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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

OPINION: It’s time we made sidewalk blockers pay

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“My toolbox is so heavy – there’s no way I can park 2 metres away along the curb.”

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.

Rogues Gallery

“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)



  1. I have an incredible amount of respect of Mr. Miguelez, but I honestly think that he’s making a mountain out of a molehill here. Yes, there are people breaking a bylaw and many of them will no doubt be ticketed by neighbours or pedestrians like himself who call 311 and complain.

    But, in a political climate where our transit system isn’t as good as it could be and where infill is being decided by OMB rather than what the community wants, there are bigger fish to fry. All this post does is give a bad reputation to tradespeople and delivery people who drive large vehicles. 

    I sincerely hope that Mr. Miguelez doesn’t think that sidewalk blockers are the biggest problem that pedestrians (or cyclists) in Ottawa have.

  2. Kaitlin,
    Try pushing a baby stroller down a blocked sidewalk.  Or a grocery buggy.  Or using a wheelchair.  Sometimes it *really* is a big pain to have the sidewalk blocked.  Not just an inconvenience either, but a safety issue.

    There is pretty much zero excuse for blocking a sidewalk.  If a motorist is willing to illegally park on a sidewalk, that same motorist should be willing to illegally park on the road.

  3. Agreed. It’s a safety issue and a legal matter. I know that people were similarly frustrated when at Westfest this past year sidewalks we blocked by barricades for patios, meaning that only able-bodied folk were able to access many shops.

    I’m not disputing that it’s something that needs to be dealt with, but this is hardly the forum in which it should be handled. Opine all you want. But, please also call 311 so that Bylaw can handle the issue.

    1. Hmm..Kaitlin “hardly the forum” Where is the forum then? A one-to-one phone call to a 311 operator? Since when is that a forum?

      It’s an opinion piece, calling for better public policy; nothing in it precludes people from also calling Bylaw if they see specific instances. If we took a similar attitude to other issues soon everything would be off-limits. Infill? Either email the premier to complain about the OMB, or be quiet. Transit policy? Phone OC Transpo, or keep it to yourself – we don’ t want to know.

      Clearly the claim of the article is that the problem has gone well beyond isolated instances that can be left to 311; rather, sidewalk blocking has become ubiquitous because it is the product of deeply-ingrained attitudes – the kind of attitudes that will take a policy of education and pro-active enforcement to address.

  4. That’s not how I understood the article, but I’ll leave well enough alone at this point; I see it could be interpreted in other ways. Enforcement is however, by definition, reactive and not pro-active.

  5. I see sidewalk blockers as a big problem for pedestrians of all kinds as well as cyclists. These vehicles block both the usual area for cyclists and people. I’m lucky not to need mobility aides yet, but it can still be frightening to have to walk out into the traffic to go around a vehicle on the sidewalk. When I see people with walkers, wheelchairs, strollers or just who are unsteady on their feet, it is a big deal for sure. When trucks and vehicles do it to avoid using the recipients’ driveway or loading dock, it is completely silly–yes I see that all the time. There should be education and enforcement that this is not the right place for the cars and trucks!

  6. While we’re at it, can we get sharks with frickin’ lasers on their heads to take care of morons who enter intersections that they can’t clear before the light changes?

  7. Call in to the police and make a report every single time. I know it is tedious, but do it enough and it will start showing on the police reports that are viewed by Council. Then you have documented evidence to take to Council when they refuse to do anything (which they will.).

  8. message from montreal —

    chill out ottawa, it may surprise you to know — but you cant control everything.

  9. What about the construction companies that use the sidewalk to store their equipment for months. Around the corner from me there was one company that took up two sidewalks making it extremely difficult to circumnavigate the construction on foot and a big pain with a stroller. Do they have to pay to rent this space? Is pedestrian inconvenience taken into consideration at all?

  10. Recently in Laval, Quebec, a teenage school girl (Ronia Mansourian) was killed by a speeding driver as she stepped off the sidewalk to get around a truck that was parked for an extended period across the sidewalk. The next time you decide to block the sidewalk with your vehicle please consider the possible consequences of your actions.