Sunday, March 25, 2012

Proper Parking Approach

Followers of this blog know that I don't often venture outside of Texas in general and Dallas in particular. Usually when I do, it is some broad ranging planning topic that has relevance within the local area. Parking is certainly one of those topics. And as loyal readers may be aware, parking has certainly been a topic well covered (directly here, here, here and here and others not solely dedicated to parking).

To that I introduce Seattle, a city with a strong planning department and political will to do urban areas right. Before I delve into that, I want to add a sidebar. Oftentimes, when I read about other cities and their "struggles" to achieve their urban vision, I shake my head in disgust. Not because what they do is wrong, but because all I have to compare it to is Dallas. New York is always working to correct, and for some activists, complaining about the auto-centric nature of some their neighborhoods. If Dallas's urban core had only 1/4 of the urbanity of New York, I'd be happy. Obviously this is a matter of perspective. Seattle is no different. For a city and region that is much smaller than Dallas and DFW, they have a greater concentration of urban areas and higher transit ridership, mostly utilizing buses until recently. Conversely, it still amazes me that no matter the area, the NIMBY's and naysayers all repeat the same things. I'll elaborate in a moment.

The story, which comes out of the Seattle Times and I found posted to an APA LinkedIn discussion board, details the planning department's move to eliminate parking within a quarter-mile of "frequent" transit stops along with other minor but urban-friendly moves. I am highly in favor of what I read. What is the purpose of building a transit system in general, and rail in particular, if the code that shapes the urban environment is not also altered? Merely saying we want mixed-use, lower auto use, more transit riders and more pedestrians is not enough without some action from code changes. Remember, our cities are shaped by the codes that govern them. If those codes produced auto-oriented areas, then they need to change if you want to navigate away from auto-oriented areas. Expecting change by only introducing a new form of transportation won't have a large effect on the whole. Seattle is doing that with this proposed change.

As usual, there are critics and skeptics. A few excerpts:

"I agree with the premise that if we want to create denser, livable, walkable neighborhoods, we should build less parking," said Martin Kaplan, an architect and member of the Seattle Planning Commission.
But he added: "It's a painful transition. Some people want to do it overnight, and some of those people are politicians."

"Yes, cars do pollute. We need to think up something different. But for now, we need parking to survive."

To Jim Hobbs, who has run his car-repair shop for 30 years, the city's proposal to eliminate parking requirements smacks of a political agenda that ignores the way most people still live.
"The city of Seattle doesn't want us here," he said of his auto-centric business. "It's the whole anti-car thing. They say that in an urban village you can get everything you need within walking distance. But I can't afford to live up here. I drive in from Everett. My employees drive in.
"Everybody owns a car," he said. "Or two."

I swear I could have ripped these quotes out of the Dallas Morning News if they were to run a story about the attempt to urbanize a part of this city.

There are two big complaints I see here. One, the city is moving too fast and they need to slow down. Two, they want to get rid of cars in Seattle and we love them. Both are inaccurate at best. The story mentions that Seattle began the process before 2007, or roughly more than six years ago. What kind of transition are they looking for? Ten years? Twenty? I tend to view these ideas as more of a stall tactic. The thinking that if we can delay it now, we can delay it indefinitely. Sooner or later, if the end goal is a more urban city, these changes have to take place. My experience has shown that those who say it is too fast, are against the change altogether.

As for the fact that we love our cars and it is against our country's principles to be for anything but the car, that just doesn't hold up either. I have said before and this won't be the last, people will do what is convenient. People who "want" two cars do so for convenience. They are literally trapped in their home without the car. There is no where to walk, no transit option and even things like cycling are dangerous. Without a car, they are either time poor or under house arrest. Now, some do truly love the idea of cars, but most don't inherently and primarily use them that way because there is no convenient option.

While the third quote drives me crazy because of its skewed stance, it is the middle one that makes me pull my hair out. "Yes, here's the bad things about cars, but because it is what we have and where we are now we can't change it." At some point, you have to begin. Gradual change is rare. In a span of twenty years, cities went from urban, walkable and streetcar areas to suburban, auto-oriented and bus cities. While it was somewhat gradual until World War II, by 1970, cities a we know them today were literally on the map. Thousands upon thousands of miles of freeways and millions of miles of auto-oriented traffic-engineer-designed roads were built.

Now, one point is raised that I can agree.

Residents also question whether the city's transit service is frequent and reliable enough to prompt people to give up their cars. And they worry that existing businesses will be hurt as shoppers struggle to find places to park.

As I made note of in this post about DART's attempt at service cutting in the urban core, urban transit isn't guaranteed. Basing parking standards on transit service can be hit or miss. That also brings up one main advantage of a fixed-based system like rail over the workhorse bus. While rail's frequency can be cut, the route is almost virtually guaranteed not to be eliminated. The same can not be said of the bus routes. However, that doesn't address the concern of the quote above.

The general thought within the planning community is that transit needs to have roughly about 12-minute headways (non-peak times at that) to have any significant impact on development patterns. That doesn't come cheap. This will be important for the Seattle Planning Department to decide. If the headway threshold to define "frequent" is set too high, the lack of parking will be exacerbated, since the service will not be convenient to alter transportation patterns.

The last thing I want to say has really nothing to do with planning, but with my old industry, media. In this case, journalistic integrity seems a bit off. The writer interviewed the "experts" and got both sides of the issue. When they got man-on-the-street quotes, it was all negative. I find it hard to believe, especially in a place like the Emerald City, that not one average citizen is for this idea. Even the headline Parking around Seattle may get worse as city planners favor transit is skewed. If less people are driving and more take transit, doesn't it stand to reason parking stays static? This equilibrium is similar to the Induced Traffic Principle I have blogged about before. There is a limited amount of spaces and capacity will dictate how many use it. However, there is one big difference. Places that are attractive, as studies and focus groups have continually shown walkable neighborhoods to be over their suburban counterparts, will attract visitors. Inversely, the more parking you add, the more places you have to take away to build the parking spaces, making the area less attractive. By providing alternatives, as Seattle is attempting with transit, it can relieve some parking pressure. If more people do take transit and parking is still utilized the same (again another Induced Traffic point), more people will be in and spend money within the neighborhood.

On the other end of the spectrum, this doesn't say there will be no parking. It says there will be no minimum. Developers, or the private market, will decide how much is needed.

Sadly, this type of thing is a long way off from arising in our neck off the words.

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