Sunday, May 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Parking Space

The standard dimensions for a perpendicular parking space are 9 ft. x 19 ft., with an additional 24 ft. of pavement required behind the rows for access and egress. Parallel parking spaces must be 9 ft. wide and 24 ft. long. So, each car requires 216 to 279 sq. ft. of pavement to park. That is a lot of space for one vehicle that often carries only one person. That is also a lot of land to cover with an impervious surface. At the dawn of the auto age America seemed a vast and limitless reservoir of both space and land and we quickly set about dispersing ourselves.

We even felt compelled to accommodate the auto within our cities, riping through neighborhoods and destroying the fabric of our human scaled street networks to build parking lots and roadways, in an attempt to merge the vital hearts of commerce with the freedom and easy access of the automobile. The strategy was of course doomed to fail. The landscape became one of ramps, roads and parking lots. Once out of our vehicle the human body is met with the cold gray concrete of parking decks, or we must walk along side the empty threatening space of vast expanses of parking lots. A visit to Detroit, center of the automotive universe, holds many lessons on how not to build a city. They are struggling to overcome the past and have made some significant steps in the right direction, especially with their new waterfront park, but have a long way to go.

We are now beginning to have an intelligent discussion about parking in Brookline. There have been some surprising revelations. (Surprising to me anyway!) and I feel there are also some serious misconceptions. A major concern many people have centers around cars parked on residential streets. Everyone has a different theory about who these cars belong to and why they are there, but there is an intense dislike of them. I have heard the sentiment "I don't want Brookline to look like Cambridge or Somerville or Allston" from many people. Apparently these individuals perceive the big difference between these communities to be the presence of cars on the street. No one sees the irony in the fact that they all want to own cars and drive them where they want, but don't want to see them in parking lots or on the street. Personally, I think one of the biggest differences in the look of these various communities is the number of street trees. The other is the quality of the housing stock. But back to this fixation on the number of cars parked on the street. At first I thought this had to do with residents not being able to park (or their visitors) in front of their home because of these interlopers. But I don't think that quite gets at the heart of it. It is more about an idealized image of what a Brookline neighborhood is supposed to look like. And it doesn't have cars on the street. Hence the overnight parking ban. We have achieved what we wanted there, but the result has been another problem.

Free parking for commuters. Without good enforcement of our two-hour parking limit, it seems many have found it convenient to park all day and take the T or walk to their work destinations. I don't see this where I live, but it is apparently a big problem around Brookline Village. Where the breakdown in logic occurs is when people think this problem is related to the amount of legal parking provided in the Village. No amount of paid parking in the Village will make a dent in this problem. For one thing, the free parkers have no interest in paying for their parking. For another thing, the demand is infinite. If we attempted to accommodate the demand for commuter parking we would only be inviting more and more vehicles into our already overburdened, congested roadways and neighborhoods, further degrading an already dangerous and conflict ridden environment. The only answer is good enforcement of the two-hour parking limit.

Flowing from this "get them off the street" desire, there is a powerful seduction to the "out of sight out of mind" solution of "stuffing the cars in a big hole in the ground", aka the underground parking garage. If we just build enough spaces in the underground garage, we will be able to put all the cars in it and our streets will remain "unsullied" by the nasty cars cluttering them up. There are a few serious flaws in the logic here. First off, cars do not levitate to the garage. They must make there way there, twisting and turning, pushing and squeezing through our over-crowded intersections and roadways, playing chicken with each other because of the double parkers too lazy to park properly and worse, playing chicken with pedestrians and bicyclists who are just in the way. Crowd enough of these vehicles and people into the same confined system and conflicts escalate, its a matter of physics. Your big garage is a magnet, pulling more and more vehicles into the spot you had hoped to remove them from.

Highway engineers had to face this conundrum long ago. There truly is such a thing as induced demand. They learned that you cannot build your way out of congestion. Once you make it flow better, everyone wants to use it and you are back where you started. It is a treadmill that never stops. The best you can hope for is to strike a balance. That's why the Big Dig wasn't bigger. It is hopefully big enough. It was meant to be done in conjunction with improvements to transit, so that we could move as many people as possible with our excellent mass transit. There is real efficiency there on every level.

The strongly held view in Brookline is that we must accommodate all the "demand" for parking on site for each new development or else there will be overflow into the neighborhoods or worse the dreaded circling and searching for parking. We have never had a handle on just how to predict what that "demand" is, hence our current debate that will surely continue about just how many parking spaces are needed at 2 Brookline Place. It is a much bigger question. The parking rates in our zoning code are flawed to say the least, being based on suburban locations and related only to the square footage and use of a building, variables which are often poor predictors of a businesses activity level. Rates are just not the way to go. A more nuanced approach is necessary, one based on the realities of each situation. But I won't go into all the details here, only to say that demand for parking, like any other commodity in the market place, is in fact dynamic. Just as drivers respond to the free flowing new roadway in the induced demand example above, parkers respond to the availability of easy/cheap parking when deciding whether or not to drive, take the T, walk or bike.

The other day, I was walking home from my appointment in the Longwood medical area and a fellow next to me on the sidewalk, with his Beth Israel Deaconess ID tag dangling from his belt on his cellphone said, "I can't believe I was so stupid to drive in today". Exactly. Tomorrow he won't be so stupid. I'm not making this up, this really happened.

There are some who believe that our traffic problems are actually caused by people driving around looking for parking. Traffic volumes are up because people are out driving their cars to and from their various destinations. There are a few stubborn individuals who refuse to park more than a few feet from their destination and they will either circle, idle or double park. For the more flexible individual, accommodation is almost always available, as our recent parking utilization study of Coolidge Corner revealed.

For those who hold this view, if everyone could just drive up and park right where they wanted, we would have free flowing roadways. Those roadways however would have to be so big we would have to obliterate the very destination buildings they seek to serve. I suggest they spend one day with a traffic planner running intersection analyses to see that the actual number of cars on a roadway is the determining factor for how much delay will be experienced and that there is a point at which the capacity is exceeded and delay becomes infinite. In other words, it doesn't matter how big those parking lots are, the cars won't be able to get there!

Another serious problem with the on-site disappearing cars scenario is that it precludes the provision of shared public parking. There are many benefits to shared parking, which I have written about previously. It is vastly more efficient, allowing us to dedicate much less land/space/resources to parking and it engenders social interaction and good urban design, all positive goals for Brookline.

If you are at all interested in any of these issues, please come to the upcoming parking forum:

Better Parking = Better Brookline
Monday, June 9, 2008
7- 9 pm
Old Lincoln School Auditorium

Speakers are Jason Schrieber, of Nelson/Nygaard, a national leader in Transit Orient Development, Travel Demand Management, and parking management.

Al Raine, former Chief of Planning and Development for the Dukakis Administration and now National Practice Leader for Transit Oriented Development with DMJM + Harris. Al Raine is a Brookline resident and member of the Economic Development Advisory Board.

There will be a question and answer period after the speakers.

The forum is sponsored by: Brookline Planning Board, Brookline Transportation Board, Climate Change Action Brookline, Brookline Conservation Commission, Economic Development Advisory Board and Brookline GreenSpace Alliance

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tale of Three Neighborhoods

I've lived in Brookline for twenty years this year. That's longer than any other place I've ever lived, even my home town. During that time, I've inhabited three different abodes, each with its own unique character. But what has really made an impression on me is how different the daily experience of my neighborhood has been in these three places. This, in turn has got me wondering what it is about these three different settings that should make for such different realities. After all they were all in the same town, and in terms of the physical characteristics of my space (some variation on the one or two bedroom condo) they aren't all that different from one another, and yet, there are so many differences when it comes to the feel and tone and pace of life. From the daily rhythm of my neighbors and their patterns of behavior, or the noises I hear, such as the amount of bird song I notice, to the amount of traffic on the streets, all are drastically different.

My first place was a two-bedroom condo in a 1920's courtyard building we rented on Washington St., right next to the amazingly preserved Victorian "gingerbread" house, just up from the intersection of School/Cypress. This location had lots of advantages. It was equidistant to the Village and Coolidge Corner, and the Library was so convenient. My T stop of choice was Brookline Hills, accessed via a pleasant walk through the charming residential neighborhood off of Greenough. I loved watching the ever changing porch displays of window boxes, front yard gardens, flags, etc. as the season warmed. It was a nice way to start and end the day. The courtyard had a nicely overgrown archway entrance that gave it a bit of separation from the too busy Washington St., which we soon learned carried almost all of the firetrucks dispatched in town. One night several of them came to our place as the carriage house behind our building that had been the store house for unlimited junk for too many years burned to the ground, taking our car, which was parked near it, with with. That was the same night of the big fire on White Place. I got to witness first hand our famed "top notch" services, and was grateful for the fine work of our fire department.

But as for neighborhood feel, I have to say, the court yard building itself and the other adjacent buildings, just did not have it. We knew our immediate neighbors in our building, but did not see many people coming or going. Because of this we did not often have the opportunity to stop and chat, that all-important casual encounter that slowly builds ties in more cohesive neighborhoods. Our park of choice was of course Emerson, which on a hot summer night was a favorite haunt after getting a frozen fruit Popsicle at the very convenient convenience store at Cypress/Washington. While our unit was deep within the U of the court yard, we did still hear the constant stream of cars on Washington that did not still until late at night. Being next to the Victorian house meant that we had a beautiful display of maple leaves filtering the sunlight into our kitchen and mitigating the pavement out front. It was a comfortable and pleasant place, like many buildings of its era, with the small tile in the entry way and solid marble steps.

People did not loiter on the sidewalk out front though, and I think this must have been because of the traffic. Maybe visiting both the Village and Coolidge Corner dissipated our loyalties and we did not build up that same kind of familiarity one has going to the same places on a more regular basis. We lived here four years, as we saved for that all important purchase, our condo.

Shopping for a condo in Brookline, is of course an education. We looked at dozens of places. We had become sensitive to those "neighborhood" issues and would go back at night to check the noise level, etc. Of course you never really can tell until you move in...but you do start to look and pay attention, and you can never find that one perfect place, as you have to choose from what's out there when you are looking. But we took our time and ended up buying a place at the corner of Beaconsfield and Dean Rd. This place "had it all" actually more than we were looking for. A roof deck, a fire place, a balcony, an elevator (for only 4 floors!) and a garage, with automatic door opener and direct access to the building. The building had been rebuilt to replace the one that had been destroyed in a gas explosion in 1985, hence all the modern amenities, and no gas. Across the street was the Jean B. Waldstein park. The best feature of which was the laughter of the children sledding in the winter that would float up to our window, the sunset through the majestic trees were a treat too. The T access was to die for and the car simply sat in the garage. The Star Market was a two minute walk, the rest of Washington Square not much further. I often took walks on Fisher Hill, I felt the remains of the Longyear museums' formal garden were my secret sanctuary before the condos came. Oddly enough, no one else did. One day I was shopping for a present for my Dad at a flashy gift store at the Atrium Mall and the woman behind the counter said "You're the woman who I see walking in my neighborhood!" That's how unusual my activity was I guess. I was rather persistent and did not let bad weather deter me. I subscribe to the dictum that there is no inclement weather, just inappropriate clothing choices.

I relate this anecdote to illustrate some features of this neighborhood. While I loved having the Park across the street, this park was mostly an activity park and I did not find myself hanging out there much. There were plenty of ball games, tennis, dog runs, etc. but its steep slope down into it and lack of welcoming seating areas did not create good gathering spaces. So in this regard, it did not seem to help create a cohesive neighborhood spot. While obviously some people walked to Washington Square, etc. the foot traffic seemed confined to Beacon St. Again there was not much loitering on the sidewalk. I took it upon myself to plant some planters to grace our buildings' front door and while I was out there doing that, plenty of people stopped to chat. But our building didn't have a stoop and people didn't really sit out there or spend time out on the sidewalk. If we had a porch or stoop, that would have made a big difference. The other conclusion is most people will not walk somewhere, just to go for a walk the way I did. Dog walkers do, and they often have a social interaction pattern of their own. But for everyone else, they need to be going somewhere or doing something. Without those draws, you won't get life on the streets. Our nearest gathering spots were in Washington Square. So, as much as I found many things to enjoy at this location, I did not have a strong sense of living or identifying with "a neighborhood".

My third spot, where I live now is on Browne Street. Once again I am in a U shaped courtyard building. Our courtyard is big, with beautiful 100 year old maple trees, and it takes a few moments to traverse the walkway from the sidewalk to my front door. This simple fact often brings me in contact with my neighbors. They are out of their cars, even if they have just parked out front. There is a walkway that is protected from traffic and is comfortable to stop and chat on. The people living in this building are welcoming. Is it a self-selecting phenomena? or just a function of the fact that the design of the building allows us the chance to get to know one another in an easy, casual way? Across the street is Winthrop Square park, containing the Minot Rose Garden and a children's play area. A constant stream of people, mostly mothers and children during the day and elderly in the afternoon flow to this place the minute the weather even nears 50 degrees. BU students stop as they pass on St. Paul St. On the weekends when the roses are in bloom the place is packed. Here I see an amazing mix of people chatting to each other or just sharing the space together. The ethnic and cultural diversity in this neck of the woods is pretty amazing. This is a well used park and a true meeting place for the neighborhood.

Browne Street itself doesn't carry much traffic, as it is short and very local access only. So, in terms of traffic noise, this is by far the quietest place I have lived. The birds in the tree outside by window wake me up. The quite street helps make the sidewalks the kind of place you want to stop on, so when you see your neighbor, you feel comfortable spending a few minutes catching up. And here is the biggest difference. There are lots of people out walking on the sidewalks! We all have somewhere to walk to, namely Coolidge Corner or the park or library and there are enough of us that there is some kind of critical mass. The routes we take are pretty predictable too, so this enhances the chance of us seeing each other. So, here, I do feel I live in a neighborhood, this place has achieved that illusive definition.