Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Churches and Parking

A recent story over at Atlantic Cities got me thinking about a debate that’s heated up over the last few years: urban parking policy for churches.

Per Atlantic Cities, San Francisco has decided to start charging for metered parking on Sundays. This is starting to happen across America. In San Francisco, as in Chicago and elsewhere, the driver (no pun intended) appears to be revenue raising, plain and simple.

This has angered many attendees of local churches (who have in many cases now moved out of town and drive in for services). They seem to believe that they have a constitutional right to free parking on Sunday mornings. On the other side, of course, are bicycle advocates, who are positively gleeful. (Bicycle advocates are without a doubt the single most self-righteous advocacy group I know, which is why so many people who otherwise might support reasonable pro-bicycling policy can’t stand them).

I think a more nuanced approach should be taken, based on neighborhood conditions and creating the right incentive structures. For example, in some places across the country (San Francisco and Chicago come to mind again), it’s traditional for church goers to park even in what would otherwise be illegal spots. In general, this isn’t a problem – at least from my personal observations in Chicago. Traffic is pretty light on Sunday mornings, and it doesn’t cause any problems.

What’s more, enabling that temporary use of public space for a couple hours on a Sunday morning is exactly the sort of thing we need more of, not less. An institution like a church that has a single demand spike for parking during a generally low demand period is a great candidate for flexible uses of public space that would otherwise be underutilized. Liveable streets advocates are quick to decry the empty lanes off peak from oversized roads. So what’s the problem with putting a boulevard on a “road diet” on Sunday morning by using a lane for parking? Sounds like a winner to me. I’d be asking what other types of institutions or events could do similar things.

And consider, what will happen if churches are banned from using these spots or otherwise have to pay? Well, it depends on the neighborhood, but it’s easy to see what organizations often do when they need parking: build parking lots. Do we really want churches acquiring private off street lots that will sit empty 166 out of 168 hours per week – and generate no property taxes? It makes no sense to me. Why would we want to create incentives for people to own parking lots just because some folks hate cars? We should be going exactly the other direction. There are way too many church parking lots already if you ask me. We should be trying to cut deals with them to open that land up for development by making temporary blocks of street parking available for a couple hours on Sundays.

Now, in places where there is legitimately congestion and/or parking shortages on Sunday mornings (and San Francisco might be a case here – I don’t know for sure), implementing parking charges and restrictions would certainly be reasonable. The principal reason for allowing these church uses in the first place shouldn’t be some religious exemption per se, but rather enabling a local chronologically niche use to take advantage of underutilized public space. (Keep in mind that many other local users get truly special privileges based solely on their local presence: loading zones, valet zones, residential parking – and the latter is usually de facto free). If the space is over-subscribed, then feeding the meters to help rationalize demand is reasonable, and the churches should stop grumbling.

In short, we should be basing this on some type of rational decision process based on neighborhood conditions, setting the right overall incentives, and balancing the needs of competing uses, not pandering to churches treating illegal spots as if they were some ancient feudal right, nor sanctimonious bicyclists behaving as if a double parked car on Sunday morning is a menace to the planet or to their own self-evident status as the most perfectly entitled form of urban transport.

Topics: Transportation

16 Responses to “Churches and Parking”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    In the 90s, some black church goers in D.C. would TRIPLE park in 24 hour TOW ZONES. There was barely a car’s width left on the road. This was within a mile and a half of the White House. I never saw one car towed or with a ticket and it was EVERY Sunday. The area I lived in has received huge investment since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if such things still happen on Sunday morning. Putting in parking meters is the least of their concern.

  2. SPZ says:

    If you don’t know that San Francisco doesn’t have a legitimate congestion concern, then how do you know that San Franciscan bicyclists don’t have a legitimate safety concern?

    Anyway, it seems that there are two intertwined but separate issues here: whether or not to keep the meters turned on on Sundays, and whether or not to enforce adhering to legal parking spaces. If we were to assume that there were ample legal parking spots, I don’t think requiring churchgoers to feed a couple dollars into a meter would be enough by itself to cause a church to undertake the expense of buying up land and building a parking lot. Taking away their informally acknowledge ability to appropriate street space for parking, however, might leave them with no other choice.

    Seems like a good policy would be to officially designate certain lanes to become legalized double parking spaces on Sundays, but require drivers to pay something like a market rate for the use of that space, and leave them open for anyone to use, not just churchgoers. I realize churches won’t appreciate the competition for spaces, but any other policy would inherently deem churches a use more worthy than that of anything else in the area, something I can’t accept.

  3. @SPZ, sounds like a plan. Actually, in Chicago I know other people use (myself on occasion, when I owned a car), used the Sunday only morning parking spots for parking for brunch.

  4. Betty Barcode says:

    Just an observation about this ending:

    “…self-evident status as the most perfectly entitled form of urban transport.”

    While this is merely an attitude for cyclists, it is reality for drivers, who like fish in water no longer even think about how our entire built environment has been redesigned to convenience them.

  5. Steven Vance says:

    There are two situations in Chicago I’d like to describe:

    1. Parking on the boulevards (excluding Palmer)
    Parking here was made legal (for free) for much of the week in an underhanded ordinance by Alderman Colón that benefits church goers.

    2. Parking on Palmer Boulevard, west bound
    The street has parking on the park side and parking on the residential side. There is a door zone bike lane on the right side of the street (left of parking lane). There are three travel lanes. The center lane is used for car parking on Sundays (which is without a doubt illegal, but tolerated). This temporary road diet probably contributes to reduced speeds on the street. The street use otherwise doesn’t necessitate having three travel lanes. I think the remaining two travel lanes are still overly sufficient for the demands of the street. I believe two lanes should be removed; one would be converted to a protected bike lane and the other would be expanded park space.

  6. Doug G. says:

    In Brooklyn, church goers park on sidewalks, in bike lanes, and double park on the road, creating a problem not only for “self-entitled” cyclists but also for pedestrians and other drivers. It’s not just one double-parked car on a Sunday we’re talking about – it’s entire blocks.

    If a person parks in a spot that is clearly marked as off-limits, why is it the cyclist who is sanctimonious and entitled? Isn’t it the person making the individual decision to override a posted notice without consulting a local municipality or getting some sort of permission first?

    I agree that a more flexible view of how we allocate space is needed by all parties and that temporary parking for church-goers is absolutely preferable to a new parking lot. But I’m not sure why you felt the need to get that swipe in at cyclists. People who otherwise might support reasonable pro-parking policy might feel alienated.

  7. Another critical consideration would be the demographic makeup of the churches themselves. While policymakers obviously shouldn’t overtly articulate these demographics as part of the decision making process (out of fear that it might connote discrimination), the overall demographic vigor of the congregation will inevitably influence parking needs. With few exceptions, the ecclesiastic landscape in urban centers (particularly the older, denser cities) skews heavily toward Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations. Neither of these is typically growing in number…particularly in mature, affluent urban neighborhoods. The congregation skews heavily toward an older demographic, and one whose mobility issues may require many members to drive to church, even when they live just a few blocks away. I observed a few years ago on my blog how, even in some of the precipitously shrinking Mainline churches, their parking lots remain as full as ever. It’s just that those cars used to shuttle around a family of 6; now they only contain an older couple or a lone individual.

    Since we don’t necessarily want to “pander to churches”, it may help to be mindful that we do “pander” to the elderly and those with access/functional needs–with little controversy. Based on the health of some of the denominations that are struggling the worst (Church of Christ, Scientist comes to mind, or the Archdiocese of Boston after all the sex abuse scandals) it is likely only a matter of time before the parish divests itself of some of its real estate. At that point, the future use of the old church building will help determine if those parking spaces will still sit vacant for 166 out of 168 hours each week.

  8. John Murphy says:

    The most notorious area for the illegal double parking in SF is on Dolores between 20th and 18th. That stretch encompasses the entire length of the most densely used park in the City, replete with a brand new and ridiculously popular children’s playground.

    The two lines of double parking on Dolores produce a horrendous safety hazard for the primarily pedestrian users of the park by destroying the daylighting of the crossing of Dolores.

  9. Nicholas Hufford says:

    Would it be too much bureaucratic process to have churches submit some sort of proposal for parking spaces based on attendance and simply keep the meters in these zones open during church hours.
    There are always going to be people to take advantage of these, but I think it would allow for some sort of compromise to be reached.
    Also, a few comments relating to double or triple parking are particular instances and street parking is street parking regardless of the institution you are parked near or for

  10. Joe Smoker says:


    I don’t understand the shot at people who travel by bike as it relates to your discoveries on urban church parking. It seems like you had this idea on cyclists brewing in your head and found this an oportune time to release it.

    I am aware, more than most, the attitudes some people have with regards to cycling. This is coming from both sides of the discussion mind you. My concern is that streets were never intended to be the dividers of communities for the exclusive use of automobiles. I think even this is a concept you might agree on. So it comes as no shock that efforts to regain use of the street as an open public realm are met with resistance and arguement. As other modes of transportation, outside of the car, become a larger percentage of mode share, you will find people more defensive about their right to use the street. I might argue that a driver has an even larger complex with regards to their “right” to the street. And trust me, when your life is threatened because someone is in a hurry or simply has no clue or care about the law with regards to the road, you tend to get a bit defensive as well.

  11. Daniel says:

    “Bicycle advocates are without a doubt the single most self-righteous advocacy group I know, which is why so many people who otherwise might support reasonable pro-bicycling policy can’t stand them.”

    Thank you for articulating this so clearly and succinctly! I am a perfectly happy pedestrian. I have never understood why so many urbanism blogs make me sound like a horrible person for not wanting to ride a bike.

    Great post overall, too.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Yesterday was Sunday, and into the afternoon cars were double-parked and parked on the sidewalk around one of the local Greek Orthodox churches. There are basically zero Greek Orthodox worshipers still living in my New York City neighborhood.

    Parishioners don’t patronize local businesses before or after services; the church doesn’t sponsor community activities; and people who live on that block get to spend their Sunday dodging cars on the sidewalk in front of their house. And of course the church isn’t paying taxes on its property to the city

    What’s in it for me, or any of the other residents in my neighborhood? How is it so important that these worshipers continue to meet in their traditional spot? I don’t see the nuance there, sorry.

  13. I’m not sure “what’s in it for me” on a whole lot of public policy questions. But that’s seldom been successful as a rationale for opposing supporting something, say bike lanes for example.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    I’m not a cyclist, but when road space is reallocate from cars to bicycles, it makes the street safer for me. To say nothing of how I could be a cyclist if there are enough cyclists that it becomes feasible to install infrastructure I need like bike parking. In contrast, excessive car traffic not only doesn’t have that benefit but also makes the streets less safe.

  15. John Morris says:

    Isn’t the real big problem in many cities the people who rarely use their cars but take advantage of “free” curb parking?

    I still have flashbacks to a day I went drove with a friend to Park Slope on a weekday. We drove 40 blocks for a spot. My guess is 90% of the cars are used on weekends only and a decent percent of those folks might not have a car if they couldn’t park it for free. Scarcity of parking creates the perverse incentive to hold onto spaces. That seems like the real problem on most weekends.

  16. John Morris says:

    I’m glad most of the comments show people prefer a few Sunday hours of parking problems or double parking does not offset the damage usually done by an underused surface parking lot during the rest of the week.

    Assuming no big safety- emergency vehicle access reasons for banning double parking exist, a good solution is to make the offending institution pay an annual fee allowing occasional double parking and let them issue stickers or permits.

    It’s a pretty substantial inconvenience so I think this should cost a few thousand dollars a year.

    IMHO, this is also how the issue of residential driveways should be handled.

    Shadyside, in Pittsburgh is seeing lots of people adding side or basement garages onto historic homes which although almost always ugly, add large amounts of value to the property.

    Taking permanent ownership of street parking should cost money. My guess is it’s worth 20-30,000.

    Business driveways are a different issue, but adding an above average number of driveways should probably cost some money.

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