Sunday, February 10, 2013

Linear parking lots: Is this the best we can do for our streets?

by Michelle Stenzel

Parked cars are visual blight. 

Many people may not realize how much the sight of these massive, inert vehicles degrades the quality of life in our neighborhoods. Lining practically every curb of every block in Lincoln Park, there are rows and rows of them. Some of their drivers are paying by the minute and will return soon to move on, but the vast majority stay for days or weeks on end. We're so used to their presence that we mentally "erase" them from what we see when we look around. I know this because, unlike my brain, my camera lens refuses to erase the sight of parked vehicles from the pictures I take, and makes the pictures unusable for purposes of promoting walking and biking.

One fall day I went out seeking to take some nice pictures of autumn foliage on our neighborhood streets. I got a lot of this:
Linear parking lots line are found on every street in Lincoln Park. I think this is Mohawk, but it's really Everystreet, Chicago.
The colorful leaves look nice, of course, but the linear parking lots stretching endlessly along both curbs? Not so inspiring. 

There's more! -->

A narrow brick sidewalk on Menomonee is squeezed next to a wide linear parking lot.
The problem of visual blight of motor vehicles is why I often feature the parkland areas of Lincoln Park when I post a photo essay (like this one from October 2012); the absence of motor vehicles makes each scene human-oriented.
It's true that the natural elements and skyline add to the beauty of this photo taken at the Lincoln Park Zoo's Nature Boardwalk, but the absence of parked vehicles is part of it as well. 
Even in our public parks, though, people are allowed to claim a private stake for long-term storage of their motor vehicles, amidst the gardens and trees.
So that's why it's called Lincoln "Park"! Stockton Drive linear parking lots.
Nothing is kept sacred. This stone bridge is obviously historic. I don't know anything about its tensile strength, but I'm sure the weight of a dozen parked vehicles in addition to the through traffic can't be helping its durability.
The historic stone bridges in Lincoln Park serve as free parking lots.
How about our commercial areas? As a fan of Lincoln Park, I'd love to have a collection of great pictures of people enjoying our shopping areas, to help promote our little village in a city on this blog. But people on the sidewalk and the charming storefronts on Armitage, Halsted, Clark, and Diversey are often blocked from view by cars, especially the SUVs that apparently still seem to be the vehicle of choice in these parts. So I get a lot of pictures like this, on Armitage:
It's hard to See you back there! There's a reason that pictures like this don't make it into chamber of commerce promotional materials.
And this picture from Clark Street:
"How about we eat at that place over there -- is it busy?" "I don't know, I can't tell. Let's keep going."
Do shop owners realize that people are less likely to notice a store front and patronize the shop if they can't see the shop windows?
Boutique windows are often blocked from view, discouraging people from stopping in.
In mild weather, when you sit at an outdoor coffee shop or restaurant in Lincoln Park, you may have noticed that your view is often the not-so-entrancing side of a parked car, like this:

Al fresco dining is never enhanced by the sight or smell of motor vehicles close by.
Is this the best we can do in Lincoln Park? Can you imagine sitting at a cafe in stylish neighborhood of a world-class city in Europe with the side of a Honda as your companion? No. But somehow, it's accepted as par for the course in Lincoln Park, and in Chicago, and that's too bad. 

It wouldn't be too hard to take a step in the right direction, though. The city's Department of Transportation is encouraging just this with new programs to take back small parts of our streets and give them back to the public, for human-scaled activities like walking, biking or sitting down. The People Spots program seeks to move parking spots in order to create mini-parks instead (read a little more background in this prior post). These have been successfully implemented in other neighborhoods, and we'll be working to get them in place in Lincoln Park this year. Won't you join? E-mail or follow @BikeWalkLP on Twitter for notifications. See you in the neighborhood!

P.S. In this post, I only talk about the aesthetic problems caused by parked vehicles, but there are many other issues I don't address, including the safety issue they cause for pedestrians crossing at intersections, the dooring hazards they cause for bicyclists, and the fact that separated bike lanes are often not considered feasible because there's "not enough room" due to the parked cars.


  1. Michelle,

    As you know, I'm not a big fan of cars. But let me play devil's advocate here. Aesthetics aside, there's a lot to like about on-street parking. Assuming we're going to have a certain amount of cars parking (sure, the less the better), I'd rather have them sitting on exisiting asphalt than have more parking lots and garages built.

    Parked cars narrow the streets, calming traffic. That picture from Old Town you posted shows how the parking lanes narrow the street so much it's almost impossible to drive fast there, which is one reason it's such a great place to stroll or cruise around on a bike. Parked cars provide a buffer between motorized traffic and pedestrians. And, of course, they're an essential ingredient in Chicago-style protected bike lanes.

    That said, I'm all for replacing parking spaces with on-street bike corrals and parklets, which accomplish some of the same things plus so much more. It's a shame that Chicago's much reviled parking contract makes it tougher to do this.


    John Greenfield
    Streetsblog Chicago

    1. Thanks, John. Certainly we don't need to eliminate parked cars along streets altogether. What wears on me is how we allow them on nearly every street, whether commercial, residential, or a major thoroughfare, and on every linear foot of space. -- MS

  2. Michelle,

    Hell is other people, isn't it?--TOM

    1. I like people just fine, just not seeing their parked cars all over the place. :) -- MS

  3. We dedicate huge amounts of space to storage of private vehicles! It's crazy in a place like Lincoln Park where the real estate is so valuable. I think that this blog post is great; try to get people to see the land for all its possibilities. We can do better. I would like more education for business owners to show them that they can thrive with less (and / or more expensive) parking, when streets become excellent places to walk and bike.

  4. It agree, cars block'n up the scenery breaks my mind. I am a bit of a dreamer and I look forward to when the share economy, self-driving cars, and increased fuel efficiency change the economics of car ownership. Cars owners in Lincoln Park, and every city really, wish that they had a better option. Owning cars in a city is an expensive hassle. Car ownership is just the least worst solution. Shareable, autonomous, highly efficient vehicles would mean that traffic would flow better than humanly possible and the vehicle would only be around when needed. The result; turn those parallel parking lots into tree lined paths, micro parks, cafe seating, and other forms of awesomeness. Yay future!