Traffic Congestion and Parking

 By Dom Nozzi

June 30, 2014

An essential ingredient for a healthy city is to be compact (not sprawled), and able to leverage “agglomeration economies.”

Because a healthy city ALSO provides for the full range of lifestyle choices (rather than forcing everyone to live the same way), we must provide for the full range of land use patterns. The town center should be relatively compact (agglomerated), and outlying areas should retain a more dispersed pattern.

Given that, it is not at all appropriate or feasible to have a “one-size-fits-all” measure for the level of motor vehicle travel delay a community adopts. If we adopt a measure that strives for too little delay citywide, the town center loses its competitive strength: compactness and agglomeration. In a healthy, thriving city, it is essential that traffic congestion measures such as “travel delay” be calibrated geographically.

Can we say up front what we believe to be the MAXIMUM size for parking? For roads? For intersections? I believe we MUST (and can) do that. We must draw a line in the sand. We can say, for example, that our quality of life means it would NEVER be okay to have a six-lane highway in the town center. In fact, when I wrote Gainesville FL’s transportation plan, I succeeded in having that plan contain a policy that did this very thing: “No road in city limits shall exceed 4 through lanes.” Much as I hate to make this concession, we might also want to say that “no intersection shall exceed 2 turn lanes in the outlying areas, or one turn lane in the town center” here in Boulder.

Boulder, like nearly every other American city, has a very large oversupply of parking lot space — mostly because cars consume so much space, and most all of it is free. Because imagesnearly all parking is free, there tends to be an endless effort to try to provide “enough.” This process is endless because a free product or service in great demand induces a nearly infinite demand for such a product or service. The enormous and infamous Soviet bread lines is an excellent analogy.

“Free” parking is paid for in higher costs for groceries and haircuts by those retail and service shops providing all that parking, and the inducement of too many unnecessary car trips.

The biggest problem with parking is not too little space. It is too much space. Too much asphalt space means, among many other things, flooding problems, stormwater quality problems, lack of walkability, lack of community aesthetics or civic pride, creation of spaces that feel unsafe or uncomfortable (particularly for women and seniors), high/unaffordable costs for households, governments and consumers of goods and services.

Calibrating the price of parking so that supply of parking and demand for parking is “in balance” is successfully being used in a great many cities right now, and is one of the most important principles pushed by the national parking guru (and hero of mine) – Donald Shoup. Shoup has successfully gotten a great many cities to use the “Goldilocks” principle in parking pricing. Prices vary throughout the day and week based on demand (quite easy with today’s electronic technology) so that approximately 80 percent of the parking spaces are being used at any one time. If more than 80 percent are used, prices automatically increase. If less than 80 percent are used, prices automatically decrease. The “Goldilocks” price (“just right”) is the price that results in about 80 percent use.

Minimum parking requirements for new development has been used by nearly every American city has been used for 100 years now. The required number of parking spaces is almost never based on studies estimating expected parking demand for the development in question. Instead, it tends to be quite arbitrary and not based on local conditions, as the required number is based on a survey of national parking requirements.

The required minimum number of spaces is almost always excessive, largely because the parking is available for use by the motorist at no charge. Such “free” parking inevitably induces excessive demand for parking because even relatively trivial motor vehicle trips – such as buying a cup of coffee at rush hour on a major street – are encouraged by the lack of a fee for parking.

If we convert minimum parking requirements to MAXIMUM parking requirements, the business owner — rather than government mandate using arbitrary numbers — is able to decide how much to provide: Zero to the maximum. The minimum parking requirement says the owner MUST provide AT LEAST “X” spaces, and that number, again, tends to usually be too many spaces. Since a property owner is much better able to assess how much parking he or she needs to provide (to be profitable or to make financiers happy) than government, a maximum gives the owner a lot more flexibility than a minimum.

Priced parking is a superb way to assess how much parking is appropriate. The developer or the city decides how much parking is “enough,” and if the use is more than 80 percent of available spaces, the price of parking is increased. If less than 80 parking, the price is reduced.

No need to increase the amount of asphalt parking.

It is important for cities that use a maximum traffic congestion level of service (LOS) standard to sunset the auto LOS measure in the town center, since such a standard undermines a great many objectives for a healthy town center (low speeds, agglomeration economies, safety, reduction in car trips and fuel emissions, etc.). Instead of measuring and capping traffic congestion, we need to find a measure that creates disincentives for adding more road, intersection or parking capacity, and creates incentives for shrinking the space we allocate to car travel and car parking.

In my view, the over-allocation of space to cars is a HUGE problem in American cities. And most LOS measures incentivize providing larger roads, bigger parking lots, and more massive road intersections.

Some favor a “people” LOS or a “multi-modal” LOS, which I believe are big improvements over our auto LOS. But it seems that both might create incentives for wider roads, or bigger intersections.

 

 

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Filed under Transportation, Urban Design

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