A white sedan is blocking the sidewalk on an Oakland street.
The back end of a car that is too long to fit in a small East Oakland driveway blocks the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to step out into the street. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

For years, many car owners have parked their vehicles on Oakland’s sidewalks. But this practice—which happens in exclusive hills neighborhoods and the flatlands—will soon no longer be tolerated by the city.

In a meeting of the City Council’s Public Works and Transportation Committee on Tuesday, the Department of Transportation announced that starting Oct. 1 it will enforce sidewalk parking laws stringently. People who park their cars on the sidewalk, even on narrow roads with little space for parking and driving, will be cited. 

The city will issue warnings for the first few months for a vehicle’s first violation and will start fining people on Jan. 1. The fine for parking on the sidewalk is $100. 

Currently, the city doesn’t regularly issue violations for parking on all sidewalks. According to a new report presented by OakDOT staffer Michael Ford at the public works committee meeting, OakDOT staff issued 6,164 sidewalk parking violations in the whole city last year, up from 5,797 in 2021. The actual number of times people park on sidewalks is thought to be much higher than this.

The impetus for enforcing the rule is safety. According to OakDOT, seniors, people with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs, and adults walking with their kids are most at risk of being hurt when they are forced to navigate around cars parked on the sidewalk. 

“When navigating around the obstruction, sidewalk users may be forced to move into traffic or to use other routes that are unsafe, inconvenient, or infeasible,“ Ford and other OakDOT staff wrote in their recent report.

How might the sidewalk parking law impact Oakland neighborhoods?

Residents who park in Hillsborough Street in Oakland, near Lake Merritt, will be especially impacted by the renewed focus on sidewalk parking enforcement. Credit: Google Maps

According to a map created by OakDOT, most of the tickets for sidewalk parking last year were issued to vehicles blocking walkways in the flatlands, and it appears there was more enforcement in East Oakland compared to West and North Oakland. Ford said at yesterday’s council committee meeting that enforcement mostly only happens on narrow streets when a resident calls and complains about a specific vehicle.

At public meetings last year where the city was considering changes to sidewalk parking rules, Oakland residents who use the sidewalk to park said they do so because their street is too narrow, making it challenging to find somewhere to leave their vehicles without blocking the road. At the time, OakDOT proposed either turning the narrowest streets into one-way streets or removing parking on one side. 

Two streets with short driveways, Hillsborough and Underhills roads, were highlighted by Ford during yesterday’s presentation.

Some flatlands residents say the city’s new approach will unfairly punish their communities and result in disproportionate impacts.

Flor Beltran, who lives on 51st Avenue in East Oakland, said her family and everyone else on her street tend to park on the sidewalk out of necessity. Residents like Beltran say their neighborhoods are denser in population than Oakland’s middle and upper-class neighborhoods, yet lot sizes are smaller, and off-street parking is especially limited. This causes a shortage of curbside parking on streets and many people respond by parking in ways that partially or fully block sidewalks.

For example, during busy evenings with no parking spaces, Beltran often parks for a few minutes on the sidewalk in front of her driveway to drop off food or her child before finding a different place to park for the night. Beltran said she already received a ticket for doing this when she returned from a trip to Costco. 

“To tell you the truth, [the new enforcement] will be difficult,” Beltran said.

OakDOT’s new report did in fact find that most of the tickets for sidewalk parking are given to low-income people of color in the flatlands and that “relatively few were issued in wealthy, mostly white hillside neighborhoods.”

Sidewalk parking is legally ambiguous no more

OakDOT also recently determined that an old city policy that had allowed residents of specific neighborhoods to park on the sidewalk isn’t valid. 

In 2004, Oakland City Attorney John Russo sent a letter to residents of Trestle Glen, a neighborhood by Lake Merritt of single-family homes,  informing them that they could park on the sidewalk if they allowed 36 inches for people to pass. The rationale was that residents could not park legally on the street without blocking the street for traffic and emergency vehicles. The city had never officially rescinded the letter. 

Six years later, a city memo issued by the Parking Division of the Finance and Management Agency also allowed people to park on sidewalks of narrow roads if both wheels were on the curb, again because of concerns about cars blocking traffic on narrow roads with a width of 30 feet or less.

The new report rescinds these rules. According to OakDOT, Russo’s 2004 letter conflicts with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that guarantees equal treatment and accommodations for people with disabilities, and laws pertaining to public safety. It also violates OakDOT’s roadway goals to help vulnerable pedestrians.

“The current City Attorney’s Office has determined that any agreements or arrangements made by the prior City Attorney and the then-District Councilmember with the community via such letters that allowed residents to block or park on City sidewalks are null and void,” OakDOT director Fred Kelley said in the report.

The city is relying on a 2003 U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case called Barden v. Sacramento to support its new position banning all sidewalk parking. In the Barden case, the appeals court found that cities and “public entities” are responsible for making “all public sidewalks accessible and usable to people with mobility and vision disabilities.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this decision.

Some people in Trestle Glen, many of whom benefitted from the lax sidewalk parking policies, support the new enforcement news. 

Kevin Dalley, a road safety advocate who volunteers for the Traffic Violence Rapid Response group and lives in Trestle Glen, told The Oaklandside the new rule is “great news.”

“Pedestrians are forced to walk into the street, risking injury. People with disabilities and people with strollers have a particular risk of injury when entering the street and returning to the sidewalk,” Dalley said. “My cane-carrying mother-in-law doesn’t get around as well as she used to. Blocked sidewalks make it more difficult to travel to and from the bus stops.”

Long-time Oakland community advocate Asata Olugbala said at the meeting on Tuesday that increased occupancy in Oakland’s low-income home neighborhoods, likely due to higher rents and fewer housing options, has probably led to more residents needing more parking. 

The city’s Parking Enforcement Unit, according to OakDOT, will be fully staffed this fall. A recent recruiting effort, officials said, will lead to “dozens of new technicians in the field” that will lead to an increase in citations by “as much as 50%.” 

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.