Thursday, January 31, 2008

If We Build it They Will Drive

While there is no shortage of opinions in this town, one thing we pretty much all agree on is our affection for it. We might differ on a few particulars, but the list of things we all rattle off about what we love about Brookline usually sounds remarkably similar.

It is somewhat disheartening then to see the escalating divisiveness and animosity around issues of planning and development. This is not surprising and our community is certainly not alone in finding ourselves mired in controversy. These are big questions with huge impacts, and depending on where you live and how you are impacted it can feel as if the livability of your neighborhood or the financial future of your family depend on the outcome. There are of course laws, procedures and techniques all designed to take into account everyone’s concerns and lead us to just and equitable solutions. I honestly believe we could all come to a remarkable degree of consensus if we could just ratchet down the rhetoric, evaluate some alternatives objectively and think in terms of the overall good of the town and it’s long term future. It’s just not easy.

With our unique governmental structure we do not have a big bureaucracy to do the job for us. All of you who serve on town boards, attend meetings, voice opinions, volunteering your time, you are our bureaucracy. We need a lot more of you. We need new voices. We each bear a unique burden of citizenship that we have inherited by becoming members here. As citizens we need to adopt policies that reflect our collective goals for the future.

There is one set of policies in particular that is resulting in unintended negative consequences to our town and its future. I believe if these negatives were fully revealed, the majority of Brookline residents would not support the policies. I am referring to the amount of parking that must be provided for new and redeveloped housing and businesses. The required rates are set way too high. Now I know parking is one hot issue in this town, but bear with me here.

Let’s talk about the businesses first. Our code requires 1 parking space for every 200 – 350 sq. ft of retail space. This creates a level of parking adequate to service a store out in a field somewhere in the boonies where all the customers are going to drive to that store and the store is the sole destination of that trip. We all know this is not the case in Coolidge Corner or anywhere along Beacon St. Now our code does allow for some reduction for transit accessibility, but not enough. A more transit friendly rate would be 1 space per 1,000 sq. ft. Requiring on-site parking for each building makes compact development impossible, such as the type of building we enjoy in Coolidge Corner now.

Now let’s talk about housing. The parking requirements per housing unit were recently (2000) raised from 1.5 – 1.8 per unit to 2 to 2.3 per unit (even for studio or one bedroom units). This, despite the fact that according to the 2000 Census Brookline has the 4th highest rank in the country (43.03%) of non-auto commuters for communities between 50,000 and 250,000. Many people cite Brookline’s T accessible location as their reason for locating here. If we maintain adequate neighborhood services, it is entirely possible to live car free in Brookline as many have chosen to do. There are many individuals who do not or cannot drive or own a car and their numbers will only grow. A recent analysis of auto-ownership near Coolidge Corner reveals that 82% of the households have 1 or 0 autos. We are building more parking than residents need.

Transportation costs are the second largest household expense. One way to reduce that is to live in a mobility enhanced location such as Brookline. Our parking requirements add significant costs to new housing, reduces the possibility for on-site open space, encourages driving, burdens our overcrowded roadways (which, by the way are deteriorating and expensive to maintain), and severely limits our ability to provide a variety of housing types and price points. Young professionals are seeking an alternative to the auto dependent lifestyle, but they won’t find it here if we continue to build for the car rather than the alternative transportation user.

Many think that putting the parking underground takes care of the problem. Out of sight, out of mind. The only benefit to this is not having a surface parking lot. We will still have that many more cars on the road, overwhelming our already congested streets, causing more backups, delays, and road rage. More autos bring many negatives; the pedestrian environment is degraded, it’s harder to cross the street, there is more pollution and noise and conflicts from cars turning into driveways across sidewalks. There will be less space on the roadway for bicycles and more car/bike conflicts. The cumulative effect of these conflicts will discourage walking and biking.

Our excessive parking requirements have far reaching environmental impacts as well. First, they encourage driving. In the age of global warming this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Vehicles account for 30% of our nation’s CO2 emissions. We cannot adequately reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by driving hybrid cars. For one thing, as population grows, VMT (vehicle miles traveled) will continue to increase. As gas mileage efficiencies increase, the limiting effects of high gas prices will be mitigated, thus causing drivers to drive more. No, the only way to reduce the CO2 from vehicles is to drive less and the only way to drive less is to build in such a way as to facilitate transit and other alternative transportation modes for a greater portion of our travel needs.

If we want to be consistent with the values of environmental sustainability, preservation of open space, enhancing our pedestrian environment and providing a variety of housing types and values then we need to reduce our parking requirements.

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1 comment:

stomv said...

Bravo!

It's true that the C line is often packed during rush hour. But, it's also true that the stations are in the process of being lengthened from 2 car lengths to 3, which will allow increasing capacity by 50%. Furthermore, not everybody without a car who lives near Beacon St travels downtown during rush hour by T to get to work. Some work off hours. Some are retired, students, work in Coolidge Corner, work outbound, or walk/cycle/carpool to work.

Furthermore, developers are generally free to build more parking -- those numbers are minimums. So, why not lower the threshold? If a developer feels that he can build housing without copious amounts of parking, and if tenants/condo owners are interested in living there without the parking, I say God Bless -- you're adding to our property tax rolls and the fabric of our community without adding to our traffic woes. You're also more likely to do more shopping locally, supporting Brookline's indie and national businesses. If a developer feels he can get business tenants to move in without providing oodles of parking, that's even better -- they pay a higher tax rate and don't contribute to the ever growing kindergarten enrollment.

It's true that some people will move into housing without parking and then seek to rent a spot somewhere, adding demand to the seeking-overnight-parking market. How many? I don't know... but I don't think it's tremendous, especially around Coolidge Corner.

I'd like to see the minimum requirement lowered, particularly if within 0.5 miles of a MBTA streetcar or bus stop. I'd like to see Brookline continue to make cycling a more attractive transportation alternative. I'd like to see Brookline work harder at making sure sidewalks are free of debris and snow, that the curb cuts are installed, correctly angled, and otherwise safe. I'd like to see more Brookline Police enforcement of pedestrian - cycling - driving laws with respect to crosswalks. I'd like to see Brookline somehow work with the MBTA to get our C line stations all lengthened to 3 car lengths sooner rather than later so that the C line congestion will be reduced dramatically during rush hour and Red Sox games, thereby allowing Brookline to reduce parking space requirements even further.

My vision for a sustainable Brookline includes numerous incremental changes that will allow people to live happier, healthier lives with fewer cars and fewer miles driven.

Tommy Vitolo
TMM, Pct 1