Backing Into Parking Changes Somerville, MA


When the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, decided that it would try its hand at back-in angle parking, there were not too many folks lining up to act upon the idea. While city planners and even the mayor had discussed the benefits of this unconventional on-street parking solution for years, finding support to design and install it took reaching out to experts who could attest to its success in downtowns around the country.

As it turns out, back-in angle parking has been in use for decades in cities as large and diverse as Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, as well as in small cities like Birmingham, Syracuse, and Missoula. In each of the hundred-plus American cities using the strategy, crash rates had dropped, vehicle speeds were slowed, bicycling had increased, and parking supply had grown.

Back-in angle or “reverse-angle” parking is the 90-degree flip on traditional head-in angle parking often seen on wide main streets. While head-in parking is easy to enter, it is so dangerous to back out of that states like Massachusetts now ban it on state roads. Pioneered at least 40 years ago, back-in parking spaces are simply easier to maneuver into than parallel parking spaces, and back-in angle parking adds just as many new spaces as head-in angle parking. Helpfully, your open car door’s swing directs children straight to the curb, and the trunk is conveniently curbside for loading. Most importantly, the departing driver has a clear view of oncoming traffic and bicycles, eliminating problems like blind reversing into traffic and “dooring” of bicyclists.

Despite the proven benefits of back-in angle parking, the city of Somerville had to do extensive outreach in order to educate residents about this unorthodox-looking parking arrangement. Regardless of the community meetings, outreach brochures, and website videos, when back-in angle parking was first installed on Bow Street in Somerville’s Union Square (replacing a redundant travel lane on a one-way commercial street), everyone from the police details educating newcomers down to the merchants benefitting from new parking supply had something negative to say. One Bow Street resident very forcefully stated, “The experiment is an epic fail for all of us trying to navigate Bow Street.”

Fortunately, the city of Somerville collected data—lots of it—to prove that the pilot was working: speeds were down 15 percent, parking supply was up 90 percent, and bicycle volumes doubled overnight. The new bike lane made viable by the lane reduction became a safe haven for cyclists. Cars were easily able to park correctly from day one. In just three months, the pilot has been such a success that Somerville is taking back-in angle parking to other city squares to help merchants get more customer parking while calming traffic and making cycling much safer.

Today Union Square is a little safer and more attractive for businesses and customers on Bow Street. And a blogger who’d proclaimed the pilot a failure said three weeks later, “Gotta give my apologies for beefing about the angle parking in Union Square! Starting to really see it work and my faith in Somerville drivers is not a hopeless cause after all! I stand corrected!”