Thursday, January 28, 2010

Parking: Crime and Punishment

Crime sucks. Especially when it happens to you (unless it's funny). In the past three months, someone very close to me (literally and home proximity) has had their car broken into twice, parked in what is supposed to be a secure parking garage.

This is not solely a downtown phenomenon either, as once when I lived in uptown, I had my car broken into in my building's parking garage (an entirely private garage) as well. Luckily, I was more accommodating and left the doors unlocked, meaning no smashed window to deal with (apparently, we didn't share the same taste in fashion as the $200 dollar ray-bans were picked up and moved in order to take the pocket change).

In Dallas, I'm one of the few who willingly choose to live car-free. I do so now b/c I'm a lunatic. But for a variety of reasons, primarily, as a city's transportation is its skeleton driving the overall form, the transportation network and city have evolved entirely car-centric. Jobs aren't near housing, not enough housing is near transit, the City is still in its infant stages of adapting to DART, which can take decades or longer for the market to shake out the true value of land w/in x distance of DART and measure that factor by the quality of place and station area.

A new study at ranks American cities by CarFree household. I'll spare the suspense. Dallas unsurprisingly misses the top 50. Hooray! Unless you find choice in the marketplace to be a good thing.

However, when narrowing the spectrum to cities above 250,000 in population we find Dallas snuggled in at #38 ahead of San Antonio, Nashville, San Diego, and Jacksonville (the nation's largest city by land area). If I were to surmise the primary factors would be city form and poverty. And since poverty rates are generally much more standardized city to city, the single most important factor is city form. This is verified by the results. The top ten consists of Eastern cities, Chicago, and San Francisco, all well-established before the introduction of the car and with fairly extensive public transpo.

So, while one might be inclined to say, "Woohoo! We all own cars! We're rich!" That isn't the reason we rank so low, especially since Dallas is 16th in percent living below the poverty line.

Looking more deeply at the statistics, Dallas ranks 31st in % of public transit commuters, which is an improvement (with the assumption that commuting to work by car is a bad thing economically, as it requires excessive road construction, maintenance, inefficient land use patterns, gas/oil use, and air quality) from its overall ranking.

While it can be assumed that slowly but surely Dallas is evolving to DART which opened its first lines about 10 years ago, commuting by bike and foot are quite abysmal. What this means is that Dallas's commuting patterns are tremendously skewed towards the more expensive means of transportation (rank them 1. car 2. bus/train 3. bike 4. foot), even without factoring in the multiplier effects of energy and land use.

Therefore, the population near or below the poverty line in Dallas are forced into car ownership to make ends meet, while transportation can account for as much as 40-45% of their income, while the well-to-do are forced to subsidize it via roads to make the whole system work. Lose-Lose.

I hate lose-loses. We're all about win-wins at CarFreeInBigD, which is why we're in favor of choice. Any functional marketplace must have choice, right free-marketeers? I guess mode of transportation doesn't count. Furthermore, the majority of these costs (ownership and operation, oil/gas) leave the local economy.

I'm rare b/c I'm nuts (and I like to live out my self-righteousness). However, I'm not self-righteous enough to force this way of living onto anybody. Sane people have to have a car still in this town. In fact, they are essentially coerced into having a car to take care of daily needs like getting to work, groceries, etc. Any market economy or government founded upon free will can not function under coercion. Choice also applies to housing type. There is a tremendous pent-up demand for housing of all types near transit and in walkable communities. Meeting that demand is what will lead cities out of the recession.

As stated, poverty isn't the driving force in car ownership or lack thereof, but it very well might induce petty theft and property damage. In fact, I might argue the causal relationship is the reverse and that poverty is driven (pun) by the necessity of car ownership.

I'm one to always want to know the underlying forces driving behavior. Seeing that we are all fundamentally people with the same genetic wiring, deciding and abiding by a similar set of criteria. Until there is a better option, I will define this criteria as Maslow's hierarchy of needs to which I've discussed the relationship of city building before.

I'm suggesting that forced car ownership and the cost of infrastructure to support an auto-centric economy, is driving a vicious circle where some increment of the population is barely getting by in the car-only local economy. It seems quite logical that cars would be the first place to scour for items to make ends meet, would it not?

I hate to be apologetic about crime because it is the worst feeling in the world to have your daily routine interrupted by a smashed car window and missing possessions (next to being locked out). But, this crime in particular is petty (in comparison with others) by definition and no matter the place or time, there will always be shitheads in given community.

I'll liken it to street design where regulation and enforcement also has negligible effect. The design of the street is the problem, moreso than the people who might speed. People will drive the speed they feel comfortable. Perhaps the design of the system is the primary problem.

This system, the behavior of people within (or operating outside of) the legal economy is much more complex, however than silly bandaid measures like speed bumps, and speed limits, and pulling police away from more important tasks to sit in a car and watch for someone going 60 in a 45.

This is the economy, which is the construct of how we interact with each other, represented by the form of our city. when our city is so divergent, as to force people of all incomes to HAVE to own a car, which can be up to or greater than 40% of their netcome, just to participate in civilized society perhaps the instinct of some is to withdrawal from that particular brand of civilization.
Physical Effects

Let's think about this from a design perspective now, beyond a behavioral one. High car ownership, means grossly exaggerated amounts of car infrastructure beyond roads. All of those cars have to be parked somewhere. Professor Donald Shoup once calculated that there were four parking spaces provided for every car in America. That was in 1973.

Prof Shoup is the THE expert on parking and its negative effects on America. He is full of good statistics, like the one he gave recently at a presentation at Yale, "the MINIMUM requirement for parking in Los Angeles is 50x the MAXIMUM allowed parking in San Francisco." LA has about half the car-free households that San Fran does. Shoup's ultimate point is that while parking isn't free to build or provide, it is often free to park (just like roads), thus further subsidizing car-culture.

While some measure of parking standards and codes are policy driven by the market, the market is steered by further policies creating that market, ie car-only transportation networks. If a market is an invisible hand, highway funding et al., is the invisible arm controlling that hand.

Whether we're providing 4 spaces per car or 50 per, either is still too much parking, which in built form comes in the way of large surface lots and parking garages. Neither contributes much to the synergies of cities. They act more as middle men deducting city efficiency and vibrancy, hurting the local economy.

Here is a simple test: is it easy to find a parking spot? Has any place in the world that you ever really wanted to be had ample parking? No. Why? B/c space/land in places of high demand is much too valuable for such things as temporary car storage. This is why a covered parking space in NYC can cost as much as an apartment in Dallas.

The other negative effect parking places on a city is perception. Neither parking lots nor garages feel like safe places to be. No matter how much flood lighting is applied, whether they are safe or not is immaterial. They are perceived as unsafe, which means the reality becomes that they are unsafe. They create dead zones with few watchful public "eyes" protecting the public realm.

Walkable cities still have places to park, they are far less ubiquitous and less obtrusive on the physical landscape. Less parking is provided per car or capita, thus forcing more parking to be accommodated on-street. On-street parking with detached minimum requirement is a much more efficient way of handling parking load because it is floating, much like the electricity grid works as energy storage.

Rather than providing x spaces per square footage of building by use for every single block, creating a tremendous surplus of parking (so much so that it is considered cheap enough to park rather than commute by other measures). Somebody can easily park a block or two away (the choice is theirs based on how far they're willing to walk (or pay for closer parking in a demand-based priced parking scheme). These are both district-based parking schemes (rather than use, block, or building codes) which take the burden off of private development.

Parking (particularly in dense areas) can cost as much as 20% of a development's hard costs, which is a significant barrier to investment. However, even if there are no minimum parking requirements, like I've stated a private developer would typically want their own garage where they can regulate, maintain, and ensure safety. Because so few are able to live car-free, it is at this point market-driven. So where do we go from here?
Potential Strategies

For the last segment, I'll list several potential strategies off the top of my head that I've seen throughout the country to effectively deal with the parking dilemma, make the City feel (and be) safer, as well as revitalize Dallas, in particular, downtown. I'll leave it up to you dear reader to weigh cost/benefits of each.

Early in Portland's downtown revitalization the City began a program of building several large parking facilities which would remove the burden of parking provision from new residential development. This is one method of parking district. Each neighborhood (or downtown sub-district if you will) has its own primary garage, from which, one can walk to all nearby destinations.
Lesson: Learn to walk a few blocks. You could probably use the exercise.

Drawback: We already have too much parking in Dallas, so building new garages doesn't really alleviate that problem, unless we do so in order to consolidate surface parking.
Another option, and this one addresses on-street parking more than others (but that doesn't mean that it couldn't be applied to all public parking facilities as well), is to price meters based on demand. This means the meters would be computerized and interconnected so that they communicate to each other and set prices at a level that ensures approximately an 85% occupancy. The 85% number means there is always an availability of parking, the city gains extra revenue thru the market-based pricing, and we are not encouraging car-use as much via policy. Everywhere this has been in place, it has improved business.
Lesson: Price parking so as to discourage driving.

Drawback: Business is allergic to any kind of change and this does little to leverage the surplus of surface lots. Unless of course, we think the over-supply of surface parking means low rates for on-street parking, where the City would then create more on-street spaces (to generate more revenue). All of which would then drive prices too low for the private surface lots to stay in business, which they might then sell.

Drawback 2 to Drawback 1: Some wishful thinking there.
Last would be more coercive policy attempts to limit surface parking. I have seen two ways of doing this. The first, and the more politically volatile, is to ban surface parking lots in special districts. Start a clock running that the owner has to sell to a potential developer by a certain date, essentially amortizing the cost of the land. Currently, surface lots are generating enough cash flow that the owners aren't willing to sell. The price is too high to develop.
Lesson: Surface parking lot owners don't give a shit about the city.

Drawback: Good luck fighting those political battles. Which brings me to option 3b:
Another, more centrist way of accomplishing a similar ends: establish a Land Value Tax in certain overlay districts (a variation is a Split Tax which unbundles land tax and improvements on that land (ie floor space) allowing for a high cost of land area and a low cost for built improvements which puts stress on the public's infrastructure). This has to jive with local and state law, of course, so that is an issue. What this is, is essentially a performance bonus/punitive tax (carrot/stick) based on the performance of real estate. Taxes are reduced on performing properties and increased significantly on properties deemed underperforming, underdeveloped, or vacant. The valuation metric can be set however you want it: typically, it's leasable, occupiable FAR over a minimum (with protections for grandfathered/historic structures).

This likewise creates an incentive for out of town owners or surface lot owners to sell to more willing partners for city development and revitalization, who typically have some skin in the game or motivation beyond $ like passion for the city and revitalizing it. This plays well with local businesses (their taxes are reduced) and those that want to help the city and who cares about those that oppose it. If the goal is to revitalize an area, set the policies that are proven to work, build consensus of support, and don't worry about the howls from the opposition.

Anecdotally, my hometown went from 5000 vacant buildings to 400 in twenty years of operating this policy.
Lesson: Surface parking lot owners don't give a shit about the city.

Drawback: Could be some short-term budget gaps due to lowering taxes on current businesses/residents.
It may well take any combination of these efforts as well as potentially some others to steer the city slowly away from strictly a car-oriented economy, to a safer, more inclusive and robust one. I will bet a year's salary that these would have more effect than any streetscaping measures or new parks on the revitalization of downtown from a $$ standpoint.

In conclusion, current city form and continuing policies forcing the poor into car ownership is a humanitarian offense of accumulated actions placing emphasis on road construction; the links rather than the places. It creates a culture of unsafety and disinvestment, which is bad for the local economy and efforts at revitalization.

Fortunately, the City of Dallas is headed in the right direction, realizing that transportation and development are intertwined and forever interconnected, despite what 20th century dinosaurs might think. Compartmentalizing the two into the hands of specialists is what got American cities into the mess in the first place.