New Roundup: July 10, 2013

Comparison of the road networks in LA and Paris using the new tool "Urban Observatory." 

Comparison of the road networks in LA and Paris using the new tool "Urban Observatory." 

Out, Damned Spot (Slate)

In a feature piece, Matt Yglesias brings together many of the points he's made across various short blog posts to make a cohesive argument against minimum parking regulations. Parking spaces are an amenity like granite countertops or fitness centers, he says, and should reflect that by allowing the market to decide what the appropriate amount of parking should be. More importantly, parking minimums lead to a subsidy and clear preference for those who commute long distances by car, at the expense of those who walk and bike, much like downtown highways.

Curb parking and garage parking aren't the same (Greater Greater Washington)

A great complement to Yglesias' article, by David Alpert, on the separate markets for off-street and on-street parking. He notes that, despite the arguments of some, it's not hard to park; it's hard to park on the street. Even in D.C. there remain parking spaces open for daily use and rent, they're just in garages rather than on the side of the road. At the same time, people are buying $35/year permits for street parking in their neighborhoods and renting out the parking at their homes or apartments for $100-200 a month--preserving on-street parking and keeping it cheap does nothing to solve this problem.

In Cargo Delivery, the Three-Wheelers That Could (New York Times)

I've been a huge fan of the freight-bike movement that's developed in recent years and it's great to see it getting more press. The idea is simple: in cities where distances between homes and businesses are relatively short, a human riding an electric-assist cargo bike can move large amounts of goods pretty easily, and with much more maneuverability and speed, and far less pollution than delivery vans and large semitrailers. Here's to hoping this idea continues to spread and grows large enough to be a more commercialize-able business model.

Be Brave Child, Open the Closet, Look Under the Bed (Walkable Dallas-Fort Worth)

I posted this on Twitter with the title "The bold TxDOT plan to fight congestion by spending $60 billion on encouraging more driving," and I think that sums it up pretty well. Lots of really great analysis into the numbers of what TxDOT is actually proposing when they request an extra $2 billion a year to build more and bigger highways as the answer to a growing congestion problem. In the end all they're going to accomplish is increasing the number of drivers in the area, losing tens of billions of dollars, and ending up with even more congestion than before--particularly on local roads.

Prepare to Waste Your Day With This Fascinating City Comparison Tool (Atlantic Cities)

This title is dead on. I'm definitely looking forward to wasting a bunch of time playing with this comparison tool, and I bet you are too.

Pro-car populism is about protecting cars, not people

Bill Lindeke over at wrote an interesting post a few days ago titled "What To Do with Pro-Car Populism?", about a recent discussion he had with an old friend. The premise of it is summed up nicely in the following paragraphs:

I began explaining the distortions in the parking market. With his economics background, I thought he’d be interested. I did my best to describe the cumulative effects of minimum parking requirements, the perverse incentive structure of parking meters, the hidden cost of asphalt, and so on. The solution, I said, was to externalize the price of parking, raise prices in certain areas and begin acknowledging the opportunity cost of urban space. (See my explanation here.) Prices should reflect the cost of parking, I concluded. 
I was surprised at his reaction. ”What about poor people?” he asked me. “You’re going to make it impossible for them to drive. In my city, nobody can afford to live in the city. I've been to these towns and neighborhoods where the poor people live. They’re miles away from jobs. They drive everywhere. You have to think about them!” He began to get passionate, as he usually does. “If you make parking expensive, only rich people will be able to drive. Driving will only be for the wealthy.”

For many urbanists it can be kind of a slap in the face to be told you're not looking out for the interests of the poor, since we generally see dependence on the automobile as having negative consequences for everyone, and lower-income people in particular. Often, we may see ourselves as champions of the poor and down-trodden, fighting against a car-centric status quo and the great costs associated with it. But it's true that, within the current framework, increasing the costs of parking, gas, etc will disproportionately hurt the poor.

Lindeke's answer to pro-car populism amounts to a rejection of the premise; that is, a system in which driving is subsidized (as it currently is) can never be favorable to poor people--parking reform, vehicle-miles traveled fees, and everything else is just tinkering around the edges of an already busted system.

I think he's completely correct, but even he admits that he's not entirely satisfied with his response. After all, car subsidies and expensive city housing is the framework in which we live. To change things in a way that makes things better for a much greater number of people, the poor included, we need to demolish that existing framework and build anew, from scratch.

The following paragraph from Lindeke's post is where I think that reconstruction might begin (emphasis mine):

We've demolished affordable housing to make room for freeways and parking garages. We've eroded government services through municipal fragmentation, civic tax shelters, and fostered spatial segregation. We've abandoned our transit systems, relegating them to the margins. We've refused to accommodate transportation alternatives in ways that foster deep inequalities.

This is just a small part of the overall problem, but it highlights the choice we have when making local spending decisions, a choice that always exists even if we don't always acknowledge it: do we spend this money on making driver cheaper and easier, or do we spend it on increasing the supply of affordable housing (like the Yesler Terrace redevelopment, for example)?

Choose: more of this...

Choose: more of this...

Right here in Seattle, for example, we have the Pacific Place parking garage. In 1998, the city bought the garage for $73 million, and it has been losing money for more than half that time. Now the city is looking to sell it for $55 million rather than continuing to bail it out year after year. 

...or this?

...or this?

The city did not need to build or operate this garage. They did it because they wanted to encourage business downtown by making it easier to drive in the city. This was a choice to prioritize ease of driving over affordable housing, whether they thought about it in those terms or not (and you can be sure they didn't). It made it easier for people to get downtown by car, poor people included, but the basic problem of having to own an expensive personal automobile was unresolved. And, let's be honest: the people shopping downtown, on average, are not the people pro-car populists are concerned with.

The root of the problem, and what drives the pro-car populist's argument, is that poor people generally can't afford to live in the parts of the city where transit access is best. As long as that is true, owning a car will be necessary, or nearly so, for many of those forced to live in the suburbs. Instead of trying to reduce driving costs for lower-income car owners, why not just spend that money on providing them with housing in the city where they don't need to own a vehicle?

The problem with the pro-car populist's position is that it doesn't contain a solution. You just keep pouring money into services and infrastructure that keep driving costs as low as possible for the poor, but driving is always going to be problematically, if not prohibitively expensive for some people. And it's only going to get worse. 

The pro-car populist understands that allowing more people to live in the city is good for health, environment, access, and, if affordable housing is available, the pocketbook, too. In combination with other housing supply policies (like reaping greater incentives from developers by relaxing height/density/parking regulations), we should consider the long-term return on each dollar spent on driving subsidies versus affordable housing. By doing so, we can start to actually address the root cause of the problem and shift the paradigm of poor = suburbs = car dependence = poor, give people a greater array of choices, and save people some money and commute time in the process.

Downtown Brooklyn considers reducing parking requirements, but not enough

The New York Times recently noted the glut of parking found in Brooklyn right now, a result of the requirement that developers provide parking for 40% of households. Just about anywhere else in the country, a minimum of 0.4 parking spaces per household would be a huge step forward. But in downtown only 22% of households own a car, mostly thanks to the "13 subway lines and 15 bus routes in the area." To their credit, the city is paying attention and considering reducing the parking requirement to 0.2 spaces per household and, even more admirably, cutting the requirement for parking in subsidized housing entirely.

While this is certainly the right direction, it's clearly not enough. Reducing the parking requirement to current levels of car ownership is too little, too late, and does nothing to reduce the current oversupply. The article notes that one 600-unit building built slightly more than 250 parking spaces (almost certainly at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars each), and only about a third of them are occupied. Resetting the parking requirement to 20% doesn't resolve the existing wasted space, it just ensures that no more space is needlessly wasted at great cost. And even that's only true if current car ownership levels hold steady at 22%, an unlikely proposition in a neighborhood that is growing quickly and becoming more bikeable and walkable by the day, and in a city that is presumably trying to minimize automobile use.

What really bugged me about this article though was Brooklyn Councilwoman Letitia James' comments. In response to the suggestion that some existing garages might be redeveloped to more productive uses, she asserted that it wouldn't result in any more affordable housing or community space. Instead, “[t]hey would turn it into more luxury housing." To which I respond, "so what?" We're not talking about tearing down a historic building or bulldozing a park to put up a new residential tower. This is a situation where the city mandated that developers build thousands of empty concrete spaces in the middle of some of the most valuable real estate in the world, and now we might actually be able to turn them into something that people actually want to use. Whether that's subsidized housing or ten million dollar apartments is completely beside the point--either way it's a boon for those new residents, the developer, and the city. Suggesting that you might kill the project just because developers might not perform some miraculous act of charity isn't just irresponsible, it's exactly the kind of destructive classism that President Obama is wrongly accused of so frequently. It serves no purpose besides sowing division.

If anyone has a right to dictate the terms of redevelopment besides the developers themselves, it's the people who currently live in buildings that were forced to overbuild their parking supply. You can be sure that the cost of constructing these superfluous garages was borne on the backs of the renters and owners of these units, and it wouldn't be unreasonable for them to demand a reimbursement for that cost if the garage they helped pay for is partially redeveloped. Everyone else should just get out of the way.

Parking-free apartment buildings aren't enough

In Portland some developers have recently started constructing apartment buildings without parking (a practice that is illegal in most cities), angering some neighbors who complain that the tenants still own cars, and that they just park them on the street instead of in privately owned spaces. And they're right. According to an article in the Oregonian:

[The city] found that 73 percent of 116 apartment households surveyed have cars, and two-thirds park on the street. Only 36 percent use a car for a daily commute, meaning the rest store their cars on the street for much of the week.

Frankly, this is pretty damning evidence that parking-free apartment units don't actually discourage car use. Not enough, and not by themselves, at least. Of course, only 73% of households owning a car is far below the average rate of car ownership in most cities, but it's still the majority of the tenants. What I found most significant here was the fact that only 36% use their cars for commuting--half of the households that own a car. The implication, of course, is that with the right incentives many of the people who don't commute with their vehicles could be encouraged to get rid of them. In the age of ZipCar and walkable cities, owning a car in this type of environment is more a matter of inertia than genuine need.

What might those incentives look like? One option might be for property managers to offer access to car-sharing, as is being done in a few places throughout the country. This might also be something cities themselves, or a non-profit of some kind, could administrate. For example, in exchange for donating your car you might get a five-year membership to a car sharing service with up to 20 hours of use a month. The value of getting people out of their cars is so high for cities--less congestion, pollution, and carnage, and considerably more money spent locally--that subsidizing some of the cost of car sharing might even be worthwhile.

Another obvious incentive is appropriately pricing our existing public parking spaces. In my old neighborhood of Capitol Hill, and many of the busier areas of the city, a parking permit is required to park on residential streets during the day, and costs $65 every two years. On commercial streets we're currently asking drivers to pay up to $4 per hour to park, but our residents aren't even paying $4 a month! And as far as I can tell there doesn't even seem to be a limit to how many you can purchase beyond, presumably, the number of cars you own. We set prices for commercial parking to ensure that those willing to pay can always find a space, but don't adhere to this philosophy when it comes to residential parking.

The same residents paying effectively nothing (usually actually nothing, for most neighborhoods), are demanding that developers--and hence the residents of those new developments--foot the bill of $10-20k (and upwards of $50k in some places) per parking space, usually underground. In other words, only existing residents get free parking, and everyone else has to pay the full cost. Even those who don't drive end up paying, in the form of taxes used to build and maintain the public roads being used for car storage. At a time when we recognize that reduced car use is good for cities and good for people, why are non-drivers subsidizing the cost of vehicle storage, and single-car households subsidizing multi-vehicle households?

A drastic increase in the cost of parking permits would raise considerable revenue, but I'd be perfectly content if it was dedicated to nothing but road maintenance. The real goal is a resolution of the Tragedy of the Commons, wherein un-priced public goods (in this case parking spaces) leads to vast overuse, harming everyone in the process. Revenue is simply beside the point. Even if a change in parking permit prices was offset by a slight decrease in, say, local sales taxes, making it completely revenue neutral, it would be a huge boon to the awful parking situation in the city, and to our economy.

The point of all this is that it would also discourage people in the densest, transit-oriented parts of the city from owning cars that they only use for occasional trips. For current residents who own a car and don't want that purchase's value completely destroyed by the increased cost of parking, the trade-in for a ZipCar-like subscription could help mitigate that loss. This, or another creative means of positively incentivizing a switch to a car-free or car-lite lifestyle, would be a valuable and perhaps necessary complement to increasing long-term parking costs. 

Even if all the new developments in the city provided enough parking for their residents, there's a critical point at which our roads simply can't handle any more traffic. We need to pair strategies for reduced parking in new apartment buildings with strategies to reduce car ownership and, especially, reduce the need for it. Doing just one or another won't be enough.