an exception assume the same space to my left. The easiest way to slow the cars down and to find a common speed for both of you is to force them to do that.

    Also, cars looking for parking space aren’t dangerous. They’re mostly slow and I often take over with my bike. On the other hand, “sam goater” probably has very good empirical reasons to disagree. I can only say that I’m much closer to Copenhagen rather than the U.S. which could easily affect my view. 🙂


  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m a bit swamped at the moment, as I just returned from two weeks in Spain. I fully agree w/ your views regarding safe bicycling tactics.

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