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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Anonymous said...

Will Brookline ever remove the overnight resident parking ban?

dap said...

very interesting piece on parking in brookline that i'm just reading now - while i was in search on google of my own piece i posted on parking last night. check it out:

my estimation is that only 5-10% of the population is actually affected by the parking law's of brookline, and unfortunately i'm one of them. though i found my parking spot yesterday. i'd still like to see a more reasonable overnight guest rate.