How does parking affect homelessness and crime?

This is an interesting commentary by David Zipper in his talk with Henry Grabar. Henry is the author of “How Parking Explains the World.” The AB title is from two questions. David was asking Henry to explain. If you have lived in or near a large city like Chicago, you are always on the hunt for a parking space unless there is a commercial garage around. If you are living in the suburbs and have to go into the city, parking is expensive.

I now live near Phoenix, AZ where everyone drives fast, stupidly, and complain about the state not expanding Fed Highway 10 and State 347. AZ is a if there is no highway how do I get there state? Intermodal means more than just driving a car. It implies other ways such as passenger trains. The Feds rejected the additional funding due to a lack of intermodal solutions beyond pickup trucks.

Back to the post topic. Do we need all the parking we have planned or are there other ways to get around it. Not a cheap venture to allocate so much land for parking. The word intermodal plays into this also.

A Plea to Unleash the Power of Parking Reform, Bloomberg, David Zipper.

There are at least a billion parking spaces in the US, an expanse of asphalt that would cover an area twice the size of Connecticut. And yet, finding a good place to park — preferably free, and within a few feet of your destination — can still feel like an impossible quest. Available spots always seem to be too expensive, inconvenient or insufficient (and sometimes all three).

In his new book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, journalist Henry Grabar argues that such perceptions are wrong. With examples ranging from canceled Southern California housing projects to the travails of a New York City parking attendant to the infamous deal that handed Morgan Stanley control over Chicago’s parking meters, Grabar hammers away at his core message:

Living in the US would be cheaper, healthier and simply more fun if we fixed our parking policies.

To do so, we must unravel distortions arising from density restrictions, single-use zoning and parking minimums (city mandates that require new development projects to create a set number of spots).

If such arguments sound familiar, it may be because they reflect those championed for decades by Donald Shoup, the UCLA professor and parking guru who has developed a cult-like following among urban planners and reformers. If there is a hero of Paved Paradise, it is Shoup.

While Grabar, a staff writer for Slate (and a former CityLab editorial fellow), celebrates the ways in which parking reform can boost multimodal transportation, he also insists that he is not anti-car. He writes . . .

“For drivers, which is to say, for most of us, most of the time we go anywhere, a parking-reformed world would be more convenient. But parking reform does ultimately mean undoing some of the advantages drivers have amassed since they conquered the landscape a hundred years ago. From behind the wheel, some of those changes — parking spaces vanishing for a bus lane, a row of saplings, a restaurant patio — will be frustrating. But my hope is that drivers will not see those changes only through their windshields, and that making it harder to park might also make it easier not to drive.”

Bloomberg CityLab contributor David Zipper spoke with Grabar about his book, and how he would bring order to America’s discombobulated parking policies. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The subtitle of your book is “How parking explains the world.” So to kick things off, I’d like to offer a couple societal challenges and ask you how parking explains them.

Sounds good. Let’s do it.

Great. How does parking affect homelessness?

Well, parking is expensive to build. So, if you require that every new apartment includes certain number of parking spaces, as many American jurisdictions do, you are adding a tremendous burden to the provision of affordable housing and homeless support.

It didn’t make it into the book, but when I was in Austin, I visited a supportive housing building for formerly homeless people. It had been constructed with a gargantuan and, at the time, obligatory garage. Of course, that garage was always empty, because people who are just moving into this place do not have homes and only very rarely come with a car. 

This nonprofit spent a ton building this mandatory garage, when they could have used the money and the space to create more units for people living on the street.

Let me give you another one: crime.

That’s more challenging. One example of the relationship between parking and crime is that people fight over parking spaces. In fact, dozens of people every year are murdered over them. You’re more likely to be killed over a parking space than you are to be killed by a shark. Still, I’m not sure how statistically significant that is.

Fair enough. To shift gears, I’d like to ask you about the beliefs we hold about parking. In some ways parking reminds me of education: Most of us have been to school, and we’ve had to park, so we have that lived experience that can bleed into perceptions of expertise. How do personal experiences affect the formation of parking policy?

It goes two ways. Yes, everyone is an expert when it comes to parking policy. Anybody who’s ever been to a community meeting can testify to the kind of self-assuredness that is on display when parking is being discussed.

For the last few decades, I think that has mostly worked against efforts to create a better society, because it’s very hard to overrule the instinctive feeling that parking ought to be available when I want it, where I want it, for the price I want to pay, which is zero. A lot of smart parking policy deviates from those assumptions, like charging for coveted street parking in busy locations, or trying to encourage people to park in a garage a few blocks away and then walk a bit.

But the parking reform movement has really taken off over the last five years, starting with Hartford  and Buffalo repealing parking minimums. One of the reasons that reformers have been successful is that parking is a topic that can be easily understood. Not only have people experienced parking their whole lives, but it’s also not a technical subject like water mains or the electrical grid. One of the great appeals of parking reform is that once you understand the core concepts, the world just clicks into place in a way that’s totally intuitive.

You mentioned parking minimums, which all urbanists seem to hate. What was the original rationale behind them?

I am very sympathetic to the city planners who developed parking minimums. Put yourself in their shoes: It’s 1950, and you are in charge of a mid-sized American city where the suburbs are eating away at your tax base. Your stores are closing and reopening in these big new malls with lots of free parking. At the time it appears that one of the great problems confronting you is the fact that it’s super-difficult to park downtown. With benefit of hindsight, you can see that trying to emulate suburban standards for parking was always going to be a losing battle.

But at the time, the question city officials were confronting was: “Is it our job to build the parking?” And many of them did build public garages, but they were spending a lot of public money to do it, while also taking that property off the tax rolls. So they came up with parking minimums, which they perceived as a pretty elegant way to make the private sector take care of this problem. I was going to say it turned out to be a disaster, but if you’re looking at it from the perspective of creating more parking, it went really well. So, objective achieved.

How can parking reformers win over a suburban commuter who thinks he’s getting a good deal because a city’s on-street parking is so cheap?

First of all, that city should only raise the parking rates only if there’s not enough parking downtown. I don’t think the parking should cost money just because; it should cost money because there’s not enough. In places where there’s not enough of it, you need to find a system to get that under control before you wind up demolishing half your city to build parking lots.

Just to be clear, you’re saying if there’s not a parking shortage in your city, don’t change anything with your parking policy?

Yeah. In particular, we need to emphasize that parking meters are not — and should not be — a tool to raise revenue alone.

But back to the question about the person from the suburbs. For people who get to work with their cars, the parking status quo is not free at all. It’s extremely expensive to be stuck in traffic all day and have nowhere to park. I think people who really need to drive could be convinced that a world in which people who don’t really need to drive or are driving less could work to their advantage.

Many of the reform efforts you highlight are in dense places like New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, where it’s easy to imagine people living without cars being their dominant mode of transportation. What about places that have been built around cars, like Phoenix or Las Vegas? How much does parking reform offer them?

People who live in a city like Phoenix or Las Vegas are always going to need a car. There is no near- or long-term future in which those cities become places with sophisticated mass transit systems and sufficient density to deliver everybody everything they want within walking distance or transit. Not happening.

But more than half of all US trips are under three miles. If you’re able to design the streets in a way that people feel comfortable getting around without a car, there are a tremendous number of trips that could be easily accomplished in other ways. So when we talk about reforming parking — getting people to drive less, creating environments where it’s nicer not to drive — we’re not talking about everybody getting rid of their car; we’re talking about people making a few more trips on foot, on an e-bike or in a golf cart. It’s not like households suddenly need to go car-free. It’s about change at the margins.

You wrote in the book that “Shoupistas” — followers of UCLA professor and parking reform hero Donald Shoup — come from both the political left and political right, suggesting that parking reform is a bipartisan issue. Is that really true? Donald Trump, after all, claimed that Democrats would destroy the suburbs by challenging single-family zoning — the kind of move that Shoup would advocate.

I spoke with a developer in North Carolina about the appeal of parking reform policies to conservative Americans who don’t like waste or government mandates. Some of them also relish the traditional idea of urbanism, which parking mandates make impossible. Those are points in which parking reformers might find common cause with Republicans. It would be good for people who are interested in parking reform to make clear that they are not anti-car. Sensible parking policy would make life more pleasant for a good number of drivers.

Let’s talk about parking reform tactics. How constructive are quasi-performance acts, like the group in San Francisco that pay parking meters, set up tables and chairs, and treat on-street parking like cheap coworking? Is that how you win hearts and minds, or is it an amusing but ineffective sideshow?

I think it’s important — stuff like that moves the Overton Window.

In particular, parklets lay the ground for the open restaurants. I don’t think any parking reformers going into 2020 thought, “Well, it’s our dream to turn over all the curbs in the cities to the restaurants.” It just sort of happened that way, and people are now able to see the curb as an immensely valuable public space that could be used for anything.

Last year a New York City councilmember put forth an intriguing parking proposal, arguing that since the police are doing such a poor job enforcing parking rules, residents should be able to take pictures of cars parked illegally, send them to the city, and then receive a portion of any fines collected. What do you think about that “bounty hunter” approach?

Somebody’s going to get killed. I’m sorry, but it’s ridiculous.

A lot of the opposition to the idea of stricter parking enforcement stems from the belief, which is well founded, that the penalties are draconian. In the second half of the 20th century parking meters stopped being viewed as a system of street management and started being seen as a way of raising revenue. That was a terrible development for people who are interested in better parking policy.

The reason that tickets are expensive is because there’s no enforcement. It’s a circular system. If you decide you’re basically not going to do any parking enforcement at all, when you do do it, the fines have to be pretty high to discourage people from breaking the law at other times. And that’s just not a good way to run a system. We should have lower parking fines, but better enforcement.

What do you think of the equity argument against parking reform  — i.e., the idea that someone who works at a cleaning service and needs to drive from the suburbs to a central city will need a cheap place to park with their supplies?

There’s an assumption baked into that argument, which is that poor people’s time doesn’t matter.  Imagine a service worker like that is going to be 10 minutes late because there’s nowhere to park, and they end up parking 20 feet from a hydrant. Maybe they get a ticket; that’s $80. And we’re saying that’s the equitable system? And an inequitable system is supposedly one where they always have a parking space available, but maybe it cost them $2.75?

People who work with their cars recognize that time is money. Circling the block over and over to find a parking space so you can do your job doesn’t help you.

You have a chapter about the 2009 deal that privatized Chicago’s parking meters for 75 years, with Morgan Stanley getting the proceeds. It’s considered a fiasco for the city’s taxpayers, but you suggest the deal may have had a silver lining, because privatizing the meters allowed Morgan Stanley to raise the cost of on-street parking in a way that would have been politically infeasible under public control. Do you think that’s a constructive lesson from Chicago’s debacle?

To be clear, I do not think the Morgan Stanley deal was a good deal. Chicago alderman did vote to raise parking prices — they did it by voting to privatize, and they did it in a way that couldn’t later be undone.

Chicago did insulate this parking meter policy from political headwinds, but this was not the only way to do that. The more obvious way would be to put out a bond issue backed by the parking meter collections. Now the city is in a pretty lousy situation, especially when it comes to installing electric vehicle chargers at the curbside. It’s going to be a nightmare for them.

Taking a step back, is there a risk of creating a suburban-urban divide, with suburbanites demanding more center city parking, and urban residents saying, “No, we don’t want it”?

We are so far from a world in which suburbanites are actually deprived of parking opportunities in the center city that I just don’t see it. A good example of this is San Francisco, where they redid their whole pricing scheme. Some places did indeed get more expensive to park, but others got cheaper. What that shows is that it’s not a zero-sum game. Maybe there comes a time in the future where we’ve pedestrianized half the city, where people in the suburbs find that their access to the center city is genuinely curtailed. But in the US we’re so far from that point that I have trouble taking such concerns seriously.