An Unnecessary Obstruction

The Department for Transport (DfT) in England is currently consulting on three options that will reduce the amount of parking that occurs on ‘the pavement’ (or ‘sidewalk’ or ‘footway’ alongside a carriageway). The aim is to address the obstruction that vehicles cause when they park where people are trying to walk.

The ubiquitous habit of parking on the pavement in the UK has evolved due in part to infrastructure design, in part to outdated legislation, and in part to misguided priorities.

First, many residential streets in the UK are narrow and many houses have no off-street parking, or insufficient space. Some of this is down to history, with neighbourhoods built before mass car ownership. However, there are also many more recent developments, where narrow, winding streets and cul-de-sacs were in fashion and developers did not predict that cars would get so much bigger or that households would have so many of them.

Secondly, although the Traffic Management Act 2004 offered a much-needed update to parking management and enforcement in the country after 20 years of neglecting the issue, it did not make the process of introducing parking restrictions any less bureaucratic, and it did not directly address the prevalence of pavement parking. It allowed local governments to take over responsibilities for creating and enforcing parking restrictions from the police, but only by writing and advertising Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) with precise measurements and correct signs and road markings.

The default is that parking is permitted, even if it is on the pavement. That is why the DfT proposes Option 1: streamlining and digitising the TRO process. This would help authorities pass more TROs to prohibit parking where it is a problem, whether on the pavement or not. However, I would argue that it is unlikely to make much of a dent in the profligate habit of pavement parking seen in your average residential neighbourhood.

Why? Because the third reason parking on the pavement is so widespread is down to cultural norms: it is quite simply assumed and expected in most places that the private space a household has available for parking should not limit the number of vehicles it owns, so long as there is some unrestricted public space on-street nearby. If that street is not wide enough for traffic to travel safely between cars parked fully on the street, then the cars park partially on the pavement. There is absolutely no consideration as to whether pedestrians can travel safely on the pavement or are forced to walk around into traffic.

Thus the DfT suggests Option 2, where consideration should be given as to whether pedestrians, including those in wheelchairs or pushing children in buggies, are being obstructed by the cars parked on the pavement. In such cases, Option 2 suggests, local authorities could issue a parking ticket to the car causing the obstruction without the need for signs or road markings.

But there is a catch – parking enforcement must have some way of showing that the vehicle was not just on the pavement, but causing an ‘unnecessary obstruction’ by being there. The consultation suggests that this could be demonstrated at least in part by an exercise in measurement, as the amount of obstruction depends upon both the width of the pavement and the width of the vehicle, and how much the two overlap.

Yet how to define, let alone demonstrate the ‘unnecessary’ bit? The document undermines its own arguments by suggesting that an obstruction to the pavement may be necessary if there is not sufficient carriageway for vehicles to pass on the road. In other words, parking is necessary, driving is necessary, and only if both of these can happen safely is walking on the pavement safely a necessity.

Thus, we turn to Option 3. Ban parking on the pavement. Make pavement parking enforceable by default, unless a TRO, with all its bureaucracy, signs and road markings, streamlined or not, is officially designated to allow it. Make local authorities and local communities decide if they really want to give up their sidewalks to SUVs. If they do, they can, but only after some actual consideration.

The counterargument is that too many cars will no longer have a place to park, too many exceptions will have to be made. That is the argument of those who think parking has more rights to the pavement than pedestrians, who assume parked cars are a necessary obstruction – if they think about it at all.

In my view, Option 3 is the only one worth considering. Surely if we really thought about the pavement parking we encounter when walking around our own neighbourhoods, we would conclude that it is almost always an unnecessary obstruction we’d all be much happier without.

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