Have we lost our collective ability to live in the city – to be true cityzens? Now that suburban generations have existed for almost 70 years, have our habits and reflexes been so completely altered as a society that we have become genuinely clueless about urban life? Have we, in a sense, un-evolved as city animals?
I ask myself the question, more or less seriously, every time I come across such an obvious blatant sign of outright disrespect for pedestrians as displayed by drivers who appropriate sidewalks or other pedestrian space as parking spots. We’ve all seen this, we’ve probably all muttered under our breaths. Maybe as drivers we’ve been guilty of it ourselves. A car parked right across the sidewalk. A delivery van or courier vehicle parked right on the sidewalk. A delivery truck with two wheels on the sidewalk, ramp down from the trailer, leaving a tiny path for people on foot. A contractor’s vehicle backed up on the front yard of a house, with open rear doors and little attention paid to where the front of the van ended up – on the sidewalk.
I’m not dumb, I know how it happens. It probably starts with “there’s nothing available/there’s a no-parking sign on this side of the street… and it’s just for a minute.” Just for a minute, though, can turn into five, ten, fifteen minutes… and depending on where this parking has taken place, dozens, maybe hundreds of pedestrians will be using that sidewalk. There’s probably a good measure of “I don’t want to block traffic” somewhere in that thought process. Then, I’m sure it morphs into “Well, I’m doing something important, so people can just walk around me”. Which quickly leads down the hill of “Hey folks, that’s life in a big city, get used to it” – which is the ultimate perversion of that very premise.
We do live in a big city. Big cities are for walking. We don’t live in a big suburb. The attitude that you must park right in front of where you’re going is suburban. It comes from generations of spoiled brats assuming they have a God-given right to park a motor vehicle exactly at the point of destination. The difficult attitude adjustment we all face as a suburbanized North American civilization is to unlearn that premise. We are not entitled to park anywhere. Especially not where it will impede pedestrian movement.
This applies to sidewalks in most cases (and this is an almost daily occurrence in Ottawa), but it also extends to other areas that have been specifically set aside as pedestrian realm. Sparks Street is a good example. I don’t know if you’ve noticed the amount of cars that are actually on the Sparks Street pedestrian mall at all hours of the day – even though there are signs at each block that stipulate delivery hours. But, for “obvious” reasons, contractors working on the various buildings undergoing renovations seem to feel they’re exempt. Their trucks are all over the place, sometimes at angles that are completely inconvenient for pedestrians. This is a shame for Ottawa as a tourist destination. It makes us look mickey mouse. But it doesn’t stop there. There are private cars that gingerly jump the curb and drive down Sparks to drop off a spouse at the entrance of an office building, sometimes at quite a happy clip. Is it really that far to walk from the corner? Where are the cops? Why isn’t anyone saying anything?
The funny thing is, much of the sidewalk jumping isn’t actually necessary. Lots of times, the vehicle could easily be parked on the street and not on the sidewalk. Except there’s a no-parking sign on that side. Too many of our streets don’t allow curbside parking on both sides. We know the classic refrain: snow maintenance! More parking is more traffic! There’s not enough room! However, every functional big city in the world has curbside parking as an accepted, established practice – for the good of local residents, primarily, whose houses were often built before cars were invented. The added benefit of curbside parking is that it protects the sidewalk better. Plus, it slows traffic down to have parked cars on both sides of the street. If the cars parked on a street belong mostly to the residents of that street, there is no extra traffic. What there is, is a better pedestrian environment.
We also have enforcement habits that were born in the days of the DeSoto Deluxe Fireflite. On-street parking has traditionally been seen as an annoying hindrance to the orderly flow of automobiles. Hence, the reflex of lots of drivers to “get off the road” when seeking to park. Respect goes first to other drivers, lest their ability to bomb down the local street at 80 km/h be impacted in the least. Pedestrians can just walk around.
Maybe in the days of the DeSoto Fireflite there weren’t too many dads trying to circumnavigate parked cars with a double stroller and bags of groceries, and maybe back then the moms just sucked it up and said nothing. But today, as a dad in that situation, I have considered buying a missile launcher. And I know I’m not alone. Something has to be done to bring back some order.
We are a big city. There are more cars. We do need more parking. We should be smart enough to put the parking in the right place so that it reinforces our walkability goals. As contradictory as that may sound, it does come down to shifting priorities between the supremacy of moving cars and the supremacy of moving people.
A parked car occupies a lot of space. It can either block people on foot or slow vehicles. On residential side streets, this shouldn’t even be a discussion. Nobody should get to speed through side streets. Parked cars should be deployed as a free traffic calming measure. (It would make streets look much better than with the front-yard parking that also proliferates – another topic for another article). On larger downtown streets, the objective should be to move people efficiently. You can probably fit twenty pedestrians in the space of one parked car. Repeat that several hundred times, and we should clearly see that sidewalk space has to be protected above all else. If this means more on-street parking and therefore reduced road capacity, maybe that could become a tipping factor in favor of transit for some drivers, although the extra parking capacity would also be helpful to streetfront businesses and local highrise residents and their visitors (as we heard during the Laurier bike lane debate).
One thing is for sure: if sidewalk parking isn’t targeted by a vigorous ticketing blitz soon, it will continue to spread. Right now there are no consequences for blocking sidewalks. There should be an education campaign about this. The fines should make people think twice about ever doing it again. Pedestrians should be able to assume that they’ll be able to walk on a sidewalk without having to jump into traffic to get around some lazy bum’s “just-one-minute” parking improv. True city living means that the pedestrian is king.
“I’m doing something important here. You’re just a pedestrian.”
“I don’t want to block traffic. These deliveries need to get done.” In perfect impunity, in front of a police car, no less. So, what do you do if you’re walking with a toddler? It’s okay to face oncoming cars on foot?
That roof repair absolutely, positively requires my truck to be right there, all day long, as me and my crew are up on the roof.
“Have good day at the office, honey-bun! You too, sweet snookum’s! Smooch! Smooch! Don’t forget to pick up some milk, eh! I won’t, sweety-pie! Smooch, smooch! Oh, did you pay hydro? Darn, I forgot… I’ll do it at lunch, I promise! Smooch smooch!”
Blocking a bike lane too, no less. Classic double-header.
(All images courtesy of the author)