Most mornings, as I pull into an on-street parking space on 19th Street in Shockoe Bottom, I think about diagonal parking.
Why, you ask? Am I that much of a bore?
My office is at 19th and East Franklin. The street where I park is one way, with diagonal parking on one side and parallel on the other. This means that cars officially can park at an angle. A very old sign at the beginning of the block even says “Park 45 degrees.” It reminds me of pictures of old, showing just about every southern Main Street with a row of Model Ts lined up diagonally in front of busy downtown storefronts.
That this block remains is probably an accident of history. Perhaps a traffic engineer had a soft side and couldn’t let it go. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for it.
What makes me worry is that in the city’s downtown plan, 19th Street is scheduled to become a two-way street as part of the Shockoe Bottom Land Use and Development Strategy, which was adopted by City Council in January 2000. To make way for the two-way street, the diagonal parking will have to go.
For the record, I have nothing against parallel on-street parking. I just think diagonal parking has a very useful purpose.
One advantage of diagonal parking is that it eats up more of the street. Better yet, it slows down traffic and adds parking capacity, which makes retail more viable. While I can’t say that diagonal parking doubles the amount of on-street parking, it certainly adds many extra spaces.
That the city plans to get rid of the diagonal parking goes against a national trend of putting diagonal parking back on city streets and turning four-lane streets into two-lane streets by adding parallel parking. The trend has been identified by Patrick Siegman, a town planner in Palo Alto, Calif., and a principal of the firm Siegman & Associates. Siegman is putting together a study of parallel and diagonal parking with the goal of publishing a peer-reviewed paper.
“I’ve never seen a place where they put back on-street parking and [retail sales] went down,” says Siegman, who’s researched dozens of success stories, including cities like Burlington, Vt., Tallahassee, Fla., and Sacramento, Calif. Those cities have replaced wide roads with diagonal parking as a way to revive struggling downtown shopping districts and add parking spaces for the price of paint and a few signs.
The benefits of diagonal on-street parking are numerous, and are not just the obvious benefit of having more places to park and slowing down traffic. First, the parked cars create activity on the sidewalk as people walk to and from their cars. Second, they put a wall of steel protection between the pedestrian and the street.
The view in the 1970s was that cars were bad. They needed to move quickly through a district to make a shopping area succeed. Traffic flow was king, and the movement away from on-street parking was aided by traffic studies that seemed to show a decrease in accidents. But Siegman contends that by bringing back on-street parking, fatal and serious injuries diminish.
“You may get more fender benders,” says Siegman. “But a lot of that is you have more parking spaces, and [you] therefore have more activity.”
In many places where on-street parking was removed, planners thought that they had solved the problem of accidents. This was especially true with diagonal parking. The problem with that logic, says Siegman, is that the accidents moved away from the street to off-street parking lots, where the accidents disappeared from public record.
Diagonal parking can only work on secondary streets, but adding parallel parking can help to slow down traffic in other arteries.
It is no coincidence that in our area of Shockoe Bottom, the street life is vibrant and most of the buildings are pretty well leased. But in areas like East Grace Street between Seventh and Fourth streets, where on-street parking has been eliminated, almost all of the storefronts have been shut down.
The trend in Richmond is not good. In the areas around our new convention center, most on-street parking has been eliminated. Not only will this hurt the convention center, it makes it unlikely that any stores around it in Jackson Ward or on Broad Street will get a boost. Even worse, those parking spaces are still needed, which means that more buildings will have to be demolished to make enough parking spaces to make it work.
It seems very obvious to me that clogged areas with on-street spaces, places like Carytown and Shockoe Slip, are stable and lively, but places with limited or restricted on-street parking continue to struggle.
It’s time city planners and traffic engineers gave on-street parking a second look.
Published 2001. The above photo is of Broad Street at 4th. Murphy’s was eventually demolished because of a declining demand. There was no on street parking.