A Planner Says NO to Market Pricing
High gas prices, housing affordability, health care and global warming are issues of the day across the country. California is no different.
What is different is that congestion in our cities is a growing problem.
San Francisco south of Market Street is becoming a mini city where pedestrians are seen by the dozens during the day in an area that was pretty much isolated because a big slice was taken away by the freeway, despite its relative proximity to nearby Union Square.
The same is true in Los Angeles, where downtown and Hollywood are squeezing housing into plots of land that would not have been allowed 10 or 15 years ago.
Economic development in Long Beach, Santa Monica, San Diego, Pasadena, Cathedral City and Glendale are producing some of the first large-scale mixed-use projects seen in Southern California.
The trend in the state is definitely tipping toward increasing density and reducing parking requirements for developers. For city planners, this is a mixed blessing, because transportation projects for mass transit have not kept pace with the dollars coming from Washington, DC, for freeway expansions.
The result is not very surprising, that traffic congestion is more of a problem. It hits harder in the pocketbook for some people – those who can’t afford to live closer to where they work. And for the most part, with the sluggish and uncertain future of the economy, this will not change for quite a few years, maybe decades.
This brings us to ask the questions is density good for our cities, and are we doing enough to invest in our transportation infrastructure to support increased density? Are we easing parking requirements too much, expecting that cities will be able to transform into “urban villages?” Well, yes and no.
The trend in planning seems to be that cities are adopting policies to reduce parking requirements in certain neighborhoods in concert with economic development. The policies are largely influenced by a movement of urban planners, developers and academic experts. High on the lists is the very highly touted UCLA professor, Donald Shoup, whose book, called “The High Cost of Free Parking,” has received worldwide applause.
It’s hard to disagree with the methodology that the cost of parking affects parking habits and that by making street parking more expensive, the demand will shift to either off-street garages, if they are available, or to mass transit.
The “Shoupista” approach implies that all cities can adopt policies that eliminate the demand for parking if they raise prices. In actuality and practice, the theory does not take into account the demographics and differences in geography that make cities unique.
We should start by looking at the foundations of city planning where density can work to the benefit of the population. The role of land use regulation used to be based on the theories of concentric rings, where density was encouraged at the core of the city and became less dense as it radiated out.
The problem is that the current application of this methodology was not coordinated regionally with the type of development known as sprawl.
California needs to take a step back and address the traffic and congestion problems in some sort of coordinated fashion. At the next election, Californians will consider ballot propositions for transportation on the state and county levels. High-speed rail is being discussed in Sacramento once again, despite budget cuts. Los Angeles County is considering raising its sales tax to fund capital projects such as the metro expansion.
The message is that decision makers need to strike the right balance of applying the Shoup approach to the reality of having a mass-transit system that is efficient enough to support the density that is being allowed. This is going to be a delicate balance and the cooperation of intergovernmental agencies or bodies that can make sure density is running at the same pace as mass-transit development.
Once a city or region has achieved transportation efficiency by accommodating the number of trips generated by the appropriate mode of travel, then the option of reducing minimum parking requirements across the board can truly become a positive and cost-effective solution for our policymakers.
Don Norte works for the West Hollywood (CA) Department of Public Works and has been a city planner for almost 20 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.