Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Car culture and automobilty: 5 stories of inside the box thinking

So you've heard of that brain teaser, about how to connect 9 dots organized as a square, with either three or four lines, without lifting your writing instrument from the paper.  To succeed you have to write (and think) "outside the box."

So for years and years I make the point that most people, whether they live in the city or not, tend to be imprinted with a suburban-oriented land use and transportation planning paradigm with separated uses and the primacy of automobile-centric mobility.

Even if that method is best for the suburbs, and many of us argue that it is not, there is no way that it is appropriate for the center city.

In any case, even center city residents, especially amongst longer time residents, especially outside of the core of the city, believe that it is impossible to live without a car, thinking that everyone makes the same kinds of choices that they do.

Anyway, the "biggest" problem is an often inability to think about these issues in a more nuanced fashion....

1.  So some ANC commissioners asked me to comment on the traffic study for a proposed apartment building to be constructed up against the railroad tracks, on the west side of the Takoma Metro Station.  What makes the project somewhat problematic is that it is on an industrial street--currently used by auto repair shops--that empties onto a stub residential street, which in turn empties onto Blair Road, and this section, during rush hours, is already failing.

Gables Apartments, Blair Road, Takoma DCGables apartments in Takoma DC on the 7000 block of Blair Road NW.

What really surprised me, because we often don't see actual data, is that while doing the study, to get "comparable" estimates, they also recorded the number of automobile trips from and to the nearby Gables apartment building,

The building has 150 apartments, and probably at least 225 residents.  During rush periods, fewer than 40 trips are made from/to the building by automobile.  That's about 25% of the commute trips based on the number of units in the building, which is really really good from the standpoint of sustainable transportation mode split.  Then again, this building is a short walk to the Metro.

... so the condominium building board next to the Gables voted to file objections to the new apartment building's request to construct less parking than required, even though the building is located next to the Takoma Metro station.

I was incredulous.

Talk about not understanding your own self interest.  The more cars at a building, the more they are likely to be used.  By reducing parking--especially at buildings right at the Metro--you reduce the likelihood that car-centric households will choose to live there, bringing less traffic to your community, not more.

Overall DC statistics on mobility, car ownership, etc. in the outer wards are less relevant to sites immediately proximate to transit, but car-centric residents have a difficult time accepting that behavior by residents living near transit is absolutely and significantly different from their own.

What I wrote as part of my response is:

that what is relevant to this site is less the presentation of overall statistics on residential car ownership for the entire city, instead more specific data on Ward 4 car ownership is more relevant. However, my understanding is that W4 has amongst the highest car ownership/household in the city.

People living immediately next to a Metro station tend to choose to live there to be able to take advantage of transit station proximity. The data on car use reported from the Gables development is important in communicating how important proximity to transit is in shaping mobility behavior, even in parts of the city that have less transit infrastructure compared to the core of the city.  

This is likely the result of a combination of many things: proximity to the transit station; age of household residents; both of which contribute to a reduced likelihood of owning a car. (It would be interesting to see if the Gable complex is willing to share with you information on how many cars are parked there and the total number of units, so you can get an idea of the likelihood of car use of a similar development, to wit the Spring Place proposal.)

The demographic characteristics for apartment building residents proximate to the Metro Station are likely to be significantly different compared to typical households located elsewhere in W4 especially compared to residents in dwellings located farther away from transit stations, especially compared to residents of single family household dwelling units. 

 This means that these residents in an apartment building are much less likely to drive or to own automobiles, compared to average W4 residents. You have to take that into consideration when generalizing from "the typical W4 household experience" to this particular situation.

(E.g., my detached house is 0.80 miles to the Metro. We walk to the station. Suzanne uses transit, either the Metro or the 63 bus. I mostly bicycle and occasionally use transit. We don't own a car. We are members of Zipcar and Car2Go and occasionally rent cars. We are the only household on our face block--24 houses--that doesn't own a car. While I think more households can live this way, it is not typical in our part of ward 4. However, people living in the Georgia Avenue corridor, with access to frequent bus service, may have car-lite lifestyles more similar to us as well. Etc.)

2.  Similarly, in the zoning update meetings, the Ward 3 residents especially but residents all over the city seem to be worked up over reductions to parking requirements for new buildings located in transit zones, because to their way of thinking, "everyone" drives.  And they argue that people like me want to impose biking and walking and transit on them.  etc.  One of the emails from a Chevy Chase list was distributed on a neighborhood listserv and it says:

Even if the number of bicycle commuters increases, it is conjecture that this will equate to a decrease in car ownership. Our public transportation network is minimally adequate. Yes, we can add in short-term car rentals (where are they going to park?) and other systems. That's fine for those who want this type of urban living. But advocating a decrease in parking availability overlooks the fact that parking is already scarce. The current requirement for one space per either two or four units hardly seems generous for car owners. I don't know where all those unused parking spaces are. 

The funny thing is that like the puzzle, the writer has an "epic fail" in terms of being able to think outside of their own experience.

The reality is that combining public transit--which yes, isn't efficient getting from your house to every possible point within the metropolitan area--with biking and occasional use of car sharing makes not owning a car totally and completely possible and a sensible choice. 

I was talking to someone the other day, and he commented to me unprompted (he lives in Adams Morgan) that because he bikes, he almost never uses public transit. His wife doesn't bike much but uses public transit (that's what Suzanne does too).  It's the same for me.  In fact, now I ride transit so infrequently that sometimes I get motion sickness on the subway.

In our household, I do the food shopping by bike. The nearest grocery is 1.25 miles away (downhill coming home; another grocery is about the same distance but uphill coming home, so I mostly go to Safeway).

Walking there would be a pain, transit to and from would be impossible. Instead it would make more sense to shop at different stores, based on their transit proximity and frankly few supermarkets are built right at transit stations (the Safeway in Petworth, now being reconstructed, would be best, because the 62/63 bus that goes by there has a stop about 3 blocks away from our house).

Using a bike makes the sustainable transportation network (walking, biking, transit, car sharing) incredibly robust.

The Ford F-350 is wider than the typical Capitol Hill rowhouseTypically big vehicles (trucks, SUVs) are as wide as a typical rowhouse in most DC neighborhoods.

3.  Related to this line of thinking about car primacy, car-centricity, car centrality, at the recent parking "summit" in DC, I had a long conversation with the much older person sitting next to me.

His household uses a car because of disability issues.  And we argued about parking, biking, etc.

He thinks that the city is trying to discriminate against car users... while this is one of the only times where I do buy into broader discussions of how walking, biking, transit, car sharing, and bike sharing expand the choice opportunities available for mobility significantly beyond a paradigm limited to a personally owned automobile.

It took him awhile to get it, but he finally understood my point that every person primarily relying on bikes, walking, transit, and/or car sharing to get around, rather than a personally owned automobile, means fewer cars on city streets and fewer cars competing for the very scarce number of parking spaces available in his (and other) neighborhoods.

And that's why militant car owners ought to be just as militant proponents of sustainable transportation.

It's another example of people not really understanding fully their self interest and how to advocate best for themselves.

4.  Car sharing and more specifically Car2Go.  I hate to admit when I first considered car sharing, back in 2003, I thought that it was important to charge commercial proprietors of such services for their use of the public space to conduct business.

But late in 2005, I changed my tune ("High Cost of Free* Parking Revisited and Car Sharing in DC"), recognizing two things.  First, that car using residents who are members of car sharing shouldn't have to pay significantly more for using street space when compared to car owning residents, regardless of who owns the service.

Second, the point of car sharing is to reduce the total number of cars attempting to park in the public space--it's a form of demand management, since research shows that 10-30 households use each car share vehicle, and they own fewer cars compared to similar households that aren't members of car share.

Car2Go on the 6500 block of 3rd Street NWAt a meeting last night, some residents indicated that they are incensed that Car2Go vehicles can park on "their streets."

(They stated that these cars were being parked there by Maryland residents, and CM Bowser fell right in line on that argument, suggesting that Car2Go needed to be parking those cars in Maryland.  While there may be MD residents of the service, the "home zone" for all the cars is in fact DC.)

When I pointed out that for each car, Car2Go pays the city more than $1,000/year to be able to park on city streets without penalty--while residential parking permits cost only $30--they couldn't get past the idea that car sharing services are commercial businesses profiting (allegedly, see Zipcar's recent sale to Avis) from the use of the space.

One person countered that these services are no different than a traditional rental car service.  I said no, each vehicle is used only by residents, and why should car using residents have to pay significantly more for access to this space than car owning residents?  Plus, if I were to rent a car (and I do) from a traditional company, I can park it on residential streets for no otherwise extranormal costs.

She countered that when the car is not in use, a rental car company pays to store the vehicle off site.  She didn't understand that having the cars easily available on city streets makes them available to member users at minimal inconvenience.  That the cars aren't so much being stored on the streets as they are lying fallow to be used by members.

The whole point of car sharing as an element of sustainable mobility (along with walking, biking, transit, bike sharing, and taxis/jitney services) and making it easy for not owning a car is convenience.  If you have to go to a limited number of car depots in order to use car sharing, it becomes incredibly inconvenient and most people are unlikely to use the service.

At the time, I didn't think to ask if she'd think differently if the service were a nonprofit (e.g., there are nonprofit car sharing services in Philadelphia, Montreal, and San Francisco) in terms of paying for access to the space.  I'm guessing that they would come up with different arguments for why car owners should have privileged access to street space.

Note that the residents aren't the only ones with flawed thinking about transportation policy as it relates to car share ("Another example of DC's failures in transportation planning: carsharing").  DC's change in focus on maximizing the revenue "to the city" by jacking up the cost of public spaces used by car sharing services means that residents end up paying significantly more per hour to use car sharing.  So yes, the city gets more money.  At the expense of people like me.

Meanwhile car owners if they have to pay (for example, on my block they don't) only pay $30 per year for a residential parking permit.

5.  The cost of residential parking spaces, on a market basis: the Montgomery County experience.  So the meeting I went to last night was "unprecedented" since it was a joint meeting of DC and Montgomery County councilmembers, Valerie Ervin of MoCo and Muriel Bowser of Ward 4 in DC.  Councilmember Ervin represents District 5, which includes Silver Spring and Takoma Park (although Takoma Park also has a separate municipal government).  Below right is the Council District map for Montgomery County.

These districts abut, and DC residents in Shepherd Park are concerned that intensive development across the border in Silver Spring negatively impinges on their quality of life.  But mostly they are concerned about Maryland residents parking on their streets, especially Eastern Avenue.

Because of some intricacies in terms of the city's borders--the entire width of the street (and even some of the land "on the Maryland side") is technically within DC--while the far side of Eastern, Western, and Southern Avenues are fully located within DC (the border between DC and MD isn't in the middle of the street), typically when parking is allowed there are not parking restrictions posted on the Maryland side of the border street.  And it's possible for Maryland residents abutting the border to get a waiver of other (ROSA) restrictions .  So Marylanders compete, legally, with DC residents for the use of this space.

Left:  Kennett Street Parking Garage, South Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland.  Silver Spring parking garages webpage.

Rick Siebert, the chief of the parking management division of Montgomery County's Department of Transportation, spoke briefly and stated that MCDOT is offering South Silver Spring residents "a discounted rate" for monthly residential parking in designated parking structures of "only" $95 per month at particular locations.  The regular monthly parking permit rate in Silver Spring is $123.

I don't think any of the DC residents were paying attention to the significant cost difference of municipal parking in Montgomery County (granted the structures offer covered spaces and some security) versus the minimal cost of a residential parking permit in DC.

Certainly, when DC and Maryland residents bandy about the statement that "DC needs to have municipal parking garages like they do in Silver Spring and Bethesda" they aren't thinking about how much it costs to build and maintain.

Also see "Residents react to hourly Montgomery County parking rate increase: Garages in Silver Spring, North Bethesda see price hike" from the Gazette and my "Parking testimony" blog entry.

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7 Comments:

At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great points all of them Richard...where my new house is located near the Stadium I am also the only car-free household on the block- the family next to me has a car for each person- 4 cars-people. They must get a charge out of seeing me haul the bicycle up the steps when I come home and leave but I am sure that they are happy I did not bring another car to the area. We are only 4 blocks from metro and yet very few of my neighbors use it which I find puzzling at best. DC has such great potential and it already has beautiful transit options [ we can always use more] but I cannot get how that moron in Ward 3 thinks that we have crummy transit- he/she needs to go to Baltimore and try waiting for a bus or light rail- it REALLY stinks over there.We live in a country of spolied people who have had everything given to them..

 
At 11:32 AM, Anonymous H Street LL said...

Good post and follow up comment. Would love to see RPP prices go up, say, by a factor of 10.

 
At 10:05 PM, Blogger Chris Allen said...

I never put much credence to a traffic study, because Civil Engineers just don't know how to take into account the reductive traffic impacts of walkability, transit accessibility, and shortening of car trips the property will provide by bringing new services/attractions closer to existing development. Opponents of new infill projects will always cite a traffic study to claim that the streets will become congested. When density is done right, however, these traffic studies are always wrong.

Don't trust Civil Engineers in urban design (I'm a Civil Engineer, so I can say this with confidence).

 
At 4:19 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

FWIW, I thought this study was pretty good. My "complaints" were that it wasn't good enough, that they could have argued it much better, by using different examples.

2. And I realize now I could have added an additional sentence to my response, something of the nature of "people pay a price premium to live proximate to subway service. Likely this is because they have a strong intent to make use of transit for a majority of their trips, rather than a car, otherwise they would have chose a different location."

3. and yes, as you point out, there is a kind of "increasing returns" argument about adding density and how it supports the provision of other amenities.

You definitely are beginning to see this in some DC neighborhoods now e.g. Petworth, 8th St. SE (Barracks Row) in particular, as more residents (in apartment buildings and condos) are added, and now more restaurants and some retail can be successful, being able to draw on a larger population.

4. But yes, your general point is absolutely true. I always laugh to myself when residents demand traffic studies, expecting that the study (not thinking of who is paying for the study) will somehow support their assertions that the negative traffic impact of the project will be acknowledged in the study, and justify a no build decision.

Well, that can happen in some places or it triggers serious mitigation requirements (like road widening) but for the most part, that's not how it works in DC.

And the reality is that the road network is pretty robust overall, that adding traffic isn't terrible.

_EXCEPT_ at rush periods on certain streets _AND_ with regard to known chokepoints.

It happens that this project is in the catchment area of 3 very specific chokepoints that with one or two exceptions, can't really be changed, so the addition of traffic could be problematic. (There is one fix that I proposed but it is semi-unprecedented for DC, because typically DC isn't very "pushy" when it comes to transportation demand management and traffic engineering related mitigation. Sure DC pushes some improvements, but extending the street through isn't usually something they argue about.)

Thanks for writing.

 
At 12:42 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Richard's last point is excellent. If I remember, the "transtion" plan for Gray included having humans at certain intersections downtown to move traffic, and it is absolutely a good idea.

Everyday on rush hour on M I see a few traffic wardens could really move traffic 2x better.

Also, most of the complaint really aren't traffic but preserving easy, on street parking for residents.

 
At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Adam said...

When you live in the suburbs or the country, it is crucial to have a car because everything is so far away and there is little public transportation. One of the benefits of living in a city or village is the ability to own one car or get everywhere on foot or by bike. It is excellent exercise and minimizes traffic on the road.

 
At 5:14 AM, Blogger Dwayne Charles said...

It is a good idea to develop such kind of box thinking on this particular topic. I also like the five stories which you have shared and appreciate your great thoughts.
auto transport , car transport , free auto transport quotes

 

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