Friday, April 13, 2007

Further Comments on the Proposed Robotic Parking Structure

I appreciate that Mr. Brown took the time to read and respond to my previous guest column in the TAB about his proposed robotic parking garage for Coolidge Corner. Discussion and dialogue are always good things. However, his response indicates that he has fundamentally misunderstood the reasons for my objection to the deck itself and most importantly to its proposed location.

The site in question, an oddly configured piece of property behind the Coolidge Corner Theater is valuable, not because of what it is now, but because of its location and what it could become. Strategically linked to Beacon and Harvard Streets with pedestrian passageways, this piece of land and the adjoining existing parking area could become part of a pedestrian friendly mixed-use retail and public gathering place, something the Coolidge Corner District Planning Council has clearly identified as a priority. I believe the future vitality of Coolidge Corner is dependent upon supporting, expanding and enabling its best features, namely our unique local businesses and relaxing pedestrian environment. These features will draw people from far and near who are seeking authenticity and interaction in an increasingly mediated and isolated world. Customers need to be able to get to the businesses, this is what is axiomatic, not that they must drive an automobile and park it directly in front (or back) of their destination. We need to get creative in looking at how to better support all forms of transportation to Coolidge Corner.

The site now may be a bleak parking area at the back of a building, hardly desirable, as Mr. Brown points out. But joined with the adjacent lot, and through careful design, judicious plantings, pedestrian amenities and linkages and careful control of service vehicles, a uniquely compelling place could be created. Even if the site remains a service drive that is simply screened on the edge of the civic space it is still not an appropriate location for the large imposing deck. Bringing heavy vehicle traffic into this space is not compatible with a public gathering space, and as I stated in my original column there are some serious traffic flow consequences with this location as well. Far from being anti-progress as Mr. Brown suggests, those with an alternative vision are looking towards the future, one that is supportive of community life and in the long term responsive to the challenges of climate change.

For the immediate future, we have existing parking alternatives that have not been fully utilized. As Mr. Brown notes, I am lucky enough to be able to walk to Coolidge Corner from my home, a distance of a little over ¼ of a mile. If he can acknowledge the convenience of this, how is it then that parking at the Webster Street hotel and walking across the street, is too much of a hassle for everyone else? The Transportation Solutions study told us, through empirical methods, not anecdotal stories, that we have additional parking capacity still to use in Coolidge Corner, and that better information and management would maximize its use. While traffic and parking are continuing challenges, they require comprehensive technical study and creative solutions that include both management, and policy solutions as well as possible capacity expansions.

There are many questions to consider about the technology of the robotic parking garage as well. Just a few of them are, is it suitable for short term parking, which is what we need in Coolidge Corner? Are they noisy? How reliable are they? All the decks I have seen are at least 80 ft. tall. Can they be built shorter? In our haste to solve a perceived parking problem, let us hope we do not act in a way that will disappoint the future generations of Brookliner's.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Increasing SUV's Excise Tax - Article #16

Town meeting member Andrew Fischer has put forward Town Meeting Article #16, which calls for a doubling in the excise tax rate for Sport Utility Vehicles and Light Trucks. While I doubt that the financial burden resulting from this change will cause many people to change what they drive, I do agree with the principle behind the proposal. The fact that we have whole classes of vehicles on the road today which continue to be manufactured and sold that are exempt from Federal Clean Air Fuel Efficiency standards is scandalous. As the dire consequences of our binge on cheap, government subsidized fossil fuel consumption becomes ever nearer and more apparent the folly of this policy lapse looks more and more like the pathetic act of denial that it is.

There is not much we can do on the local level to try to correct this policy gap. We can't ban these vehicles from our roadways, or set our own fuel efficiency standards. Instead, by focusing on increasing the taxation on vehicles that are both heavier and more polluting than passenger cars, we are identifying the additional costs to the environment, infrastructure and human health that these vehicles cause and passing them on to the operator of the vehicle. Indeed the basic problem with our current methods of assigning values to economic productivity and worth is that the market fails to account for long term costs and the general costs often born by society at large. Individuals use up and profit from consuming resources that in fact belong to everyone. Therefore, if these vehicles truly cost more than other vehicles in terms of wear and tear on our infrastructure, air quality degradation, climate change acceleration, etc. then those that consume these additional resources should compensate the owners of those resources, the public.

Of course the real goal of these types of pricing mechanisms is not to collect money, but rather to use the pocket book to motivate a change in behavior. I don't think the change effected by this article will be great enough to cause a mass abandonment of SUV's , but it is nonetheless significant in the message it sends. I have heard SUV owners say that they are being unfairly punished, because they have very good reasons (such as a large family) why they have to drive such a vehicle. Of course the many generations of families who grew up just fine without an SUV might beg to differ on this point. I am sure we will see more and more economic incentives of this kind as we struggle to adapt and change to a more durable and sustainable economy. Congestion pricing for instance, has shown itself to be very effective at reducing peak hour congestion. Again the ultimate goal is not to simply force people to buy their right to pollute but rather to put a truer cost on an activity and ultimately to stimulate innovation and behavioral shifts.

This proposal is timely and targeted and deserves our support.