Many years ago, a suburban ward councillor in the city I was planning for, asked me for some unusual advice. Residents had been calling about speeding on the roads in their neighbourhoods, and the councillor was wondering if posting lower speed limits might be needed to address the problem.
After looking at the circumstances, I told the councillor that the root problem was too many front garages. What do garages have to do with speeding? In suburbs all over North America, front garages are causing ripple effects that change the design and nature of our neighbourhoods in many ways that we don't initially realize.
Think about it. When you have a two, or even a three-car garage in the front of your house, that usually creates a large "curb cut" driveway out to the street. That makes it hard, or even impossible, to park cars on the side of the street, because you can't block driveways. Thus many suburban streets have little, if any, on-street parking.
How does that lead to speeding? Municipal streets are designed with a "design speed" in mind -- a sort of rational speed that a reasonable person would want to instinctively drive at, based on the width and other conditions of the street design. I've heard it suggested that the actual design speed of most streets is actually higher than the posted speed limit, leading to an instinctive urge to want to drive faster than the speed limit.
This has led in part to the recent growth of the "traffic calming" movement, where new street designs seek to create "friction" that slows down speed more effectively than the posted speed limit does.
But in these garage-filled suburbs, it gets worse than the regular design speed. That's because the width of streets across our suburbs is based on the assumption of on-street parking, usually on both sides, or at least one. So the streets are wide enough to accommodate very comfortable drive lanes, plus the on-street parking room. But as I've explained, the front drive garages and related driveways prevent that on-street parking, leading to extra-wide driving lanes with even higher design speeds. So it's not surprising that people speed on these roads - the design is essentially tempting them to!
The discussion with the ward councillor that day led to an interesting broader conversation about suburban design, including how street standards needed to be changed, and the ripple effects from the "builder's choice" to construct so many front garages.
I recall many discussions with developers and builders about the implications of the garage choice, often with the developer's response that garages, and suburban house design in general, are "none of the city's business." It's more of a personal issue and choice for a home buyer, they argued, and it doesn't affect the broader city.
But here's the thing -- the ripple effects mean the garage choice affects the whole neighbourhood well into the future, and yes, it affects the public interest. And it isn't just about speeding.
NO EYES ON THE STREET
There's a great saying, attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes among others, that the right to swing one's fist, ends at the point of another's nose. To borrow this great metaphor, the fist might be the garage, and the nose, the neighbourhood's "public realm."
On top of the speeding, multiple garages mean that the house is set back deeply, usually at least six metres with no (or small) porches, separating the house from any easy public interaction with the sidewalk. The setback and blocking garages also mean no "eyes on the street," which makes the street less safe and social. Such houses even fail the "trick-or-treat test" at Halloween.
There likely isn't a sidewalk anyway. The curb cut usually replaces that, as well as the landscape strips, and street trees. Add to these losses the absence of on-street parking, which can be valuable as a buffer to separate pedestrians from moving cars, and you have a significant impact on the walkability of the neighbourhood. When walking is less inviting, more people choose to drive, with all the health, cost, environmental and social implications that come with that choice.
The loss of maturing street trees -- even to the level of a "kissing canopy" where trees can eventually frame the street -- removes the best way that neighbourhoods can improve in beauty as they age. Yard trees closer to the house can play a role, but not the same one in terms of walkability. Because they are set back and inconsistent, yard trees usually don't create that canopy no matter how long you wait.
Blog continues after the slideshow
Ironically these issues only grow as lots reduce in width. As single detached houses get smaller for good reasons -- including more efficient use of land and better affordability -- this design issue is just exacerbated.
Some design approaches such as consolidated "shared" drives between two lots, or single width driveways at the curb that then widen to accommodate wider garages, can improve these conditions a bit, but not completely -- and builders often argue these aren't "popular with home buyers."
The best option is rear lanes, which also allow the home to be moved closer to the street for better sociability and safety, while replacing less usable front yards with more private rear yards.
Some cities like Calgary, where I planned previously, use such real lanes commonly across the suburbs (long before they became popular again as part of the New Urbanist design movement). Amazingly though, in many Calgary suburban communities, developers have created the worst of both worlds -- rear lanes with parking pads, often used to store campers and such, AND set back front yards and multi-car garages! Perhaps the most wasteful condition I can think of.
All this is to say that garages matter a great deal to the design and enjoyment of our neighbourhoods, well beyond that garage door. Perhaps it's finally time to reconsider whether that garage out front is really more important to us than the nature of the rest of our neighbourhood.