FREAK Shots: The Sacred Hydrant

Freakonomics reader Rich Beckman took this photo in Washington, D.C. on the grounds of the Capitol building:

Fire HydrantPhoto: Rich Beckman

Then he asks a natural question: “If the hydrant isn’t working, what does it matter if someone parks there?”

Dubner asked a similar question on this blog: why is parking in front of fire hydrants prohibited in the first place (hoses are flexible for a reason), especially as parking becomes a rare commodity?

Maybe as a start, hydrant spots — following RexCorp’s example — can be reserved for hybrid drivers only.

(Send your FREAK-worthy photos here.)


I think DJH is probably right. Either the hydrant is not functioning and they plan on fixing it or that area is closed off for other work and the water must be cut off. Either way, maintenance vehicles must be able to park there.

Also, I agree with Michael. It's not that parking is becoming more scarce (in fact, with people driving less it's probably becoming less scarse), it's that it is mispriced.


Since not being allowed to park in front of a fire hydrant has nothing to do with the environment, allowing hybrids to doesn't make any sense. It's a life safety issue, not an environmental issue.

Dice To That

I think people have a very skewed idea about how much parking will be saved if fire hydrant spots become available. Lets assume the following based on a typically NYC block:

Total circumference: 1 + 1 + 2.5 + 2.5 blocks (avenue blocks are 2.5 times wider)= about .35 miles (20 blocks to a mile)= 1848 feet of parking.

You can't park too close to a corner, so that takes maybe 25 feet away from each corner, so 25*2*4= 200 less feet = 1648 feet remaining.

Lets say on average each car needs between 15 and 20 feet to park; that would mean you could get about 95 cars parked around the block assuming no fire hydrants.

Alright, so you add fire hydrants; lets say there's 1 on each side of the block. 1 fire hydrant takes away 1 spot (unless you are driving SmartCar or a Vespa). So instead of 95 cars, you could fit 91.

95/91 - 1 = 4.4% more spaces.

Now, what does this 4.4% mean? Does it mean you need to look for 4.4% less time before you find a space? Does it mean you have a 4.4% better chance of finding an open spot on a given block? I'm not entirely sure, but I will say that I bet the noticeable difference is negligible. The only reason it seems to make a difference is because every time you see an open spot, it's invariably in front of a fire hydrant. Or a hobo is passed out in it. Either way, freeing up fire hydrants or getting hobos to man the hoses is likely not to change much about the availability of your being able to park.



My thinking is that the "No Parking" sign is there so that the repair guys can have room to work on the hydrant. I mean, if it's out of order, they surely are going to try to fix it, right?

Also, while hoses are flexible, try attaching your garden hose to the spigot with only a couple of inches clearance. It CAN be done, but it's a hassle and it take time...time that could mean the difference between losing your shed...and losing your house.

Just my thoughts.


In addition to the correct answers given above, firehoses are not flexible enough to snake among cars when they are full of high-pressure water.

In San Diego (and for all I know in the rest of California), authorities put blue Bott's Dots (reflective bumps glued to the street) to mark hydrant locations for fire truck drivers. They put them near the center of the road but offset on the side where the hydrant is.


mass transit is a better solution.

fire trucks / police cars need room in the (unlikely) event of an emergency. However most hydrants are used less than once a decade (guess) so the expected value of parking to a damaged car in the event of a fire would probably still be positive if there weren't a $100 fine.


it doesnt matter what color the fire hydrant is- there is a blue dot on the road that is reflective.

This blue dot gives the fire team a place to look.

Also- the fire hydrant provides a space for a team to operate (they can bring in a water truck- but still need space.

Ben D

The sign probably has nothing to do with the hydrant. Everyone knows that parking in front of a hydrant is illegal, with or without a sign.


Empty hoses are flexible, but the connectors aren't. And working hoses aren't either.

Garrett Rooney

In my experience they forbid parking in front of hydrants because they don't want anything getting in the way of connecting the hose to the hydrant.

A house a few doors down from ours burned down when I was a kid and the fire department had zero problem with using their giant fire truck to physically ram the car that was parked in front of the hydrant hard enough to push it out of the way so they could get at the hydrant. I imagine if they didn't prohibit parking in front of them that would happen a lot more ;-)


And here's a picture of what can happen when a car parks too close to a hydrant that has to be used. Work safe.


Where I grew up (Northern California), hydrants were marked with a blue reflector in the middle of the street. Made finding them easier.

And we don't have too little parking, we have parking that's too cheap. Fix the pricing and the "shortage" will go away.



You would think that with modern technology, fire departments would have a computerized map in the truck indicating the location of hydrants. Additionally, I would hope that new hydrants are being outfitted with GPS chips to make them easier to find.

Of course, here in Seattle, hydrants are painted green, which makes them almost impossible to spot at night....go figure.


What if by parking in front of a hydrant, we agreed that the fire department is allowed to break the windows of our car in the case of a fire? I would take the risk. However, perhaps that doesn't work?


"Hoses are flexible for a reason." Well, yes, but they don't fight fires with garden hoses. Fire hoses are heavy, bulky and, when filled, dangerous. They have to be laid relatively straight, not kinked around cars.


AH is correct about finding the hydrants. It is also often difficult to get to it when a car is parked right up next to the curb. It is true that hoses are flexible while being rolled off the truck, but not so much when water is running through them under pressure.

Gene Shiau

In response to #2, there *are* signs for dogs, but one may have to teach Spot to read first.

Larry Cler

My father was a volunteer fire fighter. He kept a framed photo of a 5 series BMW with the two side windows busted out and a hard suction hose threaded through the car from a hydrant to fire apparatus (pumper) out of view in the photo.

It's also one of my all time favorite photos.

Adam Tousey

Sorry, didn't read all the Posts, but the last ones clarify. Fire Hydrants are absolutely useless until something or someone you love is on fire.

Shalom....Adam T


So many of these points are valid. However, is it REALLY necessary to tie up an ENTIRE parking space for a hydrant that may be used once every four years?! Oh, and also, do you think that perhaps the Water Department could place these hydrants next to a driveway instead of in the middle of a row of parked cars instead to maximize parking?

If finding the hydrant is all that difficult Bott's Dots are a solution as is RFID tags or even the low-tech pole attached to a hydrant or road surface painting. They do that in the Northeast where it snows.

There have been no fundamental improvements to the flowly hydrant in 75 years. Perhaps a "pop-up" hydrant on a sidewalk or street would be a solution.

And for those "Shoupians" out there it isnt that parking is too cheap it is that the powers that be try pushing people into too tight a space and give up too much, allow too much development and offer inadequate public transportation as an acceptable solution when it is subpar. Waiting 15 minutes in the cold rain at night to take a 30-minute ride to go what would take 15 minutes door to door is not efficient use of time and I must point out that TIME is our scarcest resource. Not oil, not water, not salt. TIME is precious. Use it wisely. Dont be the pawn in an idealist, socialist or capitalist's game!