Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Shoup Shows Cities How to “Just Say No” to Parking

By Josh Stephens

Anyone who has ever eaten the exhaust of a Lamborghini understands the visceral charms of driving. Its appeal lies similarly in the curves of the Big Sur Highway, the preening queues on the Sunset Strip, and the anticipatory thunder of a NASCAR starting line.

The notion of a “love affair with cars” has gone from metaphor to cliché to hardened myth in the course of the past century, and even the dowdiest of America’s engineers, transportation planners and public officials have been seduced into serving the auto’s every need. Meanwhile, parking, which is the obvious, and necessary, corollary to driving, gets only whispered about, like condoms at the back of a drug store. Indeed, the most shocking claim in Professor Don Shoup’s magnum opus The High Cost of Free Parking is not that cities have implemented bad policies -- that happens all the time for all sorts of reasons -- but that almost no one has bothered to study those policies.

As it turns out, every car on the road equates to roughly seven patches of asphalt off the road. Cars get stored at home, at work, at the grocery store, and all about town. They take up valuable real estate, and, even then, any given space is more likely to be empty than not, whether they come in the form of flat expanses of asphalt or towering monoliths of concrete. They amount to the greatest, most pointless failure in American planning and design. Were parking not an aesthetic crime, it would, at the very least, be a sin against efficiency.

Yes, call me biased. But to say that a transportation writer shouldn’t descry parking lots is like saying a crime reporter shouldn’t be opposed to murder.

For all the effort that planners exert to create regulations and, on occasion, envision better cities, their approach to parking has been based on specious assumptions and utter irrationality. Why measure peak annual parking rather than averages? Why give away desirable spaces for free? Who knows what an abattoir is, much less how many parking spaces it needs? Arbitrary minimum parking requirements have not only stretched cities out physically -- so that buildings are enshrouded by surface parking lots and therefore separated from each other -- but also stretched them financially. The costs that parking imposes are in the price of every bag of Cheetos at K-Mart, every minute stuck in suburban traffic, and, indirectly, in lost revenue to cities.

It’s tempting to think that in the postmodern world that we’ve outgrown paradigm shifts, but Professor Shoup has done his best to give us one. He calls for a dramatic reinterpretation of the ills and possibilities of parking, and he’s kind enough to prescribe some compelling solutions: higher street parking rates, communal lots, maximums instead of minimums, parking benefit districts, and the rest. The ball is now in the public officials’ court. My article is but the latest (though perhaps longest) in a series of articles dedicated to Shoup’s studies, so no planner or city engineer has any excuse not to consider his prescriptions.

Shoup himself has taken enthusiastically to the lecture circuit, translating dense, statistics-laden work into a call to action. Refreshingly, he is the opposite of the proverbial bureaucratic planner: He is excited by his own work and believes that it can make the world a better place. And his tools offer cities the chance to rebuild themselves in unconventional, inexpensive ways by centering not on infrastructure or unproven technology, but rather on pricing signals and revision of outdated, inefficient regulations.

Cities that have no money for infrastructure investments, are crushed by byzantine planning codes, or are otherwise skittish about upsetting the status quo now have no excuse not to consider parking reform. What developers would not be happier to have their parking requirements cut in half? What merchant open in the daytime wouldn’t be thrilled to share parking with the dinner theater next door? What big box developer wouldn’t be perfectly content to cut down a few fewer trees -- if only the laws allowed them to?

Studies have shown that abstinence education has largely been a failure. The future for parking abstinence, is, however, far brighter. A city with less parking, less traffic, and more pleasant places to live, work, and stroll hand-in-hand would be sexier indeed.

As for what goes on in the backseat: you kids are on your own.

Josh Stephens is the author of "Putting Parking into Reverse," published in the winter 2009 issue of InTransition. He is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

About “Reinventing the Wheel”

By Karl Vilacoba

First, I’d like to thank Professor Jerry Schneider for his assistance with this story. His Innovative Transportation Technologies website is a great resource, and I would encourage anyone reading this blog to browse it when you have some free time.

Over 100 transportation systems are being tracked on Schneider’s website, and boiling them down to a list of only a dozen or so to profile was not easy. To be clear, this was not meant as one of those “10 Most Important” or “10 Technologies You Must Know About” kinds of features. My goal was simply to introduce a sample of these inventions to a broad audience who probably never heard of any of them.

I wanted to show a variety of systems – a little bit of everything, from PRTs to alternative cars to freight movers to pedestrian innovations. Each capsule was meant as a brief overview with links to sites where readers can learn more. I don’t endorse any of these systems, nor do I offer any predictions about whether they’ll succeed in the marketplace.

I started off by perusing all of the systems on the website’s matrix and choosing about a dozen that grabbed my attention. I asked Professor Schneider to recommend some systems I should consider, and to look over my list and advise me of any potential red flags. Our lists had some overlap, and I eliminated a few that were too similar to others. While the odds are that many of these innovations will never see the light of day, I sometimes gave a little extra weight to those that seemed feasible – far along in the development stages, financially well-backed or under serious consideration by legitimate clients (countries, cities, big corporations, etc.), for instance.

Finally, one or two never panned out because the companies’ contact people weren’t responsive (check your e-mails!), but those cases were the exception to the rule. When I reached out for more information, it wasn’t unusual to be called back by the CEO or the inventor themselves. Often they were one and the same.

I believe that’s a good indicator of how competitive this field is. These companies don’t get much media attention, so when an opportunity came, they put their top people in touch and were very accommodating (although some of these companies consist of staffs you can count on one hand). It was one of several factors that made this one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve worked on over the past few years.

Anyone have any favorites of the systems I profiled? Any thoughts on whether these systems could work in your city?