Parking Wars

The neighbourhood known as South Main—that enclave of hipster moms, rock-solid retirees, and struggling musicians—is renowned for its spirit of easy camaraderie. Not as Marxist as Commercial Drive, it’s still a neighbourhood that could inspire a collective-minded bumper sticker like “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Or hers. What’s more, for us bourgeois bohemians who happen to own a car or two, here’s another handy bonus: free and plentiful street parking.

Or so we thought until one crisp morning when the neighbour across the street paid an impromptu visit: Welcome to the neighbourhood. Two children? Wonderful. By the way, just so you know, please do not park in front of our house. Ever. You could get ticketed or even towed—there’s a lady down the street who’s known for doing that…

Ticketed? Towed? For parking on our own sign-free street? In South Main no less? How and why did such micro-NIMBYism creep in? We’re the salt of the earth, we SoMans, not the crème de la crème. On a street unsullied by No Stopping or Permit Only signs, parking is an inviolate civic right, like picnicking in Stanley Park. Or is it?

The short answer is: not quite. Every Vancouver residential street, even those without any kind of Permit Only or other regulatory sign, is governed by an unadvertised regulation. Bylaw No. 2849 Section 17.6(f): “No person shall park a vehicle…on a street abutting premises used for residential or commercial purposes for more than 3 hours between 8:00 a.m and 6:00 p.m.” Why not? “This by-law is meant to restrict commuters from regularly parking all day on residential streets,” the city’s website states. “It is enforced on a complaint basis only, and usually only when a vehicle is found to be repeatedly in violation. The by-law is not meant to restrict legitimate visitors or area residents from parking on their own street.”

Aha! The bylaw is designed to shoo away those daytripping White Rockers and Ladnerites who might otherwise park on Vancouver’s increasingly scarce street space, then grab a bus to their downtown jobs. It’s not meant for the people who actually live on this block—the ones who rake each other’s leaves and collect each other’s papers.

“Many people do feel they own that spot in front of their house,” observes Theresa Beer, a City of Vancouver communications coordinator. “But in fact, that’s city property and no one person owns it.” We are allowed to park in front of our own houses without any restriction whatsoever, the bylaw notes, but we don’t own that space and can’t restrict who parks there as long as they observe the three-hour limit. And after 6 o’clock, even the three-hour anti-commuter restriction lapses. You can drive in from Ladner, drink prodigiously at one of Main Street’s fine watering holes, then sleep it off till 8 the next morning (or, technically speaking, to 10:59 a.m.)—all while parked in front of someone’s prim new bungalow. No one can stop you. Except the city, if it decides to call in its property rights and clear the street for marathons or moviemaking.

Our block’s communal spirit plummeted and its psychogeography shifted after the late-December storms, when snowbanks took over half the street. After that, even the most civic-minded homeowners staked makeshift claims to that patch of street in which they had invested an hour of back-wracking shovelling. Garbage cans, lawn chairs, lacrosse sticks, buckets, and hockey nets—the convivial semiotics of all these family-friendly objects belied their repurposing as parking-spot bouncers. By then, only the most fervent Communist could ignore the obvious tenet of city living: we believe in public space only when it doesn’t inconvenience us—but as soon as it does, then all that is solid melts into air.

Ah, but all that melted goodwill could surely congeal with a little cross-road communication, no? With dumb-ass bravado, I ambled across the street to re-engage my proprietary-minded neighbour. “I was just thinking we could talk openly and honestly and communicate about, you know, neighbourhood issues like, say, parking?”

She shot back a look that stripped the polish clean off my nails.

I held firm. “As in, say if I’m driving down our street, and I’m on your house’s side of the road and need to stop at home for just a short time and there’s plenty of space in front of your house, then rather than waste all that gas driving around the block, maybe I can park for, say, five minutes in the street, in front of your house?” Look, she said. No. They need all the spaces; and, anyway, she didn’t want to argue with me.

“Can you tell me who this mysterious woman is who has her neighbours ticketed and towed? I just want to make sure I don’t run into her in a dark alley.” No, she’d rather not say; she didn’t want to argue with me.

Suddenly aware that I was standing on her side of the property line, I backstepped onto the street and paused for a nanosecond in our communal street space. As Marx himself might say, Woman is at last compelled to face with sober senses her real conditions of life, and her relations with her neighbouring kind.