We thought the planners knew what they were doing

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Donald Shoup, a Yale-trained economist and former chair of UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning, loves to tell this story:

Anyone scanning Disney Hall’s debut calendar in the fall of 2003 would have noticed the size of that first season’s schedule, 128 shows in all. That’s a weighty number for a new hall — one might have assumed it was chosen by venue management wanting the gravitas of a world-class chamber’s arrival or perhaps seeking a broad spectrum of music that could reflect the diverse city. Those guesses would have been wrong. Disney Hall had been built atop Parcel K, a county-owned square of land on Bunker Hill that long had sat empty, awaiting development. For decades Parcel K served a prosaic function: It was a parking lot. Commercial landowners like parking lots; they generate cash until better economic conditions arrive, and blank space can be converted into a more profitable moneymaking device — typically a building. The practice is called “land banking.”

Yet before an auditorium could be raised on K, a six-floor subterranean garage capable of holding 2,188 cars needed to be sunk below it at a cost of $110 million — money raised from county bonds. Parking spaces can be amazingly expensive to fabricate. In aboveground structures they cost as much as $40,000 apiece. Belowground, all that excavating and shoring may run a developer $140,000 per space. The debt on Disney Hall’s garage would have to be paid off for decades to come, and as it turned out, a minimum schedule of 128 annual shows would be enough to cover the bill. The figure “128” was even written into the L.A. Philharmonic’s lease. In 2003, Esa-Pekka Salonen opened Frank Gehry’s masterpiece to a packed house with Mahler’s Resurrection, and in the years since, concertgoers — who lay out $9 to enter the garage — have steadily funded performances that exist to cover the true price of their parking.

Shoup is the author of The True Cost of Free Parking, and the true cost is immense indeed:

The garage — designed to serve the public good — instantly made the Metro immaterial to concertgoers, placed several thousand cars on the road every week, and pumped a few hundred tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Like any parking lot entrance, the one on Bunker Hill sucked air from street life. “L.A.,” says Shoup, “required 50 times more parking under Disney Hall than San Francisco would allow at their own hall.” Downtown already had an oversupply of garages and lots where music fans could leave their cars. “After a concert in San Francisco,” says Shoup, “the streets are full of people walking to their cars, eating in restaurants, stopping into bars and bookstores. In L.A.? The bar next door at Patina is a ghost town.” Receipts that should have gone to the philharmonic’s endowment instead are funding enough parking for nearly every ticket holder to park a car every night downtown.

Parking makes people nuts:

“I truly believe that when men and women think about parking, their mental capacity reverts to the reptilian cortex of the brain,” he says. “How to get food, ritual display, territorial dominance — all these things are part of parking, and we’ve assigned it to the most primitive part of the brain that makes snap fight-or-flight decisions. Our mental capacities just bottom out when we talk about parking.”

Parking meters have never been popular, even though they were created to solve the obvious problem of not enough parking to go around:

In Alabama in 1937, the state supreme court declared Birmingham’s parking meters unconstitutional and ordered them removed.

Fewer than 10 percent of parking citations ever get written — but this only makes it more infuriating when you do get a ticket.

The real problem is that meters are priced equally:

In Westwood Village Shoup once rode the Raleigh back and forth for weeks tailing cars. He discovered that the average driver had to circle the block two and a half times before locating an open metered space. Westwood became a model for Shoup; the “cruising” he observed there occurs wherever drivers seek out inexpensive metered space to avoid pricier garages and lots. (A similar study in Manhattan in 1995 revealed that New Yorkers spent 11 minutes on average searching for a space.) In a year’s time in Westwood, space hunting by drivers consumed an extra 47,000 gallons of gas. It stalled traffic, increased accidents, and required 950,000 extra vehicle miles, about four trips to the moon and back.

The problem, according to Shoupistas, is that meters are priced equally. “Imagine what would happen at Dodger Stadium if every seat cost the same and went on sale game day,” says Dan Mitchell, an engineer at DOT. “Everyone would run for that seat behind home plate — it would be insanity. But that’s what we have now with parking — equal pricing.”

This spring the DOT plans to introduce an $18.5 million smart wireless meter system based on Shoup’s theories. Called ExpressPark, the 6,000-meter array will be installed on downtown streets and lots, along with sensors buried in the pavement of every parking spot to detect the presence of cars and price accordingly, from as little as 50 cents an hour to $6. Street parking, like pork bellies, will be open to market forces. As blocks fill, prices will rise; when occupancy drops, so will rates.

In an area like downtown, ideal for Shoup’s progressive pricing, people will park based on how much they’re willing to pay versus how far they are willing to walk to a destination. In a trendy area like Melrose Avenue’s shopping district, where parking on side streets is forbidden to visitors, Shoup would open those residential blocks to market-priced meters, wooing home owners by guaranteeing that meter profits would be turned over to them in the form of property tax deductions. (That benefit could add up to thousands of dollars a year per household.)

LA wasn’t built around the car. It was built around parking.

When Rick Cole became a Pasadena councilman in 1983 — he would later be mayor of the city — he noticed the town’s historic bungalows were vanishing and quickly being displaced by ugly boxes. These new condo buildings had no doors and sometimes no windows facing the sidewalk. Instead they offered once-charming streetscapes a two-story wall. Whole blocks were being colonized and lost to these incognito squares. Cole wanted to know why.

“It turned out that Pasadena, which didn’t mandate parking when its single-family bungalows were built in the 1920s, now required eight parking spots for a building where four people might live,” says Cole, a Shoupista who is now the city manager of Ventura. “Subterranean parking was too expensive, so a thing called ‘tuck-under’ — or semisubterranean — parking was invented.” With tuck-under buildings, residents park half a story below street level and enter their entombed front doors from the garage. Everything is hidden from the street, including the residents who call it home. “Parking requirements,” says Cole, “had created whole communities of new blank walls that faced other blank walls. I hated it.”

After Cole was elected mayor of Pasadena in 1992, he heard that the man who had been public works director for the city in the 1940s was buried in the basement beneath Cole’s office. “I would actually spend time wandering alone down there,” says Cole, “looking for the headstone. The parking meters this guy had ordered to be installed throughout the city were supposedly down there with him.” Cole never found the grave site; it was the career of the public works director that lay dead in the basement. Unlike other cities, Pasadena hadn’t installed street meters. “When this guy suggested they do so,” says Cole, “and then ordered them, the citizenry revolted. That was the end of him.”

So Cole, an untested mayor, decided to commit career suicide — he would be the first to install meters. And not just anywhere but in the city’s seediest business district, its skid row, a stroll for prostitutes that would soon be renamed Old Pasadena. Cole had chosen the area to install parking meters because it was ideal for conducting his own experiment: He wanted to attract merchants to the area, where the rent on the decaying buildings was low and the potential for foot traffic was high. Could meter revenue clean and repair Old Pasadena, then help police its streets? “There was, putting it politely, tremendous opposition,” says Cole. Shop owners barely hanging on told Cole he was crazy. In a large meeting with merchants, Cole said something that swayed them: Rather than fill city coffers, meter collections would go back to businesses in the form of new alleyways, sidewalk improvement, more trees, and police. “The moment I said that, one of my staff members kicked me under the table,” says Cole.

The area took off. The Gap moved in a block away from the old Le Sex Shoppe. Cole pushed his project further: Unlike other cities, Pasadena would not require businesses to build parking lots or garages. Two city-owned parking structures would rent spaces to merchants for $50 a month — a cost of $600 a year per space instead of the tens of thousands of dollars to construct one. Soon the meters were earning more than $1 million annually. Some $415,000 covered the city’s garage debt, while $700,000 went back to neighborhood improvement every year. People who once drove to Westwood on Saturday nights now visited Old Pasadena.

“If you had told people in 1990 that this switch would occur,” says Shoup, “you would have been considered insane.” There are many theories about why Westwood died, and Shoup has his own. “It’s a myth to say Westwood died because of one high-profile homicide in the 1980s,” he says, referring to the 1988 death of a Long Beach woman named Karen Toshima, killed in crossfire. “Westwood had an unbelievably high parking requirement — ten spaces for every 1,000 square feet of restaurant. Old Pasadena had none. Westwood had dangerous alleys, crumbing sidewalks. If you want to know why Old Pasadena succeeded Westwood, parking was a big part of the story.”

Cole had created the first Shoupista paradise: No parking requirements, parking meters where once there were none. His city grew rich off the notion — and nobody has tried it since.

A natural experiment led Shoup to study parking:

Parking had never crossed Shoup’s mind when he left Yale for L.A. in 1968 — his focus was public finance and land-value theory. In 1975, he stumbled onto a master’s thesis by two USC students who had worked their way through school parking cars for a man named Rex Link. “Link,” says Shoup, “was annoyed that county workers were offered free parking downtown when federal workers had to pay.?” Link’s student employees proposed a study. “They found that 72 percent of county workers drove to work alone,” says Shoup, “but 60 percent of federal employees carpooled, took public transportation, or even walked. These were workers in the same professions, driving to the same location.” When forced to pay a practical value for their parking, drivers were twice as likely to carpool — traffic congestion was halved, carbon emissions were halved. “The more I thought of that,” says Shoup, “the more I thought there was a perfect storm here. No one can tell you why parking prices are set as they are. But when people pay comparatively little for something that’s expensive to produce, the result is collective irrational behavior.”

So, why do we have so much parking again?

Few people Shoup worked with at UCLA had heard of the Parking Standards report, published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, or the parking index report of the American Planning Association. Taken together, Shoup discovered, the two publications shaped the look of modern cities. The APA’s index lists 662 business types, along with suggestions for the number of parking spaces each structure should include. Urban planners, says Shoup, have no theory, use no hard data, when choosing parking requirements; they consult the manuals to decide. Every business imaginable is found within: Funeral parlors? A basic formula is eight parking spaces plus one for each hearse. Convents? One-tenth of a space per nun is fine. Adult bookstores? One space for every prospective patron plus one for the cashier holding the longest shift (no mention of the flasher in the alley). Public swimming pools? One space for every 2,500 gallons of water on the premises, chlorine included.

The figures are as precise as their origins are incomprehensible. Willson, who was a student of Shoup’s in the 1980s, says, “For 30 years parking was a number you looked up in the book — it’s magical the way these numbers spread.” He became fascinated by the office parks that proliferate along L.A. and Orange county freeways. “Parking requirements are a primary shaper of these landscapes,” says Willson. “The golden rule for office buildings has been four spaces for every 1,000 square feet. But where did that number come from?” Nobody knew, so Willson plotted a case study to gauge whether parking requirements connected to reality. He chose ten office parks and discovered that their peak occupancy rate was around 56 percent. Twice as many parking lots had been mandated by cities than was actually needed. “I interviewed the planners and the developers,” says Willson. “The planners would say, ‘It’s not our fault — the developers want that much.’ The developers would say, ‘We thought the planners knew what they were doing.’?”

Parking mandates had been shuffling the look of L.A. neighborhoods for some time. Among the ugliest — or most charming, depending on your perspective — of apartment profiles, the 1950s dingbat was conceived as an answer to parking requirements. The dingbat offered sidewalk strollers the bewitching view of a cement “front yard” and several car trunks. Single-car garages, hidden in backyards and alleyways in the early 20th century, doubled in size by the 1970s and moved onto the front lawn once cities began to require two residential spaces for every house. Shopping centers and malls assembled seas of asphalt around their retail islands, not because developers wanted them that size but because cities did. During the 1960s and ’70s — the epoch of Southern California’s shopping center build-out — malls had to offer enough parking for every car that might show up around 2 p.m. on the second Saturday before Christmas. Since planners didn’t know how many cars would arrive, an estimate was made: four or five cars for every 1,000 square feet of mall space. That would mean devoting 50 percent more land to cars than to people.

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