Friday, November 13, 2009

Circling around the endless parking debate (Looooong post)

3D: Rodin's ThinkerHow fitting that the illustration for a post on parking wars comes from a larger work called "The Gates of Hell." Image by Major Clanger via Flickr

UPDATE: A glimpse at the same problem up in Portland.

ORIGINAL: My email inbox is littered with parking messages this past week, all started by this post here, which has led to this more anodyne message to the local biking community:
Their lead issue is the prospect of ending free auto parking downtown.

They claim it will get public visibility for the first time when it is considered for adoption as an official Council Goal for 2010 next week.

Certainly from my standpoint this issue should be on our radars! The artificial subsidy of auto parking is pernicious for rational transportation policy and is a cost largely externalized and therefore ducked by auto users.

Unluckily, downtown merchants and interests have over the years really hitched their fortunes and claims for downtown vitality to the horses of free parking. There will be some pain and much anxiety over the shift. The large strip mall parking lots will remain free, and people fear business will go there.

Which is all the more reason to make bicycling, car-pooling, walking, and transit even more effective! Making the shift to paid parking in a way that retains - or even grows! - downtown business surely is something we have an interest in.
And the original post also prompted this comment from a local civic activist:
The Taylor Administration wants free parking ONLY at big box retailers and malls outside the downtown business district.

Please email them and encourage a more thoughtful approach.

A locally owned diverse economy is a safeguard against economic collapse.
as well as this note to City Council is circulating an email saying someone has proposed a Council goal to, "adopt parking meters and sale of the downtown parking garages."

Of course that's absurd because it would mean ONLY malls and big box retailers around town would be offering free parking. Everyone knows a locally owned diverse economy provides jobs and taxes to the local economy. It doesn't make sense to levy a parking tax on local business then tear down the free parking that tax helps pay for.

The parking study from 2006 provides some data and ideas for alternatives that might work better than the heavy-handed proposal. When citizens were asked about their vision for 2020 none of them said "more meters" or "less free parking."

Maybe it would be better to toss this ridiculous proposal and add the five themes of Vision 2020 to Council goals for 2010. Instead of creating obstacles to parking, let's start create more places for people to live, shop and gather downtown.
and this note expressing grave concern from a downtown merchant:
I have a strong need to inform you of a major change affecting downtown Salem. Please read the attached information regarding the removal of free parking in downtown. As a long time merchant I want to keep parking free for all my customers. If you have feelings on this matter I would encourage you to contact any or all city council members. Th[is] link will take you to their email.

Mayor Janet Taylor's email is:

Time is of the essence.
Council member TJ Sullivan responded to one of the earlier posts thus:
There is much more to this than what is being promulgated here. As part of this discussion I would commend to you Donald Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking.

As some may know, the parking downtown isn't free; it is paid for by a tax on the building owners downtown. Some business owners and building owners have asked the city about going to paid on-street parking so folks could pay to park for as long as they wanted and the parking tax could be done away with. They want the money generated by the on-street parking to belong to the downtown merchants/building owners.

I have head from one building owner that she thinks the city should essentially subsidize downtown building owners and businesses with money out of the general fund. The general fund is too tight to go back to the days when the city paid for a lot of services for downtown out of the general fund. These were services that other building owners around the city paid for out of their own pocket.
To which our local activist replies:
I found a recent review of Shoup's book and clipped this. To me it makes sense to consider ALL transportation impacts before we make major adjustments to parking policy. This same review reports on projects and policies other cities are undertaking.

Our community could do a LOT more to get us out of our cars. Unfortunately some community leaders express negative opinions about Salem-Keizer Transit. One obvious solution to car use is to quit permitting sprawl.
"The fundamental change that cities need to make, according to Shoup, is to charge a price for metered parking that would be expensive enough to create roughly a 15 percent vacancy rate. At that rate, Shoup said, many drivers will either park in private lots or use other means of transportation, and those drivers who want to park on the street will find readily available spaces without “cruising” endlessly. Indeed, one of Shoup’s studies claimed that in a variety of high-traffic areas in Los Angeles, curb parking was always cheaper than pay parking, by as much as a factor of 10. In Westwood Village alone, this disparity leads to “cruising” that “creates enough vehicle travel to make 38 trips around the earth.”

'Once you manage the curb parking then you can really think about removing off-street parking requirements, or reducing them at the very least,' said Shoup. As for the seemingly arbitrary 85 percent, Shoup said, 'When you explain this to people you ask, do you have a better rule? And they’re just speechless.'

One group likely to raise protests, though, are businesses owners who may fear that higher prices will drive away patrons. In fact, Shoup contends that higher turnover (prompted by higher rates) will benefit some businesses, and he ensures that the benefits will be more than just theoretical. Shoup proposes “parking benefit districts” by which revenue at the meters would be re-invested in the immediate neighborhood for upgrades such as sidewalk improvements, signage and other amenities that would make the areas more comfortable for pedestrians and less comfortable for cars." Putting Parking into Reverse: Professor’s Theories Influence Cities to Reconsider Pervasive Free Parking, By Josh Stephens.
Another citizen responds to the idea:
Didn't the City spend a lot of money refurbishing the city owned parking structures downtown? It might be that those structures were refurbished in order to make them attractive to a buyer. Someone should look at the market value of the parking structures, the cost of repairs, and their market value without the repairs. Is it possible the City will loose [Arrrrrggghhhh! sic!!] money if they are sold?

Also, the value of free parking to Salem's ability to attract business should be considered. A dying downtown and crumbling infrastructure will not attract businesses with high paying jobs, but businesses who pay minimum wage and need a move to a desperate city because no one else will have them.
And another, this time with the sentiment most feared by the downtown merchants:
Again, this would need a lot of study. For me, if I have to pay to put money in a meter, I don't go there...period!
It looks to me like the whole premise of Shoup's book does not apply to Salem. We are not LA, we are not even Portland. No one is going to pay for a parking space in a parking structure unless they work there. We will just go to a Mall or some outlying store. If I can't park for free to get to a store downtown, most of us would not go
there. This sounds like a way to destroy downtown. Any business person who thinks they can save a few bucks on a parking tax and then charge people to park they are dreaming. I will ask a few people what they would do, but so far the couple I have asked said that they hate shopping downtown anyway and this would kill that last
remnant of any hope they might. Ironically this from someone who travels through downtown every day to work from West Salem....would not even stop if they had to pay.

The other thing that seems to be in what Shoup's is saying is that people will shop closer to home which is better for it sounds to me like we do not bother with downtowns at all with his method.

Is this the goal? Get me to shop at Lancaster Mall? Take away free parking and I have no excuse left and so I'll save the gas and not shop downtown anymore. Does this stop urban sprawl or just move us out to the suburbs with more malls closer to where we live?
Leading Councilman Sullivan to expand on the parking treatise suggested earlier:
Shoup's book is 752 pages of conclusions drawn from a great deal of research. The notion that the whole premise doesn't apply to Salem is kind of funny- especially if you haven't read the book.

The research does show that when you stop subsidizing parking and use the funds generated to improve the area and improve transportation modes into an area that the area will flourish. In several examples in the book they actually cited cities that started charging for parking in decaying areas which would seem counter intuitive.

I'm not sure what the exact reason is, but many of the folks in my neck of the woods haven't been to Lancaster Mall in years. If you gave them the first hour for free and started charging a progressive rate it wouldn't affect them going downtown nor would it lead them to shop at the Lancaster Mall. The idea isn't to create sprawl or drive people to suburban malls, but to make an area more distinct, more attractive, and draw more people to it.

Reducing taxes on downtown business/building owners and working with them to further improve our downtown without using urban renewal dollars is a worthy end goal.

Finally, paying to park downtown isn't something that Janet cooked up to benefit a certain class of people. When I first came on to Council I remember talking with Rick Stuckey about what paying for parking in downtown needed to look like to be successful.
And there the debate parked for the day, at least so far as can be ascertained from LOVESalem HQ. And believe me folks, I guarantee that is just the tippy top point of a huge iceberg of fear and loathing that's going to be generated if the original proposal (remember that?) is in fact what's being contemplated.

In cities and towns all across America, the parking wars are to downtown urban planning what the pandemic explosion in Type II diabetes is to the USDA recommended diets for the last 60 years: a flaming bonfire in the night saying that something has gone horribly awry. (Fun and slightly relevant fact: we get our word bonfire from the old English word for bone fire, for the fires used in cremations. Among the good terms to know when the parking wars heat up.)

What can we say for sure, since in all likelihood, none of us has, at most, more than skimmed or seen a copy of Shoup's $70 book? Let's see, I bet there's at least 10 things we can say that are true:
  1. Trying to fix what ails downtown Salem by tinkering with parking regulations is like trying to fix a broken cuckoo clock by moving the hands around with your fingers but not otherwise touching the clock. That is, you can briefly make things seem better (to you), unless you look at it from a different perspective, such as someone who comes along several hours later, when your "improvement" now seems like "epic fail."

  2. Parking is more like brain surgery than you think: when you mess with parking, you are messing with part of a complex, evolved system that brings vital nutrients (money, people, goods) to the urban "brain" (downtown core). It is all-too-easy to be an urban planner or city official who follows in the footsteps of all those doctors who say "The operation was a complete success! That the patient died on the table was simply one of those things."

  3. Given that getting parking right is a lot more complex than 99.99% of everyone understands, an ounce of real, local experience is worth a ton of theory. All over America you can find towns with ruined downtowns where the locals fell under the sway of this or that parking or planning guru and drank the Kool-Aid that poisoned their downtown core and rendered it desolate and lonely.

  4. But, everyone just has their own experience. Just like everyone considers themselves to be an expert on education because they spent a brief few years in classrooms, everyone thinks that they are a parking policy expert because they can, more or less, park a car without violating too many traffic laws or hitting too many pedestrians and bicyclists. The real, local experience that's valuable is obtained through detailed, thorough, careful observation -- the kind that takes a long time and might cost some money (although there are good ways to do it for a lot less than your typical planner can imagine). In other words, we get good experience by collecting good, valid statistical data, and not operating via anecdote, where everyone starts every sentence with "Well, people won't put up with . . . " (which normally means nothing more than "I hate . . . ").

  5. Besides, Parking is the Wrong Problem to attack. To a very great extent, parking problems are a measure of success, not failure. (If you think competition for parking is bad, wait until there's plenty of parking for everyone, all the time!) Because of human and bureaucratic nature (yes, they're sometimes the same), if you define "parking" as your problem, you will inevitably come up with a raft of "solutions" that involves tinkering with parking, preferably by getting someone else to pay more while you pay less or nothing.

  6. Be wary of fooling yourself. The Hawthorne Effect isn't just another name for white people with birkenstocks and dreadlocks in SE Portland. It can also occur in cities and towns. Sometimes problems get better (or worse) despite a counterproductive new policy, just because change causes unanticipated consequences anyway.

  7. Remember causation vs. correlation. Always. Given that most places only pay lip service to the kind of data collection (see #4) that is needed to make good judgments about changes in parking policies, it's pretty easy to mis-attribute changed behavior B as being caused by policy change A. And VERY common to do so. Any parking changes that Salem makes in the next few years will be blamed for the loss of a huge number of businesses, because we're likely to lose a lot of businesses in the next few years -- but for reasons that have nothing to do with parking or lack thereof, or cost thereof. Failing businesses and declining residential units love to blame other people for their failures, and parking is one of the most convenient targets because (see #4 again) it's right out there where everyone can see it and everyone's got an opinion on it.

  8. Don't let downtown businesses call all the shots . . . but at the same time, don't overweight the views of people who don't care about downtown anyway. It's very easy, and very common, to help downtown businesses destroy a place by giving into them on their every wish, from urban renewal districts that divert revenue away from other parts of town to whatever parking scheme that most of them favor -- even though the local businesses demanded the exact opposite scheme in some similar town somewhere else. Local business people are not typically any smarter about parking than anyone else.

    BUT, you have to give them this: they care, and they don't want their downtown area to fail. That's worth a lot --- with proper handling, the downtown business folks are the ones who can make city planners get serious about actually measuring things and proceeding carefully, instead of just slamming new policies into place that were gleaned from the current urban planning guru or textbook. A lot of the people who will weigh in during a parking war are people who hardly ever go downtown anyway (but who seem to think that there should always be a space open within 10 feet of whatever store they might happen to want to go to that rare day -- not realizing that this would mean the death of those businesses they bother to patronize once every blue moon).

  9. Whenever possible, proceed in increments, with reversible changes, using volunteers to lead the way. It's possible to get that good, local experience by generating it in small pilot projects. Some people tend to favor uniformity for various reasons (police, ordinance writers, etc.) -- but nature's example shows us that the healthiest settings are those where new species are constantly testing the habitat out, seeing how best to thrive. If it's actually the case that (a) parking is an issue; that (b) can be ameliorated by a change in parking policy then it should be possible to find a block of two of businesses to volunteer to make the change first and to see how it works. (If every business in town wants to implement the new policy ASAP then the new policy is very likely too much of a subsidy for them and shortchanges some other group. There are very few free lunches in older downtown areas.)

  10. Beware the impending drought when you're fighting those alligators, intending to drain the swamp. Just about every book of sage advice reminds us to keep our primary goal in mind and to not let ourselves get distracted from it by urgent but less-important matters. Hence the joke about "It's hard to remember that you came to drain the swamp when you're up to your ass in alligators." What's even harder, when you've prepared and equipped yourself for a good, long swamp-draining effort, is to stay alert and to note the changes that, collectively, mean that the swamp is not only going to drain itself but will become a parched and arid desert -- as the Sahara desert was once a swampy forest where Rome got its wood.

    In the context of the parking wars, this means paying attention to the meta-factors that we don't control every bit as much as to those alligators: Peak Oil (the end of cheap oil) and Climate Disruption (the urgent need to limit carbon emissions, including from transportation). Both of these have put us in a predicament that means that we will experience profound and not-completely-foreseeable changes in how we go about our daily lives. Together they will likely wreak such havoc on our economy that our present "problems" with parking are likely to be seen as "The Good Times."

    When you understand the imperatives that we face as a result of Peak Oil and the climate crisis, you gain a valuable perspective on issues like "parking," which are symptoms of a dysfunction (automobile dominated society) that is likely to correct itself in fairly short order.
UPDATE: LOVESalem's foreign correspondent in the Bellingham Bureau has this interesting response, which probably resonates with some people in Salem:
Here in Bellingham, we have our malls on the north end of the city, one medium-size mall near WWU, metered parking in the downtown core, and free parking (including a free, pretty large gravel lot) in the south shopping area of town known as Fairhaven.

As the parking rates went up to 75 cents/h downtown, people started shopping elsewhere and those business are hurting - the economy went sour at the same time as hike to 75 cents, so it's tough to tell cause and effect for sure. But the Fairhaven district, a funky place for the most part, continued to be extremely busy. The malls are of course generally busy, but even they felt the curse of the fading economy, and there are some vacant spaces I hear (I never go there, unless there's no choice).

I despise the metered parking, not so much for the meters and fees, but for the f---ing parking tickets. These dipshit ersatz cops in electric 3-wheelers motor around constantly doing nothing but dispensing tickets for $10 fines if the meter's been expired for 1 minute. That means not only paying a ridiculous fee to support the ticketers, but having to either go to the f---ing courthouse to park and feed more f---ing meters, or having to mail the goddam thing with a check. About once a year I get one of these f---ing tickets after having fed the f---ing meter to the max so that I can talk with someone in a coffee shop, only to be a few minutes late and find a parking ticket. As a result, I tend either

a. not to shop at all, or

b. go to either the medium mall near the U or Fairhaven to shop, or

c. pop the bike on the car and park in the Trader Joes or downtown Public Market large lots and bike around downtown.

So for me, it's the parking tickets that are the rub, and downtown definitely gets much less of my business than it otherwise would as a result. The only positive I can think of for our metered parking system is that it provides a big part of the livelihood for one of my [friends]. He's . . . an extremely bright guy for the job he has (tons over-qualified English major), and hates his job. But - it comes with med insurance and a relatively steady long-term employment.

Every time I am downtown for a couple of hours I meet him on the street somewhere collecting money from the meters. We have lively discussions about metered parking, which is where I learned about the complex interplay between the city (for which parking fees/fines are a major source of income and a minor source of outlay), the business owners (who originally asked for metered parking to free up spaces hogged by downtown workers), customers (who mostly want a parking spot within 10 steps of their destination), and the parking garage (that's cheaper to use than paying tickets if you spend lotsa time down there, as M. does for her business).

And to anyone who claims to know everything because he/she did some research & wrote a book, I say "in your dreams." It is indeed a complex situation with no unique 'solution' (imagine that!) and (as you said) is about to expire anyway due to fallout from peakoil/ economic decline, when it will become an even messier situation with few good results - so much more rewarding to prepare for the likely future rather than waste time trying to fix an unfixable parking situation.

I imagine people parked permanently and living in the malls and/or their vehicles, with totally disgusting restrooms inside the malls. I also imagine areas of town that are no-go regions.

Perhaps a few food shopping places, with lotsa bicycle parking and rolling carts that people keep at their home for walking. Most of the shops everywhere will be gone because they sell unnecessary crap. The shoe repair shops (and other repair shops) will probably survive, but they may have to move if they are in a no-go region.

(Downtown is, ironically, now getting quite impacted by young homeless people who are noisy, irritating, high/drunk, and at times violent - and that's just the tip of the iceberg to come - they congregate on street corners, blocking walkers who want to cross there - THIS is where I first thought about trying to walk/bike there in the future carrying a bag of groceries, and concluded I would not be living in town during retirement!).

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In defense of losing

DictionariesRemember folks, these books are your friends. Computers are too stupid to warn you to distinguish between "loosing" instead of losing. Image by jovike via Flickr

Not as a practice, but as a unique word with its own spelling. There's hardly a day goes by that I don't see some formerly august publication or website unloose "loosing" where "losing" is the correct word. Today's example:
While boreal forests are under attack, the Greenland ice sheet is loosing mass at an accelerating rate. So reports a new study published in the journal Science. The mass loss is equally distributed between increased iceberg production, driven by acceleration of Greenland’s fast-flowing outlet glaciers, and increased meltwater production at the ice sheet surface. Recent warm summers further accelerated the mass loss to 273 Gt per year (1 Gt is the mass of 1 cubic kilometer of water), in the period 2006-2008, which represents 0.75 mm of global sea level rise per year. The Greenland ice sheet contains enough water to cause a global sea level rise of seven metres. Since 2000, the ice sheet has lost about 1500 Gt in total, representing on average a global sea level rise of about half a millimetre per year, or 5 mm since 2000.
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WORD: Our choice

American Physical SocietyImage via Wikipedia

Bob Park is a former president of the American Physical Society (APS), the professional organization for physicists.
WHAT’S NEW Robert L. Park Friday, 13 Nov 09 Washington, DC

Two years ago the elected council of the American Physical Society adopted a strongly worded statement calling for reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. The statement called the evidence for global warming "incontrovertible," which is about as far as you can go in that direction. There are, however, eminent physicists who do not agree. They petitioned the Council for a reconsideration of its statement. APS president Cherry Murray appointed an ad hoc committee, chaired by Dan Kleppner, to consider whether the statement needed to be revisited. The council overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to replace the statement with one favored by those who deny anthropogenic climate change, but the society's Panel On Public Affairs will review it for "possible

There is no place else to go. If global warming is real and we're the cause, we need to mend our ways. We are not going to clean up the Earth's atmosphere by burying carbon. There are just two things we can do: make fewer people, and use energy more efficiently. The first seems to be mostly a human rights problem; the second falls squarely on our shoulders, but it won't help if the fertility rate remains high. But what if carbon in the atmosphere is not a problem as the deniers insist? We ought to promote efficiency anyway, if only for the sake of future generations.
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SJ: Editors? We don' need no steenkin' editors

What is up with the Statesman-Journal? I wouldn't expect this from a high-school newspaper:
A Salem man accused of shooting a man and hiding the body was sentenced to life in prison in Marion County Circuit Court this morning. . . .
On Oct. 22, Garibay pleaded [sic] guilty to the charges, which also included a charge of possession of a firearm — and of a driving under the influence of intoxicants from a previous case.
So that's not a typo -- the writer knew the guy had already pled guilty, but then went ahead and used the term (accused) that makes it seem as if guilt was still a question. The real interesting question is how does something like this make it past an editor . . . or do they even use editors any more?