A truck and a car blocking portions of a sidewalk in East Oakland. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The Oakland Department of Transportation wants to prevent one of the most common and complained about street behaviors: parking vehicles on the sidewalk. 

Across Oakland, drivers park on sidewalks, often entirely blocking the pathway for pedestrians and forcing people walking or using wheelchairs to meander around by stepping or rolling into the road. Pedestrian advocates have complained for years that sidewalk parking limits people’s mobility and creates unnecessary dangers.

OakDOT’s new mobility supervisor Kerby Olsen said the city plans to start better enforcing California’s Vehicle Code as it relates to parking. 

“Parking on the sidewalk is illegal, even if the vehicle is not fully obstructing the sidewalk,” said Olsen at last week’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. “It obstructs the public right of way, also creating potential safety hazards.” 

Olsen, who also presented at the Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities meeting last week, noted that illegal sidewalk parking predominantly impacts people with disabilities, familes walking with kids, and seniors.

The city plans to try to prevent sidewalk parking through engineering changes that will make the rules clearer to everyone. OakDOT officials say they will be asking people living on streets where sidewalk parking happens most often, usually narrow roads, to consider two redesign options. Currently, most streets where sidewalk parking is a problem are very narrow two-lane roads, usually under 25 feet wide. On these streets, it is impossible to maintain two lanes of traffic with street parking on both sides, and that’s why many residents currently park on sidewalks. There simply isn’t enough street parking available. OakDOT’s proposed solutions are to make two-way streets into one-ways, or remove car parking on one side of the street. By doing so, the department hopes to allow for more efficient enforcement of laws against sidewalk parking. 

To find where sidewalk parking is most common, OakDOT researched ten years’ worth of Google Maps Street View data. The resulting color-coded map can be seen below. 

The Oakland Department of Transportation studied ten years’ worth of Google Maps street images to find out which ones experienced the most sidewalk parking.

According to Olsen, OakDOT already has the authority to make engineering changes to streets to try to avert sidewalk parking and other problems, meaning they don’t need City Council’s permission. But they definitely need the general public’s cooperation, which might prove difficult. 

Several residents called into the Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission meeting last week to voice opposition to OakDOT’s plans. John Brewer, who lives in the Trestle Glen neighborhood, which could be impacted by street design changes, said removing sidewalk parking would make it impossible to park. 

“It sounds like it’s not a very well-thought-out plan, because you’re not actually looking at the specifics of the streets that you’re trying to impact,” he said. 

According to Brewer, parking on the sidewalk is a good solution to the lack of on-street parking, particularly for seniors who need car access. Changing the street to a one-way, Brewer said, was discussed in the early 2000s but rejected because the police department told them it would likely increase car speeds unless speed bumps were added. 

“But of course the fire department was there, and asked that we do not have any additional speed bumps,” Brewer said.

Part of the reason why residents were upset was because the city previously gave them explicit permission to park on the sidewalk. 

In 2004, after meetings between the city and Trestle Glen residents related to complaints that the sidewalks were being blocked, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, City Attorney John Russo agreed to allow residents to park on part of the sidewalk, so long as they left at least 36 inches of space for people to pass. The reasoning was that the street was too narrow to safely park cars without allowing some sidewalk parking. 

Even cars such as regular-sized sedans that park on an assigned property parcel can block sidewalks and force pedestrians onto city streets. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

On the call last week, Olsen alluded to this letter and said that its legal exception is “not currently city policy.” However, it appears that Oakland never officially rescinded the letter nor strongly communicated a parking policy change to the affected residents. 

Lisa Ray, another Trestle Glen resident, said the city shouldn’t dismiss the agreement that was reached almost two decades ago

“There are several more factors that were considered,” Ray said. “In addition to pedestrian access and emergency vehicle access, traffic calming [was considered] because the street does have a significant grade and you’d be surprised thinking that parents driving their kids to and from school would follow speed limits. It’s really shocking that they do not.”

Kevin Dalley, who also lives in the Trestle Glen neighborhood, told The Oaklandside that while he supports OakDOT’s handling of the “complicated” sidewalk parking issue, he does worry that removing cars from streets may make them too wide and encourage speeding. 

“Two way streets can encourage slow driving. Drivers have to pull over to the side to allow passing, slowing the pace of traffic,” he said. 

Bike and pedestrian commission member Alex Frank said during last week’s meeting that it is important to remember that new street design options are being considered to keep the most vulnerable people on sidewalks safe. He also noted some residents have the option to park their car inside their garage. 

“There is no part of your car that is even close to worth the amount of a small broken bone by insurance calculations,” Frank said. “You need to give space for someone with a walker, someone with a stroller… if you’re saying, you can’t park in your garage, ask yourself why I can’t park in my garage. [Maybe] because my car doesn’t fit and it’s filled with stuff.” 

OakDOT’s Olsen reiterated this point on Twitter by writing that pedestrians’ right to safety is a higher priority than people’s second cars. 

OakDOT staffer Kerby Olsen tweeted why his department is prioritizing pedestrians over parking. Screenshot courtesy of Twitter.

Not everyone in Oakland, has access to a garage though, especially in the flatlands where houses are usually smaller, households are bigger, and there’s less off-street parking in garages. 

Kyle O’Malley, a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disabilities, said forcing people to move their cars off the sidewalk when there isn’t another option could be an equity concern because “residential parking could be more accessible in the hills than in the flats.” 

Olsen said OakDOT would conduct an equity analysis to avoid creating rules that burden already disadvantaged communities. 

Despite the perception that rules against sidewalk parking have gone unenforced, the city does issue some tickets, with 9,383 written in 2020. Among the reasons for continued scofflaws is that some traffic enforcement staff are afraid to write tickets in some parts of Oakland, fearing physical violence. Staff shortages are also a limitation. Then there are car sizes, which get bigger every year, making it almost necessary for drivers to block portions of the sidewalk in neighborhoods where driveways are short. Bike and pedestrian commission member David Ralston alluded to this issue, noting many driveways in Oakland are too small to park one’s car. Olsen said that OakDOT currently does not have data on driveway sizes throughout the city. 

With all the divergent opinions about how to get cars off sidewalks while preserving vehicle parking and keeping streets safe and navigable, transportation department staff said they will convene community meetings to hear more from residents. 

In the meantime, if people want to submit a report of a car parking on the sidewalk, OakDOT recommends calling parking enforcement on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and on weekends to dial the Oakland Police Department’s non-emergency number. 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.