What’s So Bad About Parking in Front of a Fire Hydrant Anyway?

According to the Associated Press, “a survey of 49 American metropolitan areas found that monthly parking rates in midtown Manhattan were the country’s most expensive, averaging $574.”

What’s particularly amazing about that figure is that most people who park in midtown only park during the day near their offices, then drive home at night.

I live on the Upper West Side, where I park my car for the relatively cheap rate of $350 a month. It’s possible to park for free on the street in New York, but competition for free spots is pretty stiff and you have to move your car every other weekday for street-cleaning. (Calvin Trillin wrote an entire book about this sport, called Tepper Isn’t Going Out.)

I have long wondered why some entrepreneur hasn’t turned a NYC parking garage into a co-op, selling off the spots instead of renting them. I am guessing it could be a great business. I for one would much rather have an option to buy a spot than to be forced to rent. There are a few apartment complexes in Manhattan that have outdoor lots and which do sell those spots, but only to residents of those complexes. (Believe me, I’ve tried to buy one as a non-resident, and it’s impossible.)

People have argued for years that NYC residents like me get abused by the current free-parking-on-the-street system. Why should someone who, say, lives in New Jersey and works on the Upper West Side get to park for free on my street when I pay local taxes and he doesn’t?

Furthermore, there is the issue of fire hydrants. During the recent NYC heat wave, there’s been a lot of concern about people opening up fire hydrants to spray water to escape the heat. The Dept. of Environmental Protection claims that “one illegally opened hydrant wastes up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute, while a hydrant with a spray cap” — which the Fire Department will give you for free — “only puts out around 25 gallons per minute.” The concern, of course, is that if there’s a fire, the nearest hydrant won’t be able to provide enough water pressure to fight it.

But this got me to thinking about fire hydrants and parking. We all know it’s illegal, in New York and presumably anywhere, to park in front of a fire hydrant. The law in New York states that you must be 15 feet away. But the scarcity of NYC street parking has led me to wonder: what’s so bad about parking in front of a hydrant? The firemen only need to hook the hose up to the hydrant, and a car parked by the hydrant certainly doesn’t interfere with that; the fire truck itself is inevitably double-parked anyway. I’m sure it would be impossible to gain political traction on this issue, but it would sure be interesting to see a movement to allow parking in front of hydrants. There are roughly 4 hydrants per long block in NYC. That’s a lot of parking spaces.


I once saw a video clip of what happens to a car parked in front of a fire hydrant when a fire truck pulls up and needs to use the hydrant. They punch out the windows and snake the hose through the car to hook up to the hydrant. You don't want that happening to your car. And the time wasted doing that could put lives in jeopardy.


In case people weren't aware of this but there are companies who are creating networks to share real time information about parking spaces. One example is http://www.spotscout.com


In Switzerland http://www.admin.ch/ch/f/rs/741_01/a37.html and Germany http://www.sicherestrassen.de/StVO/Frameaufbau.htm?http://www.sicherestrassen.de/StVO/S12.htm for example, there is no general prohibition against parking in front of fire hydrants. If the vicinity has explicitly marked spaces or no-parking zones, you must respect them, but in general it is OK to park in front of hydrants.


The parking restrictions server two purposes, to make sure the hydrant is visible from the street so that firefighters can easily see it and to make sure there are no obscructions between it and the engine. The water pressure coming out of these is pretty huge and it will turn a 3.5-5" hose into something akin to a bar of iron. With this much pressure the hose can't have any tight turns between the hydrant and engine; therefore it needs to go through the obstructing car since it can't be maneuvered around it.

Parking directly in front of a hydrant can effectively block it from being used and should be discouraged, parking "close" to the hydrant makes it harder to see but if there was a better way to mark the hydrant it might be worth considering...


I grew up in Copenhagen and it was illegal to park in front of fire hydrants. Then the city undertook a project whereby all fire hydrants were rotated 90 degrees so that the connection would not be blocked if a car was parked alongside.


Stephen, this is why:



As has been pointed out, one of the primary reasons is that hydrants need to be seen. You could put flags or some other detection method on the hydrants so they could be seen even with cars in the way. But you also have to wonder whether flags/flagpoles would be ripped off or knocked down.

The other problem has also been noted, hooking the hose to the truck. It is possible to rotate hydrants, but that typically means you can only hook one hose to it. By running the hose into a tanker truck, you can allow two or three hoses to operate from one hydrant. But as was pointed out, you can't have any sharp turns or kinks in the hose when you put pressure into it. So a car parked to close to a hydrant can make it much less useful or even useless.


Another parking puzzle: Handicapped parking legislation. Here in California, by law a good chuck of preferred parking is reserved to occupants of vehicles with "handicapped" placards. On its face, the legislation seems to narrowly restrict access to the placards and threatens physicians with penalties if they are abuse the rules, but I'm pretty sure the DMV spends no resources actually auditing issuance. As a result, a lot of seemingly able bodied people can be observed enjoying their placards--especially downtown LA where it saves lots of money to use the free, well located spots. And a lot of people who would benefit from more exercise park just outside the doors to the huge mall, where they then walk considerable distances. I conjecture handicapped parking wastes far more economic value than fire-hydrant-parking restrictins.


EWizard -
Handicapped placards go with the car in most states. One can be issued if a disabled person is a regular user of the vehicle (as driver or passenger, IINM), but can remain with the vehicle and allow for use of handicapped parking spaces even if a non-disabled family member or other person is the driver and sole occupant.


Steve L.'s colleague, Allen Sanderson, had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune a few years back where he argued that parking in front of hydrants should be allowed:

"Putting Out Chicago Parking Fires


> but if there was a better way to mark the hydrant

In California, they put blue reflective markers in the middle of the street where a fire hydrant is. So, the fire department can find them very quickly (day or night) without looking along the sidewalk.

Dossy Shiobara

"Why should someone who, say, lives in New Jersey and works on the Upper West Side get to park for free on my street when I pay local taxes and he doesn't?"

Uh, a New Jersey resident working in Manhattan pays New Jersey state tax, New York state tax, and New York city tax.

You think that's fair? Then come move to New Jersey, where I live ...

(This is one of many reasons why I refuse to work in Manhattan.)


Lets say that it did become legal for people to park in front of fire
hydrants I think this would create a problem for the person parked in
front of the hydrant. For example what if someone in a large SUV (or any
vehicle for that matter) parked in front of a hydrant and in the process
of putting out the fire and attaching the hose to the hydrant accidentally
damaged the vehicle; who then is responsible for paying to fix the

The firefighters will say that in the heat of trying to put out the fire
they were just doing their job and in the process damaged the vehicle
and therefore should not have to pay for it. The owner of the car would
obviously say that he wasn't breaking any laws and that it is surely not
his fault that the firefighters damaged his vehicle. The question really
is if people were allowed to park in front of fire hydrants would
firefighters have to be careful not only with the blazing building but
also with the vehicle that is now obstructing the hydrant?



What if the sidewalks jutted out into the street where the hydrants are? That would (physically) prevent people from parking there, and would still enhance/maintain hydrant visibility.

Of the 15 feet of roped-off parking, they could reclaim probably 12 feet worth, per hydrant.

Downsides I can think of: there would then probably be an added expense come paving time, since the roads would be shaped oddly. Also, if they decided to forbid parking and open up that lane for driving, they'd have to rip out the sidewalk pieces that jut out. However, I'd bet that expense could be reclaimed by the additional meters.


I'd say that unless it truly impedes firefighters' ability to fight fires, let people park in front of the hydrants. If the firefighters break windows for the hose, let the vehicle owner pay for it. Kinda like parking on the beach ... you can park there, but if something goes wrong, you'll pay the price for it.

I think this works elegantly and simply ... after all, for any one person parking there, what's the likelihood there'll be a fire nearby? I'd say this is low enough that there doesn't need to be legislation about it.

The parking-space struggles in tightly-packed urban cities like NYC and D.C. (as opposed to, say, Houston) do have an apparent solution .. in fact, Stephen mentions he wants to purchase a space in a co-op type of facility. So try this on for size:


You put your car onto a simple space and leave it; a machine picks up your car and inserts it into a giant box. Without all the necessary space for driving areas, stairs, elevators, etc, a huge volume of cars can be stored in a smaller physical space.

This article from April '04 gives more details: http://www.slate.com/id/2098136/

And if a giant box of cars seems unsightly to you, consider another possibility: put the entire robotic garage underground!

Another example: http://www.spacesaverparking.com/multiparker/multipark.html




The beach analogy fails because in this case there is a person, an agent of the state, damaging your car. Numerous lawsuits would be filed based on issues of "due dilligence" and "reasonable and prudent" measures to prevent damaging the vehicle. The alternative would be a statute granting firemen/departments blanket immunity, but that would encourage them to do as much damage as possible to your car.

But this side-steps the larger question of driving in dense urban centers to begin with. It seems apparent that wide-spread individual auto use is simply incompatible with urban life.


I have a fire hydrant in front of my house (in Melbourne, Australia). Admittedly it's in a quiet side street, but I think it's rather ingenious. The hydrant can be accessed from the MIDDLE of the road (like an access hole to the sewer). Face it, if there's a fire, the fire track is going to block up the whole street, so if access is available in the middle of the street, that's fine. Most of the time, when my street is not engulfed with flames, there are no parking restrictions.

As for damaging cars, I'm pretty sure the Melbourne metropolitan fire brigade gets money from insurance companies (a better funded fire brigade means less fire damage, and therefore fewer claims), so if the same companies are providing car insurance, there should be no incentive for firefighters to exessively damage cars.


The problem with the beach analogy of park at your own risk is that there are externalities involved. Sure it would be ok if the person benefiting from the spot was the only person running the risk of financial lose, but the time it took to go through the car could mean further property damage to the fire. So this party that doesn't benefit from the parking spot would be harmed by it.


I do like the idea of having the side walk jut out into the street though. It could be very expensive, but it would seemingly be more efficient once implemented.


Think outside the box, people! Suppose parking near a fire hydrant was only banned from the ground to 7 feet up. Then, some vehicles could come equipped with special jacks to enable them to be jacked up 7 feet above street level and take advantage of this parking. All but the tallest firemen would have full access.

Sure, this would jack up the cost of the vehicle [no pun intended, of course] but for a free parking place in Manhattan it'd be worth it. It would be the new Manhattan status symbol.