Your right to park on your street


There are big changes in my area of Portland, changes that mirror a lot of areas of the country.

One of the thoroughfares, Division St., is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Once populated by auto-supply stores, dive bars, and other vestiges of the “Old Portland”, much of these buildings have been replaced with 3-4 story apartment complexes with street-level retail.

The lightning rod for much of this discussion has involved, almost inevitably, traffic and parking. I hear the complaints about how people who live in the neighborhood are worried they won’t be able to find parking anymore.

But who said that you have a right to park in front of your house? Who told you that space was yours? Oh right: no one.

Before and after

Here is a picture of a section of Division St as of 2007 (thanks to Google Street View historical imagery).

SE Division St, 2007
SE Division St, 2007

And here is that same intersection this year.

SE Division St, today
SE Division St, today

Right at the onset, your gut reaction on the neighborhood says volumes about your aesthetics about living and working. How many of these applied to you?

  • “How can anyone live in such small places?”
  • “That’s an architectural abomination!”
  • “Where’s all the open space?”
  • “What a vibrant community!”
  • “Oh no, more gentrification.”
  • “I want to live there!”
  • “I never want to live there!”
  • “Parking is going to be a nightmare.”

During the planning stages, a lot of the current residents were aghast that the new buildings were being constructed without any facility for parking. In many apartment buildings in semi-urban areas, there is an underground garage for residents, but the plan here was for seven of the eleven new buildings not to have on-site parking.

As reported by the Willamette Week, that’s “224 new rental units in 13 blocks without a single new parking space.”

Where are those cars going to park?

A Socratic dialog about parking

Allow me to continue the dialog. You are a current resident of the low-density neighborhood. I am me. This conversation mirrors ones I’ve had on quite a few occasions.

  • You: Where are those cars going to park?
  • Me: You’re assuming that everyone who rents these apartments will own a car.
  • You: But everyone owns a car! Come on, people all want to drive cars.
  • Me: Not everyone wants to drive cars. I went car-free for a year and was fine. I rode my bike and took the bus a lot.
  • You: Well not everyone can bike, you know. It rains here.
  • Me: True, but some people can. And there’s also the bus; there are lots of bus lines around here.
  • You: Ew, I don’t ride the bus. People on there are creepy.
  • Me: Well, that’s your choice. I’m just saying that there are options.
  • You: But you have to admit that there are some people who are going to live in these tiny micro-apartments and drive.
  • Me: Of course. People are allowed.
  • You: Okay, so what happens when they start parking all over my neighborhood? Already I’m finding it harder to park in front of my house. One time during an event I had to park three blocks away from my place!
  • Me: My condolences.
  • You: It’s going to get worse. As more people move in, the traffic is going to get worse and the parking is going to become impossible.
  • Yogi Berra: Right, and then no one will go there anymore, as it’ll be too crowded.

What we talk about when we talk about parking

The frustration about parking seems at its heart about two much more elemental concerns: the loss of convenience and the fear of change. I’ll discuss the first one here.

If you own a car and live in a low-density neighborhood, it’s very nice to be able to park right in front of your place. You can just just walk out and drive away, go where you need to go, and then come back, knowing that you don’t need to wonder about where you’re going to park.

When you own a car and live in New York City, by contrast (something I have experience with as well), you have no such assurance. Whenever you drive away, you notice in the rear view mirror that three cars have just crashed into each other trying to get into your space. When you come back home, you can end up finding parking somewhere between four blocks and six miles away from your home. There may be blood in the area where the fist fight over the parking space ensued. (Yes, it happens.)

But Portland isn’t New York City. People would never give up their cars here.

Citation needed, please. The truth is that at some point, for some people, parking and driving will tip from being convenient to not worth it. It may become a luxury for those who can afford it. (Factor in insurance and maintenance, and the average car costs between $5000-$8000 a year to own. Transit is almost always less expensive than that.) People may switch to car-sharing services or rental cars as a supplement.

In search of lost convenience

Look, I feel like I understand. The neighborhood is changing. And you are losing a certain measure of convenience. What was easy may not be. What was quick may not be. What you didn’t need to think about, you now need to think about. These are all understandable concerns.

Unfortunately, it’s not all about you. “I was here first” is not a sufficient argument for stasis.

Should there be mandatory parking required in all new construction? I’m not sure. If you make it easy for people to drive, people will. And it’s known that just including parking in a building raises the costs to everyone, whether or not they utilize their space. It’s a classic chicken-egg problem, except that people have very strong opinions on which came first.

So more people will move in, and parking will be more difficult. People, myself included, may have to park six blocks away from their place instead of right in front. But we will find a way through, and our growing neighborhoods will be better in the end.

But enough about me. Are you affected by infill development or parking constraints?


  1. saulofhearts

    Wow, those changes are dramatic! The buildings on that stretch were there when I moved to Portland, so I’ve never seen it without. Personally, I don’t think the density in that area is terrible, but I do wish the buildings were better designed. They’re pretty boxy, and the lobbies look super-pretentious. A few of them do have car-sharing programs for residents, though, which is pretty cool!

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      I totally agree with you about the aesthetics of the buildings! They do seem to be from the Quick Moneygrab school of architecture. Or possibly Ikea. But the way I see it, we’re still relearning how to build buildings that are both pleasing to the eye as well as functional. I don’t want to romanticize the past, but it seems like we lost the ability to do this somewhere around WWII.

      The way I see it, all of what we’re building now is in a kind of transitional phase. I do worry about “greenwashing” (yes, the walls are made from reclaimed wood, but will the roof leak?). And of course, affordability, the four-story, 28-unit elephant in the room.

  2. Subnx

    Don’t they have setback restrictions there? Why would anyone want to take public transportation if they didn’t have to?

    • ladyfleur

      Hmm. To avoid sitting in traffic. To be able to relax or read instead of drive. To save money by not buying gas or a car. To not have to pay for parking. Because it’s faster. Because they have imperfect vision. Because they have epilepsy, narcolepsy or other medical condition that makes driving difficult or impossible. Because they have a disability that requires them to have a expensive car with special controls. Because they were once in a traumatic car collision. Because they don’t like polluting the planet.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Hi. I actually don’t know about setback restrictions. Do you? I’m not sure where I’d go to find that out.

      As for your second question, well, that’s a big topic, one that I’ll write more about soon, but to give the briefest and most simplistic of answers now: when I get on the bus to head to and from my office, I either read or get a short nap in, two things that would be quite deleterious to my health if I tried it in a car. 🙂

    • focus503

      “Why would anyone want to take public transportation if they didn’t have to?”

      Seriously? Because driving is enraging, and parking is expensive.

  3. focus503

    I’ve always maintained that you have no claim to the public right of way adjacent to your property. I do have to admit however, that I’m a bit miffed because one of our new neighbors’ boyfriends has taken to parking in front of my house on a daily basis. Despite the fact that they have a 3 car driveway and space in front of their house on the other side of the street.

    Territoriality I guess.

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