Incrementally Reducing Excessive Car Use

By Dom Nozzi

Recently, a colleague and friend of mine noted that he felt that a new residential development proposed for my compact, walkable, historic neighborhood should provide more parking than would be offered in my vision (I recommended that the new development only provide metered on-street parking, and no off-street parking). He indicated that if he were buying at that location, he would want at least one garage space (but wouldn’t want it on the front of the house). He added that alley garages are good compromises, presuming there are alleys. Overall, he agreed with my position about reducing the excessive American pampering of car use as a long-term strategy. His reservation was that in the near term, during the transition to walkable places, “97 percent of us are stuck needing cars, and alienating 97 percent of potential buyers is a problem.” I responded by pointing out that with regard to metered parking, I agree with parking guru Donald Shoup (author of the influential, must-read book The High Cost of Free Parking): For both new and existing residential developments, install parking meters that are free to use by the adjacent residents. Because the meter revenue can (and should) be spent only for improvements to that vicinity, residents would have a choice: Either use those spaces and lose revenue that would have otherwise been used to improve their neighborhood, or don’t use those spaces and increase that neighborhood improvement revenue. I told him that I agreed with him that one alley-loaded garage space is acceptable, and that front-of-house off-street parking is not. I apologized for the fact that my comments sometimes seem, undiplomatically, so blatantly “anti-car.” It is not my intent to “get rid of all cars” or to alienate those who must use a car, I told him. I fully understand that most of us must have the option of using a car. I also understand that transitioning to a world of less excessive car use needs to be incremental. I therefore favor price signals and compactness. Neither of those tactics prohibit cars. But pricing car use and car storage adds equity and signals to the motorist that the car has significant negative impacts (those impacts are mostly hidden in the US because we have over-allocated space to cars and have underpriced car use). Compactness is a companion tactic that adds a needed inconvenience signal. Again, the option of using a car is maintained, but the increased inconvenience (from tighter parking or more narrow streets and roads) sends another needed signal to the motorist: In this case, that the motorist (at least in a town center) is in a PEOPLE habitat (and should therefore feel somewhat inconvenienced and uncomfortable). It is in the drivable suburbs where it becomes more appropriate for the motorist to feel convenienced and comfortable. I reiterate: My suggestions retain the option to use a car. But I believe my approach can incrementally move us in the direction of providing a needed wider range of lifestyle and travel choices. The status quo of underpriced, convenienced cars in town centers undercuts the important need to provide more and better lifestyle and travel choices for those who seek a more walkable lifestyle. Yes, my tactics would be politically unpopular (and perhaps unpopular in some of our housing markets as well). But I know of no other effective ways to engage in what I believe is the essential task of creating more and better lifestyle and travel choices. The good news is that the approaches I support ARE working successfully elsewhere, so we know it is not impossible. Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking, is a book that I highly recommend. It is the best book I’ve ever read about planning in America. It is telling that the book contains so many powerful, important messages that many professional planners and architects are highly respectful of his work, and he is regularly hired throughout the nation to consult on parking problems. I told my friend that I was puzzled by his noticeable disdain for pricing parking, and his calling it “punishing drivers.” Punishing? Really? Is it “punishing to charge people to rent a hotel room, or should staying in a hotel room be free? What about those priced lockers at airports and ski resorts? Is it punishment to charge people to use those? Should we give rooms and lockers (and real estate) to people for free if those people are poor? (to avoid “Lexus” hotel rooms and “Lexus” lockers – in reference to his disparagingly calling toll lanes “Lexus” lanes) I asked my friend if he disagreed when Shoup points out that “free” parking is not free? Is there a way, I asked, to avoid full parking lots and an absence of available on-street parking other than pricing it? The only ways I know of other than pricing are building WAY too much parking so that you have a lunar landscape of endless parking (and kill the community in the process). Or you keep residential densities and commercial intensities at very low cow town levels. How do we avoid congestion on major congested roads in Colorado without tolling them, I asked. We have known for several decades that road widening is bankrupting and counterproductive (and is like solving obesity by loosening your belt). Sure, it is easier for the rich to pay for tolls than the middle class. But isn’t that true with all goods and services in our society? Does it reward the rich and punish the middle class (who have no choice but to use utilities) to charge a price to use electricity or water? Or should those be free so that we don’t have Lexus Sewers? I’m fairly sure that even the middle class would much prefer to drive on uncongested major roads in Colorado by paying a “punishing” $1.50 than to sit in gridlock on those highways for free. I did that for years when I lived in Richmond VA, and was happy to pay the toll in exchange for having uncongested urban highways, even though I was unemployed there and hardly even had a middle class income. Shoup makes an essential point that those of us who advocate for much higher densities should be fully aware of. That the provision of excessive provision of parking (which is inevitable when the parking is free and the intent is to avoid parking congestion) will utterly prevent the provision of higher residential densities. Counterproductively, most all local governments require enormous amounts of parking — parking required by land development codes. Again, this is possibly the most powerful way local governments establish and maintain low residential and commercial densities. Shoup correctly notes that it is impossible to create walkable densities when conventional parking (read: excessive) standards are used. He rightly blasts the great many new urbanists who don’t “get it” regarding parking. New urbanists who insist on excessive, suburban and free parking supply in many developments. I believe parking is the biggest blind spot that many new urbanists have. Therefore, “fixing the zoning” to allow higher residential densities is not our first task, despite what my friend suggested as a solution. We could have the best in compact, walkable, higher density zoning, but if the zoning is coupled with conventional parking requirements, that higher density zoning has a hidden consequence: It may look like it will deliver higher densities on paper, but when coupled with the parking rules, one finds that the developer typically cannot get anywhere near the allowable density because so much of the site must consist of parking. Side note for libertarians: It is socialist, top-down, centralized government planning to have parking be required by law. Instead, libertarians should be leading the charge to eliminate government-mandated parking and replace it with parking maximums. This does two things: It allows the private sector to decide on its own how much parking to provide (rather than being forced to provide at least X number of spaces per square foot of building), and rightfully inverts the standard parking rule by calling for a MAXIMUM. Why is it proper for government to have a maximum? Because constitutionally, government laws must promote the health, safety and welfare, and a very important way governments can do that is by not allowing people to install excessive amounts of parking (ie, parking that substantially reduces densities – see above – and parking that harms quality of life, in part by establishing asphalt, gap-toothed moonscapes that kill the agglomeration economies necessary for a healthy town center economy, and dramatically reduces walking, bicycling and transit). The big problem in a world of underpriced gas and excessive/underpriced roads is the provision of too much parking, not too little (both underpriced gas and underpriced/overprovided roads artificially induce extremely high levels of car use, which induces excessive parking demand). While I’m one of those who desires pricing car use (punishing them?), I strongly object when my neighbors attack traffic congestion. Any city worth its salt, I say, has congestion. Why? Because cars take up an enormous amount of space, which means only a few drivers are needed to congest a road or a parking lot. If your road or parking lot is not congested, then, we’ve got “ghost town” problems. I also strongly object when neighbors in my compact, walkable, town center neighborhood attack new development as being “too dense.” One key thing I’ve learned in the profession of town and transportation planning is that “happy cars” MUST have low densities to be happy. Cars are a huge pain in the ass – inevitably – when there is any level of density, or any amount of pleasing, charming, attractive walkablility. You can have happy cars or walkable densities, but you can’t have both. _________________________________________________ Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life. Visit: Or email me at: dom[AT] 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover = My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: My Adventures blog Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog My Town & Transportation Planning website My Plan B blog My Facebook profile My YouTube video library My Picasa Photo library My Author spotlight


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