People and cars operate every day in relatively close proximity. People walk on sidewalks right next to moving traffic on streets without parking. People walk along crosswalks while cars wait to turn, and cars enter and exit parking garages or alleys across the sidewalk. Sometimes this proximity results in injuries or deaths, but we don’t refuse to let pedestrians go in crosswalks. And as designers like Hans Monderman discovered, often the less governments try to enforce separation, the safer streets actually are.

But if DCRA DDOT were issuing permits for streets today, they’d never allow any of this. They’d require 22 foot gaps between people and cars, concrete jersey barriers along every block, and huge planters on every corner. Those resemble some of the restrictions they’re trying to palce on the organizers of Park(ing) Day. Instead of saying, “great idea,” DCRA DDOT officials keep telling Justin Young, Brandon Schmittling, and Chris Loos that it sounds awfully unsafe for people to sit on benches in a parking space, even buffered by cars on each side. And they’re demanding ridiculous designs, including a 22-foot “buffer zone” on either end with no parked cars, concrete barriers, planters with flags, and more.


There’s no need for these restrictions. Cars in a travel lane don’t suddenly swerve to the right or left; if they did, they’d be jumping the curbs on many streets all the time. And, in fact, these buffer zones may make the impromptu parks less safe; with a large car on either side, if a car did veer out of its lane, it would probably hit the car in front.

The original Park(ing) Day in San Francisco, and many of its followers, didn’t apply for permits at all. They just fed the meter, unrolled some turf, and put a bench down. In some cities, the laws don’t specify what you can do with a parking space if you pay for it. Unfortunately, in DC, it says the spaces have to be for vehicles, unless you get a permit. That’s why the organizers have asked for a permit. Instead of getting help from the government, DCRA DDOT officials responded by throwing up every roadblock — literally — that they could think of.

According to Young, they’re meeting again this afternoon with DCRA DDOT to try to persuade them to allow a more sensible design, though one that still contains extra barriers for added safety:


If DCRA DDOT doesn’t allow this, residents should consider just going ahead and setting up parks in spaces anyway. People take up public space without permits all the time. Sometimes, when regulators are just being far too narrow-minded, the only option is to push the envelope anyway.

Update: The officials responsible for the policy decisions are from DDOT, not DCRA. The organizers originally approached DDOT, who sent them to the DCRA permit center, which includes public space permits. However, DCRA only acts as a conduit to DDOT public space officials who actually make the policy.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.