Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Sam Smith, Progressive Review - A movement to reduce the number of parking spaces in urban areas has attracted an odd coalition of developers and environmentalists. DC, one of the most developer abused cities in the country, is currently considering such a move. But, so far as one can see, developers are the only ones who will truly benefit from it, reducing their apartment/rental costs by $20-50k a unit from what it would be if they were required to provide parking for their clients.

To some environmentalists it has a nice anti-car ring to it, but on closer look a number of issues come up:

For example, if you don't want people to use their cars, give them less need to do so. I'm lucky to live in one of the best urban 'hoods you'll find - DC's Capitol Hill - one that owes a part of its charm and utility to the fact that much of it was built before automobiles yet provides - thanks to a lack of high rises and some of the biggest and best alleys you'll find - plenty of parking spaces for residences. It is one of the most dense parts of the city, achieved not with modern big boxes, but with attractive row dwellings, many with basement apartments. But that doesn't mean those on the Hill are excessively car dependent. In fact, thanks to the convenience and number of neighborhood commercial services available, it encourages walking in a big way. I could go to the gas station, hardware store, auto repair shop, UPS, Kinko's, Radio Shack, post office, fire and police station, public library, medical center and more than a dozen eating spots and never be more than ten blocks from my house. In addition, we have two convenience stores and two laundries within a three blocks walk.

This is in no small part thanks to places that were grandfathered into modern zoning - one of the major reasons we now use our cars so much. All over urban America are communities where it would be against the zoning law to emulate Capitol Hill. Little attention is paid to this issue by planners or environmentalists but it is far more important than reducing the number of parking spaces.

Further, people on Capitol Hill use their cars far, far less than the average person in the metropolitan area, yet it is precisely the sort of neighborhood the developers would like to densify, preferably without having to provide parking spaces for the their customers.

And who pays the price of this? The person buying or renting the apartment or condo adds it into the calculations when they move there in the first place. But the neighbors aren't consulted at all. They just find themselves with fewer places to park. Another neat developer trick.

These are the same folks who convinced the Washington area to build a subway that did far more for scattered suburban development than it did for real urban transportation. Meanwhile the bus system - which far more heavily serves poorer residents - is being short changed and the same government that claims to want people to leave their cars at home has also changed the taxi fare system in such a way as to drive many drivers out of the business.

Developers are also pushing for an end to the height limit that helps to give Washington its special character and for more high rise apartment cellblocks in the name of "smart growth."

Environmentalists would be wise to distance themselves from such cons, remembering that communities are ecologies, too. If, as DC has done, you close about a score of public schools (some undoubtedly to be sold to developers), you are hurting the community ecology. When you stuff a public library into a high rise as if it were just another Starbucks, you are hurting the community ecology. And when you dump cold, isolating high rises into an urban village you are harming that village's ecology. But few ever talk about things like that.

Here are a few far better ways for environmentalists to spend their time in our cities:

- Increase the amount of commercial services available within walking distance. This may mean some zoning changes, but it can still be kept attractive and pleasant through rules on signage etc.

- Oppose mass transit plans that are really development plans in drag. This was the great failing of the Washington Metro and there are lots of similar proposals around today. Favor truly urban transit plans that encourage people to stay with a reasonable area.

- Bring back the two or three story apartments over shops and offices that used to be common in America.

- Provide neighborhood business services - including copying facilities, desk space and teleconferencing - to help encourage telecommuting.

- Encourage large businesses to decentralize within an urban area.

- Follow the motto of Henry Thoreau who once said, "I have traveled widely. . . in Concord."