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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 16th, 2009

“Parking restrictions will fail in their aim” Harvey Enchin

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Harvey Enchin is one of those right wing ideologues that the Sun keeps on staff to turn out opinion pieces that try to make sure that nothing ruffles the feathers of the corporate culture. And a leftish City Council is doing that right now by reducing parking requirements in downtown. Now Harvey is not just spouting – he has done some research. Not a lot, and only in those areas that seem to support his preconceived notions. He found a study that suggests that the amount of parking is best left to the developers. After all, no-one knows better that a property developer what makes for a good city. And look it works in Los Angeles!

What he does not say is who paid for that study – and being a newspaper he does not provide a reference but I will – its a pdf version of the paper. It is not original research either but rather uses a small number of local studies to tease out some principles to be applied more widely. And actually it is a bit old (2005) also does not say who commissioned the research, but is clearly a lot more constrained in  its objectives than Harvey is. Not only that but its conclusions seem to be at odds with Harvey’s

Research results show that TOD parking supply and pricing policy seldom are structured to support transit ridership goals.

The problem with Harvey’s analysis is that it assumes that the only things that are worth valuing are expressed in terms of dollars – and that nothing else matters. Those who study cities more objectively long ago concluded that life is much more complex than that, and that cities resemble a living being – or perhaps an ecosystem. Certainly not as simple as say a corporation that manages based on its balance sheet. Furthermore, we have also come to understand that the very narrow business based model does not work very well for corporations either – which is one reason why so many are currently getting bailed out by the taxpayers.

City bureaucrats are working under the misapprehension that making it more difficult to park will force people to use transit.

That is simply not true. The use of the word “force” is, of course, pejorative. What the staff are aiming for is a centre that is less dominated by the people who insist on bring a couple of tonnes of machinery with them everywhere they go. This is simply the old notion that a streetful of cars carries about the same number of people as one bus. Obviously, public transport is a more efficient user of space than automobiles. Street life in a city improves dramatically when pedestrians get priority and cars are restricted. And the sort of city that has successfully demonstrated how to do that is far to be preferred than Los Angeles. Yes that is a value judgement. And it is one that I suspect many people share. Would you like Vancouver to be more like Los Angeles – or Seattle? Certainly our city seems to score much higher than either of those in those “quality of life” comparisons: those are the ones where Vancouver comes near the top and Baghdad or Port au Prince near the bottom. In cities space is at a premium – and there are much better uses for it than storing idle cars.

That does not mean that people in cities should not have access to cars. Just that personal car ownership is not a very efficient model for achieving high levels of mobility and accessibility.  Car co-ops and other mechanisms (for example just increasing the number of taxis) can do that by reducing the amount of time that vehicles spend idle. Indeed, it seems to have escaped Harvey’s attention that savvy developers have long been pushing the City to reduce its onerous parking requirements in order to make their buildings cheaper and more profitable, and some include membership of a car co-op in the price of the condo.

That council should dictate how much parking a builder of a residential or mixed-use development should provide is an exercise of malfeasant social engineering.

Now there’s a word you don’t often see in a family newspaper “malfeasant”. But it is equally “social engineering” to build suburbs like Surrey where transit mode share is still around 4% of all trips simply because car driving was designed into the very fabric of the city and getting around any other way is difficult if not impossible. Robert Moses was as much a social engineer in his attempts to make Manhattan accommodate more cars as any other city planner with loftier intentions – and his malfeasance was stark and a matter of record – and it failed dismally to achieve any of its stated aims.

The hottest market for condos recently has been in the centre of Richmond, where prices have continues to rise in a falling market because of the numbers of people who want to live within walking distance of the Canada Line. One of the most successful efforts at urban regeneration in Vancouver took place in Joyce/Collingwood, where developers built high rises with few parking spots – and again they had to fight City Hall to get that concession –  as they knew the proximity to SkyTrain was a good selling proposition.

I think it is quite reasonable for residents of Vancouver to want better than the average North American city. There is, at present, plenty of parking space in Detroit – it does not seem to have attracted much economic activity. Copenhagen, on the other hand, has steadily reduced the amount of space reserved for cars – both moving and stationary – and it has become a model of an attractive, successful city that many other places are now trying to emulate. Especially places that value things like being able to move safely, to be able to breathe clean air, to have the ability to get some healthy exercise as part of a daily activity – walking to work for instance – that is both free and socially beneficial. Social engineering is not a crime. Forcing people to spend much of their time seated in their cars, getting fat, increasing the rate of heart disease and adult onset diabetes – and at the same time squandering the earth’s resources and heating up the planet in order to fatten the bottom line of car builders and oil refiners seems a much worse malfeasance to me.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 16, 2009 at 7:32 am

Posted in parking, Urban Planning