Friday, June 5, 2015

What Charlottesville Parking Really Needs

Local residents responding to the NCS (National Citizen Survey) were generally positive about life in Charlottesville – except when it came to traffic and parking. From their tepid responses, NBC29 derived the headline, “Residents Fed Up With Charlottesville Parking,” an odd choice of words given that demand for both residential and commercial space in parking-challenged areas of the city is higher than it has ever been.

Complaints about parking are part of a larger problem of public ignorance about trade-offs. It’s a bit like the airline legroom conundrum, in which passengers consistently complain about decreasing legroom on planes, yet continue to vote for it with their wallet by purchasing cheaper tickets on planes that have packed more people in and declining to pay for small seat upgrades that provide more space at the cost of having fewer passengers to split the gas bill.

Here are the facts and I'll give them to you straight:

1. You cannot have a great urban place without a parking problem. Cars incredible amounts of space, which is inevitably ugly and degrading to the rest of the environment. You don’t take your mother-in-law sightseeing on the median of Route 29 when she comes to visit.

2. Space is the most precious commodity in a city. The whole point of a city is for a bunch of people to live near enough to each other that they can all benefit from each other's presence and have companies and stores and churches and art galleries and concerts and dance parties. The need to navigate our gargantuan metallic shells at high speeds and then leave them sitting unused for hours at a time is what made people tear down places like Vinegar Hill and Jackson Ward and get rid of public parks so that they could replace them with roads and parking lots (certainly racism played a big part in deciding which places would be torn down). If you want to drive your car at 60 miles an hour and park it free of charge, there are many excellent venues nearby. But Charlottesville residents – and residents of any other city – have opted instead to give up some of that ability in order to enjoy the quality of life that comes from being a part of a living community with a robust economy and an active public life in beautiful public spaces.

3. Having to look for parking is not a parking problem. Having to park two blocks away is not a parking problem. That's called life. In three years of going downtown multiple times a week, I have never had to look for parking for more than a few minutes.

4. Traffic and parking demand are signs of economic activity happening. Show me an urban area without a traffic problem and I will show you a place where you can't find a job.

5. Alleviating growing traffic and parking problems by prioritizing auto travel makes walking, transit, and biking less effective and attractive at exactly the time when they should be starting to take over from auto travel. Northern Virginia should be a cautionary tale. As demand and population increased, too many NoVA localities doubled down on more lanes and more parking spaces, continued to allow cul-de-sacs and disconnected roads, and didn't take steps to ensure places would be accessible to other modes of transportation. Now they are playing catch-up.

6. When parking is free or costs too little (as it does everywhere because we require it to be free), then there will be too much of it. Meanwhile it will always seem like there is not "enough" of it. Imagine if hamburgers were free. People would eat them all the time, no one would want to make them, and we would all complain about how there weren't enough to meet the insatiable demand for [free] hamburgers at all times. Eventually we would probably be producing twice as many hamburgers as could ever be eaten, just to ensure enough were always available when a rush of citizens felt the urge. It sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what we do with parking, building four to eight spaces for every car that could possibly need one. Every car in Albemarle County requires 1.5 basketball courts worth of pavement to drive and park in. Charlottesville City has a third of a basketball court worth of pavement for every car.

What Charlottesville actually needs is a system of parking meters for all public parking spaces in commercial and high-density residential districts. Parking space is finite and shouldn’t be free. The pricing needs to be variable, based on typical demand for parking on that particular street at that particular time. Cities across the country are moving this direction, using modern parking meters that allow you to pay by credit card and that send data to mobile apps that show where open spaces are located.

If we switched to this system, which the Downtown Business Association already supports, the benefits would be visible immediately:

1. Employees will park farther away since they are paying for more time and are only making one trip walking. People shopping will park closer since they need less time in the space and will be walking back and forth more. Stores can reimburse them for it if they think that's a good way to attract business.

2. People who live nearby will walk. About 30,000 people live within a mile of the downtown mall or the university, including myself. It’s only a 20-minute walk to the mall, but sometimes I get in my car and drive (and park) anyway because why not? Saving a couple bucks would be a great “why not.”

3. If parking in each area is priced correctly, it will be at about 85% capacity during peak hours, with one or two spaces open on every block. This reduces traffic downtown. Donald Shoup, in his book “The High Cost of Free Parking,” estimates that almost a third of downtown traffic is people circling looking for parking. And they are easily the most annoying third. When spaces are priced correctly, drivers can always find a space as close as they are willing to pay for.

4. The revenues earned from parking fees can go into making improvements in the district. Or they can boost city revenues and reduce taxes for everyone.

5. Charging the right price for public parking makes it profitable for private companies to build parking since they can charge for it. Currently, the wealth of free spaces means the city has to open up its purse for new public garages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The existence of lots of free parking keeps people from paying for it, as immortalized by George Costanza’s line in the Seinfeld episode The Parking Space: “You don't understand – a garage! I can't even pull in there. It's like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

Parking in Charlottesville isn’t that bad, but charging a market price would make it even better. Cities that have done so have seen improvements in traffic flow, ease of use, and ability to attract customers. Whatever we choose to do about parking, let’s recognize that it’s a good problem to have.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Correction of an article that's floating around

There was quite a bit of great press about the report I wrote two months ago on metropolitan change. However, one article making the rounds misquotes me a bit and says some things I would not want to say. I've contacted the author, but haven't heard back from her, so I wanted to post my corrections somewhere.

I hasten to say that it is not entirely her fault - I talked to her on the phone for quite a while and I'm sure I didn't communicate well.

"Luke Juday grew up in a spacious house in a quiet suburb. But at age 25 he and nearly all his friends live small in urban apartments. And they intend to never move to suburbia."

Not sure if I gave that impression or not, but, while many of my friends do live in central city neighborhoods, they don't all live in small apartments. Given the housing stock here in Charlottesville, lots of people live in shared houses or townhouses. Plenty of people would also argue that Charlottesville can't be said to have any truly legitimate "urban neighborhoods." I actually have a really big old house in the middle of the city that I share with a bunch of guys. Coincidentally, it sits on a pretty large lot (yes we have a garden and chickens so you can go ahead and stereotype us). I do have friends in bigger cities who are living in small apartments so it's probably not inaccurate to say "many of my friends live in small urban apartments," but at least for me that statement is incorrect.

I also did not say that I "never plan to move to the suburbs," though I said I had no plans to currently. In fact I said there are more families staying in the city than there were in the past generation, but most will probably still move out eventually.

I'm also quoted as saying that it's a "major cultural shift."

I should have said (and I think I did in the report) that it "may be partially due to a cultural shift." I actually think more of the factors are economic and have to do with housing age, price, debt situations, and schools. I also think the rising marriage age and low fertility are big drivers. 

I do lean towards the view that there is a cultural shift in the current generation of young people, but that doesn't mean it's a complete change. There is always a cyclical pattern of young adults moving into cities, then moving back out to the suburbs when they have kids. My generation won't be any different. What's notable (and what the charts I made show) is that a larger percentage of young adults are moving into city centers than in past generations. They're also staying longer. That means a pretty significant "youthification" of cities, but it doesn't mean they'll "never" move out to the suburbs.

Finally, there was this gem:

“The suburbs are extremely boring,” he said.
I said that there is a perception at this age that the suburbs are "boring," but I wouldn't say myself that "the suburbs are extremely boring."

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Graphing the changing power of city centers

As you can see, this blog is largely dormant for me now as I do work for the Weldon Cooper Center's Demographics Research Group and write for its StatChat blog.

One major project I've been working on over the last few months is the Changing Shape of American Cities report. For this report, I aggregated and graphed data from census block groups based on distance to a defined city center. This gives the reader a picture of the gravitation of different groups towards and away from the city center.

Read the report here and see the graphs here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Get on board the Spatial Accounting train

Just published a post on Stat Chat dealing with how cities evaluate the costs and income associated with different neighborhood configurations.  As part of it, I mapped the value per acre in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

At almost the same time, Strong Towns posted an article arguing for many of the same things.

I am fond of saying that cities have some characteristics of governments and some characteristics of corporations.  The more geographically mobile a population is - and Americans are unbelievably mobile - the more localities will behave like corporations competing in a market.  That has some serious downsides (you wouldn't know it from reading much of what I write and post, but I have some strong Wendell Berry/Agrarian sympathies), but it also has some big economic upsides.  One of those is that localities are forced to become more efficient and effective at creating value rather than destroying it.

But that only happens to the degree that localities understand their revenues and costs.  Localities need to think more like businesses, connecting the two to make more accurate decisions.

One last side comment: competition also only improves the world when the rules are structured well.  If the rules are set up to allocate costs and benefits to the people who create them, people will act in a way that's positive for everybody.  But if every time I sell a glass of lemonade, someone else gets a quarter, my lemonade stand won't last long.  Unfortunately, Virginia's local governments and the rules that govern them are poorly configured for keeping entities responsible for their own actions.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A response to Wendell Cox

... who is at it again trying to stick his finger in the planners' eyes and prove that we need more highways and suburbs.  Jim Bacon summarizes his argument here.  I am essentially reposting the comment that I made there.

Cox argues that denser metro areas also have more traffic.  He argues that part of the reason is their unwillingness to build new highways and that less traffic can be an economic advantage for an area.

By Cox's reasoning, low-density Richmond should have a huge economic advantage since it has the least congestion of any major metro area.  Hampton Roads (which is actually even less dense than Richmond) doesn't fare quite as well but is still on the low end for traffic.

There are a couple of small problems even with this graph.  Bacon points out one - Cox fails to take into account that larger metro areas simply have more traffic regardless of their density - and that they also tend to get denser as more people try to stay connected to the core of the area.  Another is that he looks only at the delay during peak periods, which tells us how bad rush hour can be but isn't always a good metric for traffic in general.

But these are both minor points.  The real problem with Cox's analysis is that he makes a point that is correct and obvious, then draws or infers conclusions that are completely incorrect.  More density does, of course, mean more congestion.  If there are more people in a given area, there will be more of them going places and doing things.  And just building new transit or making areas walkable does not mean that there will be less visible traffic on the roads.  Because roads are free and convenient, people tend to max them out before shifting to other modes.  But more visible traffic is not a sign that density is dysfunctional, nor is it always a bad thing for cities, for several reasons.

First, he measures traffic congestion rather than access. The two are very, very different. Most people perceive the inconvenience of traffic in terms of how fast they can drive on a road, which is ridiculous. They ought to evaluate it in terms of their increased or decreased access to possible destinations. So yes, ten minutes of driving in Manhattan might barely get you a mile. But that mile driving radius gets you access to a million people, several million jobs, and tens of thousands of retail stores and restaurants.  Contrast that with suburban Richmond. Ten minutes of driving in Chesterfield County might get you geographically farther in any one direction (including time on side streets to get to destinations), but that only gives you access to less than a hundred thousand people, and not nearly the concentration of jobs or amenities. Cities create value by being markets and markets that can provide access to more people result in more value creation.  Part of that access also involves being able to use different modes based on the different circumstances of the trip. This mapping application, which is fantastic, gives a better idea of how much access cities are creating for their people and how traffic affects that:

Here's a ten minute drive in Manhattan, covering an area inhabited by nearly a million people, with millions more jobs:

vs. Chesterfield County, where a ten minute drive gets you access to less than a hundred thousand people and jobs:

The same argument crops up between fire departments and planning departments.  Fire departments, worried about their response times, often push for large roads and unsafe pedestrian infrastructure that pushes people further out.  Even though they can't travel as quickly in denser cities, the concentration of people means more fire stations.  In central Boston, response times are a fourth of what they are in the outer suburbs.  Even here in Charlottesville, city stations can respond in less than half the time that county stations can, their complaints about narrow streets and tight corners notwithstanding.

Second, Cox fails to mention that, while traffic may correlate somewhat with density, it correlates even better with economic growth or decline. And that sort of invalidates his argument about a lack of traffic being a major draw. It is a draw – in the same sense that an empty room at a party is attractive if one room is overcrowded. But the whole reason you are at the party is to talk to people, so there is a reason the most crowded room tends to get more crowded over time until a group can form that’s large enough to spin off another conversation. The areas with the most traffic also tend to be the areas with the highest median incomes. Traffic is a sign that people have things to do and places to go.  When the economy tanks and unemployment rises, traffic tends to get lighter.

For years, planners and economists assumed a pretty tight relationship between vehicle miles traveled and GDP growth, and they were largely justified.  In the last five years, however, the situation has started to change.

Third, from a fiscal (and to a certain extent an environmental) perspective, more traffic, if it can be controlled by traffic management systems, means more efficient use of the roads. This is generally true at the metro area level that Cox is analyzing since most roads are far below capacity most of the time (it’s not necessarily true for a particular road after it reaches the congestion point). Areas that have very low traffic congestion are probably paying far too much for their roads given their (probably poor) economic power.

I will use this as yet another excuse to post my comparison of the amount of pavement per vehicle in Charlottesville vs the pavement per vehicle in suburban Albemarle County: