Archive for the ‘Parking’ Category

Parking on display

November 2, 2009

“Follow the money…”

The National Building Museum‘s newest exhibition is open for business – a brief history of parking structures.  The exhibit has a great collection of archival photos and other items, looking at the evolution of parking structures through time – from elaborate, full-service garages to self-parking decks to LEED certified garages that attempt to make parking a car sustainable in some fashion.  Likewise, the exhibit delves into the social role of the parking structure – with a clip of prominent movie scenes from parking garages (meeting with Deep Throat, getting cool, and getting lost, amongst others) as well as the raw aesthetics of these structures.

What’s missing, however, is any discussion of why parking is necessary.

Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post‘s architecture critic, has a review of the exhibition in this Sunday’s paper.  He notes the fact that the need to park is taken at face value, without question:

The Building Museum’s fascinating and comprehensive “House of Cars” exhibition takes parking for granted, and from that assumption tries to cover the subject dispassionately. It proves that parking structures needn’t be ugly, that they were once more routinely beautiful and integrated into the urban fabric, and that even today they can be architecturally daring if real architects are allowed to explore the poetry of the structure.

The interesting juxtaposition, however, was the exhibit that assumes the need for parking opened just as the story of DC USA’s woefully underutilized parking garage was in the news.

Kennicott also notes another missing piece of the discussion – price.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.  Given that the exhibit starts from the position that demand is there for parking no matter what, a discussion of supply, demand, and price would be a bit much.  The very idea that we might not need that parking after all never crosses the minds of those designing these structures, at least not as they’re presented to a patron walking through the galleries.  Kennicott notes the disconnect:

But the future isn’t all bright for the National Parking Association. Away from the exhibition hall, with its free-flowing red wine and mini-burgers, participants gathered to hear lawyer and lobbyist Vincent Petraro describe how he helped keep at bay a New York proposal to institute “congestion pricing” in the gridlocked south end of Manhattan. This new user fee would charge drivers entering the zone from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Proponents hope it will clear up the streets, clean up the air and generate revenue. Petraro worries that it will hurt business. He cites London, which instituted a similar plan in 2003.

“Yeah it worked, if you want to create a ghost town,” Petraro says of a city that at last check was anything but a ghost town.

Congestion pricing, says Prof. Donald Shoup of UCLA, could hurt the bottom line for parking lot owners. The power of that bottom line was obvious throughout the Parking Show of Shows, where even bright signs — environmentally sustainable lighting and other improvements to design — were predicated on their cost savings. But Shoup, who studies the economics of parking, is interested in a different, more civic-oriented bottom line. He argues that parking is yet one more element of the basic American infrastructure that hasn’t been subjected to the basic rules of the market. Cities all too often under-price their parking meters, which explains why drivers tie up traffic cruising for a cheap space. And for decades cities have required developers to include parking as part of new construction, which hides the real cost — economic and environmental — of parking.

Perhaps there was a more literal message to draw from the Bob Woodward’s meeting with Deep Throat in that parking garage – “follow the money.”

Parking is simply a terminal for auto transportation.  All modes of transport have three basic elements – vehicles (airplanes, trains, cars), rights of way (the sky, tracks, roads), and terminals (airports, train stations, parking spaces).  Even a narrow focus solely on parking spaces can be misleading, to say nothing about simply writing off all other modes of transport.  Transportation, by nature, is multi-modal.  The reality of our urban environments is more complex than a pretty parking garage.

Which brings us to Columbia Heights, and yet another parking boondoggle. But this may also be the future of parking: Less is more. Most of the larger discussion of parking, including the dialogue at the National Parking Association and to a somewhat disturbing extent in the National Building Museum exhibition, is predicated on the idea that parking is a necessity. That it can be improved, but not eliminated. Even the act of studying parking as an evolving architectural form all too often seems to legitimize that form. But the emptiness of that lot in Columbia Heights, and the nightmare images on display at the “House of Cars” show, suggest that we may not be nearly as addicted to parking as we once believed.

Indeed.  However, despite the exhibit’s conceptual shortcomings, it’s definitely worth a visit.  As narrow as the focus may be, it’s still a fascinating subject – and the National Building Museum’s exhibit design, per usual, does not disappoint.


More Cake Parking

September 8, 2009
Image from ITDP-Europe

Image from ITDP-Europe

The owner of Cake Love is on the record wanting more parking for businesses on U Street.  Many folks commenting on his blog (myself included) are trying to convince him otherwise.  Warren followed up on his comments on August 3:

I understand and really like the density argument: more people walking will bring success for street level retail shops, these are my core customers, and traffic robs a neighborhood of potential. A lot of the customers that shop in Mid-city are walkers, but not everyone, and this city doesn’t have the density of Manhattan everywhere. Do we really need 1,500 new parking spots, probably not, but couldn’t the Mid-city merchants use more? I appreciate the feedback, but I invite people to ask other businesses if they could drop their driving customers as quickly as the mood suggests in the comments submitted. Drivers matter, too, for a urban environment to thrive.

The thing is, drivers do matter.  But urbanism is about playing to your core strengths and advantages, and no matter how you slice it, parking is not going to be the core advantage of an urban area.

Twin Cities Streets for People had a great post linking to a post from the Commercial District Advisor on parking and retail in urban environments, explaining the issues facing urban retail areas.

The other night my colleague and I were convening a merchant roundtable and started by distributing a questionnaire that asked the merchants to describe their typical customer. Things like where they come from, whey they shop in the district, what problems they see with the district…etc. Knowing your customer and responding to their needs and concerns is the foundation of a successful business. Unfortunately, many of the merchants in the room couldn’t answer some of these basic questions. This simple questionnaire pointed to a fundamental problem within the district – merchants cannot pinpoint the reasons why customers are choosing to spend their dollars elsewhere. Without this critical information, there is little that merchants can do to address the problems and improve the shopping experience for their customers.

What I found interesting about that meeting, but not too unusual, was the emphasis that merchants placed on the shortage of parking as the primary reason their businesses are suffering. The mood in the room was tense as merchants lashed out in frustration at the parking situation. Here’s the rub – two follow up roundtables with residents and district employees found that parking was in fact a MINOR concern. Their real concerns were related to the trash, litter, unappealing storefronts and ‘grimy’ interiors of stores…these were the real reasons that many hesitated to shop in the district. The disconnect between what merchants thought was the problem and what the customers actually said was the problem was amazing – and hopefully eye-opening for many of the merchants.

Everyone wants to help small businesses.  The thing is that what the businesses want isn’t exactly what’s best for either them or the city they inhabit.  We could all use a better understanding of exactly how urban transportation and retail markets work, particularly retailers.


September 7, 2009
Image from Paul Keleher

Image from Paul Keleher

This month’s edition of the Hill Rag has the usual ‘Numbers’ column from the folks at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.  This month’s subject is the decisions made by the DC Council in order to close DC”s recent budget gap.  The DCFPI folks make the case that the DC Council relied on regressive taxes rather than more progressive measures in order to close the budget gap, and they argue that the poor are being asked to shoulder too much of the burden.

My point here isn’t to judge the actions of the Council.  Nor am I trying to argue the substance of DCFPI’s position that taxation ought to have a more progressive structure.  My issue is with DCFPI’s characterization of what’s progressive and what’s not, and the implications for urbanism of those assumptions.

A PDF of the Hill Rag article is available online here.  In the print version, the article is accompanied by a table showing the ‘regressive’ actions the Council took, compared against ‘progressive’ actions the Council did not take.


Most of the regressive actions are, indeed, regressive taxes.  Sales taxes, for example, are considered regressive because the burden of the tax is greater on those with a lesser ability to pay.   Increasing the sales tax and the gas tax would both be regressive actions, in the strict, abstract sense of the term.

However, DCFPI also characterizes an increase in the sales tax on parking as a progressive action (last line item under the blue column).   In a strict sense, this is simply wrong – any sort of sales tax is regressive.  Amongst the pool of people that are purchasing parking, an increase in the sales tax rate on that parking would be regressive, with the burden falling disproportionately on those with less ability to pay.  Yet they label this as a progressive action.

At the same time, an increase in the gas tax is labeled as regressive.  In a strict sense, this is correct.  However, it’s curious to see the two main transportation items – both regressive taxes – framed in these opposing ways.

If I had to guess as to why DCFPI distorted the academic definitions in this way, I would guess that they see gasoline as a necessity, while off-street parking is a luxury (hence taxing a luxury at a higher rate is progressive).  I can see the logic in this approach, but it’s not a very useful distinction for transportation policy.   At the same time, the logic that determines parking spaces are a luxury for the rich could also conclude that driving (and hence gasoline consumption) are a luxury for the rich, as well – particularly since we’re dealing with a gas tax applied only to an urban jurisdiction with fairly low vehicle ownership rates and good public transit usage.

From a transportation perspective, I’d argue that both taxes are good ideas (again, in the abstract – ignoring the larger decisions of the need to raise revenue) within an urban area.  Parking ought to be priced via a market mechanism, but in general it should be more expensive than it usually is.  Gasoline, on the other hand, is definitely too cheap from my perspective.  Raising the gas tax, both at the local and federal level, should be a no-brainer.

Either way, a more holistic understand of parking and transportation policy would be useful to interject into larger issues of taxation and budgeting.  It’s disappointing to see the DCFPI deal with these concepts on such a basic level, ignoring the larger implications of the taxes at hand – beyond just ‘progressive’ and ‘regressive’ taxation.

Catching Up

August 11, 2009
Isthmus of Madison, WI

Isthmus of Madison, WI

Lots of items worth commenting on over the last week.

High Speed Rail Notes: Several good posts, including the transport politic shooting down some of Ed Glaeser’s numbers on HSR, as well as potential high speed connections between New York and Montreal.  Improving connections to Montreal, Toronto, and Canada’s main mega-region is a no-brainer.

The Overhead Wire also notes some assorted quotes on HSR, including a link to a Madison paper on weighing the different station options – either out at Madison’s airport, or closer in towards downtown (though not fully downtown by any means).  Having spent many years in Madison for college, I can’t quite see the major advantages of the proposed Yahara station versus the airport one.

The problem stems from the fact that Madison is on an isthmus.  The only way to get rail service downtown is to have a stub end terminal there, which complicates things from an operational perspective, given that both the line to Milwaukee and any potential lines northwards to the Twin Cities would approach Madison from the East side.  Current rights of way have a near U-turn at the proposed Yahara station area, taking some park land (a park I used to play Ultimate in, by the way), but the platform would still be awfully short for long term developments, not to mention hugging a sharp bend in the track.

Ideally, Madison would have solid rail transit service operating along some of those rights of way in order to get quick service from the airport (or the Yahara station) to downtown.  The tracks are there, they could theoretically start operating commuter rail tomorrow with a few DMUs.

Too Much Parking: Chris Bradford has a series of posts on the perils of too much parking – one and two.  Post one puts the reasons too much parking is bad in a handy-dandy bullet format, while post two takes note of a nice chart from San Francisco based Liveable City:

Old New
Parking is a social good. Parking is not an entitlement.
More parking is always better. Too much parking can create problems.
Parking demand is fixed, regardless of price or transportation alternatives. Parking demand is elastic, and depends on price and the availability of transportation alternatives.
Governments should establish minimum parking requirements. Governments shouldn’t mandate parking, and should instead establish maximum parking allowances where they make sense.
Parking costs should be bundled into the cost of housing, goods, and services Parking costs should be unbundled from the cost of housing, goods, and services.
Parking is a burden to government, and subsidies to parking will compete with other priorities for available funding. Parking can be a source of revenue for government, and if priced correctly can fund other city priorities.
Parking should be priced to encourage full utilization. Parking should be priced so as to create some available spaces at most times.
Cities should use time limits to increase parking availability and turnover. Cities should use price to increase parking availability and turnover.

That’s a solid summary of the old thinking about parking, compared to the new school of thought.  Chris also notes that you can easily replace “parking” with “roads” and the list is still valid (though it may require some grammatical adjustments).


  • ZipCar will get some competition in the hourly car rental market.
  • Summer Parks‘ are not the same as Summer Streets.
  • Miami’s zoning overhaul, entitled Miami 21, fails to advance.  This is a serious bummer for anyone who’s ever dealt with an arcane zoning code.
  • A token of my appreciation (har har) to Jarrett Walker for looking to abolish the $1 bill.  They’re a real pain in the ass for transit operations.   David Alpert mentioned equalizing Metrobus and Circulator fares, noting that the $1 Circulator fare seems to prioritize tourists over residents – but the whole idea of the Circulator is to be easy, and an even $1 fare is about as easy as it gets.  It would be even easier if we had Loonies (and, you know, it was culturally acceptable to use them).


July 8, 2009

Wonder Woman wants streetcarsAwesome.

Unintended Consequences. Discovering Urbanism (cross posted on GGW) notes how well-intentioned regulations on reducing stormwater runoff can have some seriously counter-productive consequences.

Sometimes genuinely smart and well-intentioned people err by focusing intently on the piece of the puzzle they have been commissioned to solve, thereby missing the larger system within which their problem is embedded. It’s the classic widen-the-freeway-to-reduce-congestion scenario. It may solve the technical problem at hand, but it exacerbates the Real Problem.

It’s Gold, Jerry!  Gold! The Transport Politic notes an interesting conversation about upgrading part of the current Metra Electric line to better integrate with the CTA’s rail facilities.  This line would then be dubbed the “Gold Line,” a not-so-subtle nod to future events in the area,  given the line’s proximity to a number of the planned Olympic facilities for Chicago’s 2016 bid.  Regardless of Olympic facilities, this seems like a great idea – quite frankly, something that should have been done a long time ago.

The Gold Line plan would attempt to solve some of those problems by converting parts of the Metra Electric line, which runs from Millenium Station downtown south along the waterfront, to CTA operation at a cost of $160 million. This would require new faregates, 26 more train cars, and several track and station upgrades. The project would also include the creation of a new station at 35th Street in Bronzeville. While the service would continue to be operated by Metra, customers would ride the trains as if they were CTA-owned, and they would be able to transfer without extra cost to CTA buses and rapid transit.

Most importantly for people living along the lakefront, trains would now run at maximum 10-minute frequencies from 6 am to midnight, ensuring that the system is reliable at most hours. Trains on the Electric Line currently run once an hour during off-peak times, making it hardly an option for people who need to get around the city during the day. The same service options are offered on most of the Metra network.

Those familiar with the Metra Electric line know that it’s already got a more rapid-transit like structure through the south side, with stations spaced much closer together.  This is the perfect case to show what integration of the rider experience across modes could do.  My one question is why limit it to just a portion of the Metra Electric line?  Why not pursue this kind of upgrade to the entirety of the line?

STEEM Powered Streetcars? Alstom has yet another entry into the catenary-free streetcar operations.  Such technology would be great for DC, given DC’s ban on overhead wires.  Still, it’s not easy to be an early adopter of these kinds of things.

If implemented, Alstom’s new STEEM system*, on the other hand, will require less catenary wire and no underground construction; it simply requires the upgrading of existing tram vehicles. Trains will be equipped with large batteries connected to their motors that will be charged each time the vehicle brakes, much like the way a Toyota Prius hybrid refills its battery. In addition, the trams will be able to benefit from charging during 20-second station dwell times, where trains will benefit from a catenary; theoretically, the system wouldn’t require the use of the catenary between stations.

There’s also one big sticking point:

Alstom’s technology is not yet advanced yet to work on fast-moving American light rail systems, which typically have station stops up to a mile apart, likely too far for its battery capacity to handle. Whether the system can handle the incredible wastefulness of air conditioning — something not present in Paris — is a different question. But it could be particularly useful for streetcar networks, such as the one planned in Washington, D.C., where a congressional ban on overhead wires is still in effect — something that could likely be circumvented if the wires were only present at stations. In cities like Portland where light rail stations downtown are just blocks apart, the technology could mean the ability to get rid of overhead wires in central sections of the network.

Yeah, such a system better be able to handle A/C.  I like to keep my transit usage and sauna visits separate.

Parking Shmarking. Richard Layman was in attendance at a recent meeting on keeping 7th St SE near the newly-reopened Eastern Market closed during the weekends.  This is a great idea, only opposed by a few merchants who overvalue the parking spaces in the area – and don’t have a great understanding of the value of a space versus the turnover of that space.   Those parking spaces don’t do your business any good if someone’s car is just sitting in it all day.  That’s not going to get you more customers.

For Sale.  CHEAP. If you can find it.

Political FAIL. The answer is staring us in the face.

BeyondDC  is considering a new career editing articles for clarity and accuracy.

Cake Loves Parking

July 2, 2009

GGW’s links thread brought my attention to U Street high-end cupcake retailer CakeLove’s foray into the world of urban planning.  CakeLove founder Warren Brown originally wrote about the issue in a blog post back in 2006:

Tear down the Reeves Center, please. Give the Mid-City Business District community what it wants and needs: PARKING.

Not having enough parking interferes with my business. Parking is the major restraint on the growth of my business. Everyday people from Virginia, Maryland, and DC don’t come to CakeLove or Love Café because they’re certain there parking won’t be available. Most of the parking around CakeLove and Love Café is off-street and it fills up fairly quickly. The solution is to eliminate the perception that there is inadequate parking. Only then will people change their attitude that access to retail, nightlife, dining and services in this neighborhood is real.

How do we get there? Build a parking garage. Tear down the Reeves center at 14th & U St. NW and build a new anchor – a municipal parking structure that’ll hold 1,500 cars. Give this community what it wants and needs: PARKING. The Reeves center fulfilled its mission as an anchor for re-development on the U Street corridor. It signaled the direction for change and now we’ve turned a new corner. Development is fully on track and the needs for that space and the community are different. What the current and future businesses and residents need more than a partially occupied municipal center with closed and redundant storefronts is a lot of parking spaces. The Reeves center is obsolete.

Granted, this is an old thought, but thanks to the magic of the internet tubes, it’s suddenly back in the forefront.  CakeLove’s driving directions encourage folks to double park when visiting.  Warren had a new post on the issue recently:

Hey – thanks for the comments in about parking – although people are arguing for less parking and less drivers. But I don’t think that the Metro system is one of the best in the world. It closes early, it’s slow, it’s not the safest in the world, and it doesn’t get you everywhere. I have to go to National Harbor today. Metro doesn’t go there and if I did a combo of walk, train, and bus, it’ll take three to four times as long in one direction. And hardly anyone takes metro there anyway.
I understand the argument for less drivers, it would be great to have less pollution from drivers, but driving is a fact of life of course and putting the cars someplace is something urban planners have to contend with if they want to support local business. No storefront that I know of in any community can survive without driving customers.

I appreciate Warren’s enthusiasm, but like many small business owners, I’m afraid his policy recommendations are misplaced.  Let’s amalgamate them and go one by one:

  • The Reeves Center is obsolete – The Reeves Center certainly wasn’t the cause of U Street’s revival, but it’s also not obsolete.  It does provide a nice office component to an area that doesn’t have much of that land use.  Areas like Dupont Circle are so vibrant because of their healthy mix of retail, residential, and office uses.  U Street doesn’t have that, and a little office in the area isn’t a bad thing.  It’s not the DC Goverment employees’ fault that they’re not going to eat gourmet cupcakes for lunch everyday.

    Also, from purely a functionality standpoint, the Reeves Center isn’t an architectural masterpiece, but it is a perfectly functional building.  Tearing it down would be a mistake.

  • And he wants to replace it with a parking lot? – First things first – No, U Street does not need a municipal parking structure.  Second, does Warren realize exactly what he’s asking for?  A 1,500 space garage is HUGE.  take a look at the WMATA garage at Glenmont.  The entirety of WMATA’s Glenmont parking supply is just over 1,700 spaces, most of which are in this garage.  You’re not going to fit that on the Reeves Center site.  Nor would you want to – I’ll take an active, occupied building over a parking garage any day of the week – even if it’s poorly designed – and especially if it’s sitting on one of DC’s most prominent intersections.
  • Asking for “more parking” is useless unless you talk price – One of the key points of Shoup’s parking manifesto is that you can’t address supply while ignoring demand and price.  All too often, store owners in retail environments push for lots of cheap parking, trying to compete with malls and suburban areas at their own game.  Instead (since urban areas can’t beat malls in terms of parking supply), the spaces you do have are underpriced and thus overused.  That’s the real issue.  Unfortunately, there are plenty of anecdotal cases of main streets providing lots of free on street parking with the idea that it will spur shoppers to visit, only to find out that those spaces are hogged by people with long term parking needs who are seeking cheap spaces to park – and that many of those parkers are actually employees of the stores that demanded the cheap, underpriced parking to begin with.
  • Disparaging Metro isn’t going to help, either – The comparative advantage that U Street does have, however, is two-fold – U Street is a uniquely urban area, and it’s very well served by transit.  It’s got a great surrounding residential neighborhood, and is also a draw for folks from all around via transit.  If those conditions don’t support gourmet baked goods, so be it.  That isn’t to say that parking policies are perfect – far from it – but they also aren’t the core of the issue, either.

    As an aside – Warren’s complaints about Metro’s lack of service to National Harbor are an idictment of that development, not the transit system.  One of those things substantially predates the other.  As far as hours of service go, I’m not sure what bearing that has on retail viability on U Street, since Metro is in operating for several hours before CakeLove opens and remains in operation well after it closes.

Anyway, I don’t mean to pile on, but this is a great example of how we could use true performance parking along many of these retail corridors.  Following Dr. Shoup’s model, variable pricing of spaces that ensures an 85% occupancy rate would keep parking at the cheapest possible price while also ensuring that no matter what, a potential patron arriving by car will be able to easily find a parking space.

It’s vital that we address Warren’s concerns, as creative retailers like him are a great asset for the city.  However, it’s equally important that those concerns are addressed with sound theory.  Following Warren’s suggestions literally (tearing down the Reeves Center and replacing it with a municipal parking garage) would induce more traffic, congestion, and pollution in the city; would severly harm the urban form of the area; would reduce the density of people using the 14th and U space at a time when that area has that ‘critical mass’ of people; and as we’ve seen with the grossly underutilized DC USA parking complex, the parking is probably not even be needed.

There are no one size fits all solutions in urban areas.  More parking is not the answer here.