Friday, October 31

New Downtown Parking Garage?

A study of the parking situation in downtown Charlottesville has been released, and it's available online here. An important point from the study:

"On typical weekdays during the business day, there is currently enough parking overall for everyone. At the busiest time of the survey, only 63% of spaces were occupied. There were approximately 800 spaces available in the off-street public lots."

Yet a question may be presented if future planned developments all come to fruition:

"Planned downtown development are forecast to generate demand for approximately 1,700 parking spaces during a typical business day. This growth cannot be accommodated solely within the approximately 800 currently available spaces in the public off-street lots. As described above, some private lots may be suitable for public parking, but this may not be enough to accommodate the remainder of the forecast demand growth. If all the forecast developments come to fruition, additional parking spaces (and/or Travel Demand Management (TDM) aimed at reducing the parking demand) may therefore be needed in the future."

So ... there may be a problem in the future (assuming the current economy allows these developments to move forward), and the city could either:

1. Create more parking.
2. Encourage alternatives to driving downtown. (TDM strategies)

City staff has chosen the first course of action, and they want to act right away. On Monday, planning staff will address the City Council and ask for the financing and construction of another parking garage downtown. The city staff also wants to rescind Parking Exemption Zones (PEZ), urban areas in which developments do not have to meet the parking required by zoning.

From the study:

"The market is generally providing parking for developments within the Parking Exempt Zone (PEZ) at a similar level to the City’s requirements for areas outside the PEZ. The PEZ is not currently causing any problems. However, the City is concerned that once these
existing spaces are all in use, it may be less easy for the market to provide spaces for new developments."

Just in case parking in the PEZs becomes a problem in the future, the city wants to dissolve them and proposes that fees-in-lieu collected from developers who opt not to create more parking go toward the new parking garage. There is no mention of the alternative transit options suggested in the study.

Here's what Jim Tolbert, Director of Neighborhood Development, will tell Council on Monday:

"While the Water Street garage does not appear to be near capacity, the reality is that with the addition of the hotel spaces and its number of monthly permits it very soon could find itself displaying the “full” sign. When the two surface lots are developed, this problem will become critical. The proper course of action is to find a location for a new garage, secure the site, and begin plans for its financing and construction."

The entire staff report is here on page 64.

Saturday, October 25

Leaving room for families

Wendy Waters, at All About Cities, has some thoughtful comments about leaving room for families in urban redevelopment. The statistics show that most of the repopulation of cities has been done by young couples, singles, and empty-nesters. This lack of age and life diversity, as Joel Kotkin points out (over and over again), can be problematic for the future of cities. But Waters is more optomistic that families will eventually seek out this living choice, once some of the barriers to urban living are eased a little. The problem could then become the lack of living arrangements for these willing families. If we build all studios and two-bedrooms for current demand, how will we have the 3-bedroom townhouses and condos future demand may require.

Waters offers a creative solution:

"What if a building offered two bedroom suites with an attached small studio apartment of say 350 square feet. The studio would have its own entrance, like a back door, as well as a door connecting it to the main unit that could be locked. A couple or small family could live in the two bedroom unit and rent out the studio for a few years until enough mortgage is paid down or household income increases. Then, they could take back the suite and use it as a master bedroom."

A little flexibility is never a bad idea.

Thursday, October 23

Measuring the switch to Bicycles

Over the summer, plenty of anecdotal evidence was tossed around about how commuters around the country were leaving their cars at home and using a bike instead. There was a certain logic to this, given the high gas prices and heightened awareness of the social costs of driving. Yet hard empirical evidence for the shift has not been easy to come by. Traffic engineers have honed their car counting skills, but bicycle counting has, for the most part, fallen under the radar.

A few important measurements are coming in ...

  1. There is some pure counting going on. A new report on bike counts in New York City shows a whopping 35% increase from 2007 levels.
  2. You can always just ask. The U.S. Census American Community Survey for 2007 was released last month. Bikes Belong has some interesting statistics from this. It only records bike-to-work trips, but that at least gives some metric for the totals. We'll have to wait a while to see how 2008 compares.
  3. You can look at accident and injury reports. Minneapolis-St. Paul has seen an upsurge in bike commuter hospitalizations, and this in the face of many bicycle infrastructure improvements in the Twin Cities. This trend is probably a result of more bicycles on the street.
  4. Then there is the health of the bicycle retail market. Companies are reporting booming sales, even in the face of an economic downturn. This is particularly true of commuter models.
  5. The City of Houston reports that the number of cyclists using bike racks on their buses has doubled over the summer.
Add this all together and a pretty clear picture emerges.

Monday, October 20

Transportation for America now

As much as I admire the concept of various localities having self-determination over their transportation systems, this really hasn't been the case for a long time. As mobility has increased dramatically over the last century, especially since the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, oversight for the system has also required a wider and wider scope. With the complexity of interactions we now face, it seems that the federal government is the only act in town that can manage the task. Localities may get to tweak the road placement a bit, or push for comparatively more transit, but the essential backbone of our cities and regions has been ordained from above.

That's why the Transportation for America campaign, revealed last week, is so important. How so?

1. Every elected official in the federal government has probably uttered the ominous words, "dependence on foreign oil" hundreds of times over the last several years. Yet, alas, we are as dependent as ever on foreign oil. What's going on here? Maybe we have settled for blithe platitudes instead of doing the hard work of actually charting the course from A to B. Transportation for America has done this work, and the results are very straightforward and workable. Maybe each member of congress should be asked what practical steps they have made toward fulfilling their "energy independence" promises.

2. Lots of indices point to the fact that Americans now want walkability, access to transit, relief from congested and lengthy commutes. We are saying that in surveys, and we are saying that with our investments. The old mainstay of the apologists of surburbia has always been something about the American Dream, the ineluctable need for a huge lawn to play catch in, and some sort of "love affair with the automobile." How ever true that may once have been, it appears that our goals and desires have shifted considerably. Elected officials take note.

3. In the wake of a financial meltdown, our basic need for mobility will simply have to be achieved more cheaply and efficiently. Dragging around at least 3,000 pounds of steel with us everywhere we go will simply not be a feasible prospect even for the middle-class. The Highway Trust Fund is broke. State Departments of Transportation are broke. American families have to devote a growing percentage of their contracting budget to transportation. And digging a hole of further debt is no longer an option. The current course is leading nowhere, and it's time for a paradigm shift.

Monday, October 13

No need to be drastic

The Washington Post ran a front page article on a growing trend in insurance fraud: setting your car on fire. Apparently, more and more people are getting in over their heads with car payments, gas prices, and the overall burden of owning a vehicle. Some motorists are driven to the point of igniting brand new cars into blazing wreckages just to escape from repossession and bankruptcy. I learned from Lee Huang last week how much car ownership really costs, in comparison to using public transit. (For the Washington area, the APTA estimates over $10,500 a year). These charges all seem to go on in the background - a couple hundred here and there - and, like taxes, we take for granted that they just need to be paid. At least for the last few decades, this has been a non-negotiable cost in most of the United States, simply the entry price for participating in society.

The good news is that car ownership is not an all-or-nothing deal. There's no need choose between owning your own car and burning the car to the ground. We can own a fraction of a car - that is share. Instead of each member of a family owning their own car, families can try to get by with just one. In urban areas, Zipcars are becoming increasingly popular. I noticed three separate Zipcar lots wandering around Washington D.C. this weekend. Right now there are a full spectrum of ownership levels available, and as our nation's infrastructure (hopefully) evolves to allow us the opportunity to ease away from the automobile we can incrementally own a smaller fraction of a car. Political will and personal choices always move forward in tandem, step by step.

Thursday, October 9

Growth boundaries and the game of Go

The game of Go is probably the most elegant and sophisticated game ever conjured up. Unlike Chess, its only rival from the West, Go is a battle for territory carried out on a spatial plane. It consists of a multitude of small skirmishes all interconnected into a larger whole, hence the common dictum, "each move changes everything." Players are rewarded for long-range strategy over quick rewards, for big picture thinking over narrow goals, and for careful moderation over reckless excitement. As I'm learning about various strategies employed under the banner of smart growth, it occurs to me that planners can learn from this ancient game.

On it's most basic level, the game is about surrounding groups of your opponents stones. Yet this task is hardly as simple as creating a black ring around a group of white. The arrangement of pieces on the board is never a static position, but is always morphing and evolving into new forms. It doesn't take long for any novice to figure out that placing stones directly adjacent to your opponent is a losing game. The white stones will easily overpower your flimsy attempt to captured them. The idea is to back off a little and delicately dance around the group, slowly weaving a net and moving closer in as opportunity allows. This all requires assessing the target group's "influence" - its size and positioning of stones. The greater the influence the more room you must give it grow before having enough of your own power to surround it. Of course, this is only one drama that happens within the wider context of other similar face-offs.

A few decades of trial and error have taught cities some of these lessons. Early attempts of creating urban growth boundaries, or "greenbelts," around city limits had some adverse effects. Often they simply encouraged leap-frog development, pushing the new suburbs that much further from the urban core and putting that much more traffic on the roads. The problem, from a Go player's perspective, is that planners failed to match the power of pent-up demand for growth with an appropriate level of resolve for the boundary. You simply can't surround a group of white stones with a thin layer of directly adjacent black stones.

This doesn't mean that the practice of giving form to the urban area is futile, inevitably prone to be swarmed by the urge to sprawl. It means that an effective strategy involves a delicate choice of where to play stones. If a county or non-profit decides to purchase an easement, do they place the stone directly on the boundary or do they back off a bit and build a shape of influence for conservation? Just like a 9-dan ranked Go player, a patient community can slowly move in and shape their city according to their wishes.

Friday, October 3

Adventures of the Bike Commuter Act

Oregon's Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced something called a Bicycle Commuter Act years ago, as a way to provide tax incentives for riding a bike to work. The idea was to include cycling to work as a recognized form of transportation and offer employers up to $20 a month in tax reimbursements for each qualified cyclist on the payroll. The language was woven into bill after bill over the years, but it never managed to hang on long enough to get passed and actually happen ... until now

... but somehow the circumstances are still sobering. The transportation fringe benefit was tucked into the sweetened bailout package that passed hastily all the way through the executive office today. It took me a good ten minutes just to find the darn provision buried in H.R. 1424 on the Thomas web site. The non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated that $110 Billion in sweeteners were added to the initial $700 Billion purchase of mortgage-backed securities.

It's ironic that Rep. Blumenauer didn't even vote for his own Bicycle tax benefit due to his general opposition of the bailout.

Some perspective is important here. The bike benefit is expected to cost the federal government somewhere around $10 million a year, which is a small fraction of the amount currently doled out to help businesses pay for employee parking. Bigger yet are several more tax benefits for encourage automobile sales attached to this bill, and, of course, all of this is a drop in the bucket in the greater scheme of current events. Will this be the little push over a tipping point for workers around the country who have been meaning to save gas, get a little exercise, and help the environment? I guess time will tell.