The Hidden Regulations Behind Streets


The suburban garage: The birthplace of Nirvana and the Ramones. The hallowed ground on which so many Silicon Valley behemoths got their starts. And, for the rest of us, the dark, dingy graveyard where we’ve abandoned countless lawn mowers, as-seen-on-tv products, and elementary school art projects.

In spite of the near-mythic status American garages have achieved, we pay little attention to the fact that our garages are rarely used as intended—to store our cars.

Associate Professor of Urban Planning and Transportation Policy Zhan Guo sought to understand this disconnect: Why aren’t Americans using their garages to house their cars?

The short answer is, we don’t have to. Street width, Professor Guo found, is highly regulated in the United States. Suburban streets must abide by a “minimum width requirement,” which has established a de-facto four-lane minimum. As a result, Americans have more than enough space to park their cars in public spaces and repurpose their garages.

When asked to explain the rationale behind the minimum width requirement, policymakers told Professor Guo that the regulation made streets safer, and responded to consumer demand.

But Professor Guo found neither explanation to be accurate. Wider streets, it turns out, encourage speeding, creating unsafe conditions for residents and pedestrians. And that consumer demand? There are 400 million street parking spaces across the U.S., but only 250 million cars—American suburbanites are hardly clamoring for additional parking spaces.

Professor Guo says this imbalance in supply and demand manifests itself in higher housing costs, lower housing availability, and subsidization of the car industry.

In spite of this, Professor Guo says few Americans are even aware this policy exists. That’s because it is a “hidden” regulation embedded not in a municipality’s bylaws but in the technical manuals engineers use when they construct new streets.

Professor Guo says these hidden policies have real consequences—they can preclude citizens from forming meaningful opinions or effectively participating in local government.

Professor Guo’s findings serve as a valuable lesson to policymakers—a reminder to examine both visible policies and those that are harder to spot, but equally influential.