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February 08, 2006

One Less Car = One Less Parking Spot

At the risk of making this blog too Seattle-centric, I thought I'd point out this nifty article in today's Post-Intelligencer about the city's efforts to promote alternatives to the car -- everything from walking to biking to transit to ride sharing to van pools.  And there's ample reason to be concerned about rising car traffic, particularly downtown--not just on environmental grounds, but on financial ones.  Cars, you see, take up lots of space in a crowded city; and storing them all is expensive, and takes up real estate that could be put to far better uses.  From the article:

In the next 19 years, the city expects 22,000 new housing units and 50,000 new jobs.

Assuming the same percentage of people continued driving alone to work, the city estimates it would have to build 20 city blocks of 10-story parking garages downtown.

That's a lot of parking.

Also note the upside-down state of transportation finances. Funding for the bus system is nowhere near where it needs to be to accomodate all the new riders the city is hoping for.  And meanwhile, city officials still seem hell-bent on spending billions for roads, some of which will just make downtown's car problems worse. Obviously, the city deserves a lot of credit for its low-cost efforts to promote alternatives to the car; but in the bigger picture, you have to wonder if they've got their priorities straight.

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Comments

Clark, you point out some evidence that different parts of city government could be working at cross purposes to each other-- could it be?

Although ridership is growing twice as fast as expected since gas prices started climbing, the bus system is sorely underfunded. All of the City officials quoted in the article talk about how important it is to get people to drive less. Meanwhile, they are preparing to spend $4 billion on a single 2.2-mile piece of highway and there’s not a few million to improve bus service?

The most effective way to get people to drive less would be to make driving less convenient – not spend $4 billion to make it more so.

Posted by: cary | Feb 9, 2006 3:33:02 PM

Except, Cary, for the small problem that the City of Seattle doesn't operate the buses. The county operates the buses.

And under a peculiar rule established by the county council (or the non-Seattle members thereof), 80 percent of any new revenue devoted to the bus system MUST be spent outside of the city of Seattle.

Under that rule, it's quite logical for the city to devote none of its money to improved bus service.

I have been as enthusiastic as you and Clark about at least considering a surface boulevard alternative to the viaduct. But there are a number of constraints that make city action seem logical, if not preferable.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Feb 9, 2006 4:43:42 PM

Alan -
Hm. I'm inclined to agree with you, since you're my boss. But the 80/20 rule isn't fixed in stone. Seems to me that, if the city said to the county council "Look, we'd like to put in money from city coffers to pay for better Metro bus service," they could probably find a way to make it happen. Or they could develop a public campaign to make the 80/20 rule look silly. There's lots of options there. They've just chosen to focus their political efforts elsewhere.

There are probably good reasons they've done so, including the need to rebuild the seawall--an expensive effort that they're trying to piggyback on a transprotation project that they won't pay much of. But nonetheless, they've opted to put their biggest efforts in places other than transit.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Feb 9, 2006 5:17:01 PM

1) Regarding the viaduct replacement: If what I have heard (via The Stranger) about the projects included in the RTID plan (namely, that it is nearly all road projects and no transit) is even close to correct, I think that it (the RTID plan) will be DOA with the voters in November. At that point the viaduct replacement will be even more underfunded than the monorail was.

2) Regarding the 80/20 rule: The city council could exert a pretty significant amount of pressure on the county council to change the rule, if city funding of transit was truly a priority. The county council could easily exempt contributions from the city of Seattle from the 80/20 rule, using a line of reasoning that would make sense politically even in the hinterlands of King County: 80% of nothing is zero, and if lowering the percentage of new funding (contributed by Seattle) still yielded a percentage of new funding flowing out into the county, it would still be more than nothing.

Incidentally, this would also require the city to recognize that holding out for 100% of the city's contributions being spent inside the city is shortsighted; much (most?) of the congestion that plagues downtown arrives from outside city limits, so even if a portion of the city's transit funding primarily benefits those outside the city, the city still reaps a secondary benefit.

I really suspect that the reason the county council hasn't changed the 80/20 rule for contributions from the city of Seattle is that the city council hasn't even asked for the change.

3) Regarding seawall replacement: The city of Seattle can easily afford to do this piece by itself (in fact, it ought to, being a safety issue). The problem mostly is the fact that seawall replacement all by itself is not a very sexy project politically; its more like repairing a pothole, albeit on a very large scale.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Feb 9, 2006 7:53:30 PM

I'm with you, Roy. But it's an awfully expensive pothole -- $700-800 million, which is well over a thousand dollars per city resident. Not impossibly huge amount, obviously. But probably not easy. That's quite a hefty chunk for lots of families.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Feb 9, 2006 9:27:08 PM

In the new reduced scope project plan, coming in at $3.6 billion, something like 2/3 of the seawall repair work is left out of the budget and plan. Apparently, only one chunk is urgent to replace, and the rest can wait for other, diffferent funding. It will be interesting to learn more about how and why they made this decision. Maybe gribbles are like killer bees -- scary but not as immediate a threat as anticipated?

Posted by: cary | Feb 10, 2006 10:11:55 AM

Here’s an image of a transportation alternative that seems to work pretty well in Europe, and which wasn’t mentioned in the P-I article: motorized two wheel vehicles.

Scooters in Florence

I’m biased of course, being a motorcycle rider. But think of how many cars these scooters replaced, and how many of them fit in a spot that would accommodate, well, in this narrow alley, no cars at all!

Scooters and motorbikes provide much of what is attractive to Americans about cars—door-to-door transport free from time tables being perhaps the most pertinent.

Florence provided some of the most exhilarating riding of our honeymoon. A bit like running with the bulls in Pamplona.... Scooters (and to a lesser extent, motorbikes) filter through slower-moving traffic, and come up to the head of the line at stoplights. Cars graciously stop ten or fifteen feet back to leave room for the scooters they know are coming. It’s a particularly Italian kind of vehicular anarchy that proves to be incredibly efficient at moving people around ancient cities not designed for autos.

Here it would be difficult if not impossible without re-educating the driving public, most of whom fiercely resent anyone moving ahead faster than they are. With the right drivers’ and riders’ education though, it could work here.

Posted by: Rob Harrison AIA | Feb 10, 2006 1:18:05 PM

Oops, sorry, the link didn't work. Try this:

http://harrisonarchitects.com/Scooters_in_Florence.jpg

-Rob

Posted by: Rob Harrison AIA | Feb 10, 2006 1:19:26 PM

My biggest problem with increased use of scooters is the fact that although it reduces fuel consumption, it doesn't do much to change land use patterns, which is at least as big a problem as fuel use.

I remember reading an article a few years ago (can't remember the source) that made the argument that even if we could replace the entire auto fleet with electric cars, not much would be gained because there would still be no incentive to stop suburban and exurban sprawl, which is every bit as big an environmental threat as oil use. The same logic basically applies for transitioning to scooter use (although they are arguably shorter range than conventional cars, thereby slightly encouraging compactness of development).

Posted by: Roy Smith | Feb 10, 2006 5:51:48 PM

Scooters also tend to be two-stroke engines, which are horrible horrible polluters. I think you're probably better to the environment if you carpool than take separate scooters.

Posted by: Eric | Feb 10, 2006 7:53:50 PM

Roy, for the most part I agree with you--land use patterns are key. But I jumped into this particular discussion in response to the acres devoted to car parking, if present trends continue. Small scooters are not allowed on highways, which, as you say, limits their range. I think two-wheeled motorized transport works pretty well for some things. Perhaps we need lots of little solutions rather than one big one, eh?

Eric, true, scooters used to be mainly two-strokes, and some brands remain so, but in the last three or four years Yamaha and Honda, for example, have come out with four-stroke scooters that are quite clean, and Aprilia has a DiTech 50 two-stroke that meets Euro 2 emission standards. As I recall, two-stroke motorcycles were last sold in the US in 1986, and even then they were not a huge segment of the market.

In fact, while motorcycles are not as clean as I'd like, CO2 emissions are lower for motorcycles per VMT--less than half the average car. Other emissions lag somewhat behind autos, but that is likely to change over the next few years, as new regulations in the European and Japanese markets create cleaner production bikes, with particulate emissions in line with cars. And they're definitely much better than diesels, when it comes to HC and NOx.

Here's an interesting article on the subject:
http://www.bmf.co.uk/briefing/Bikes-Go-Greener.html

Posted by: Rob Harrison AIA | Feb 10, 2006 10:53:55 PM

I concur with the point about lots of small solutions possibly being better than one big solution.

I guess whether I would agree with promoting scooter use depends on how it is marketed; if it is promoted as part of a package of solutions, it is fine. If it is promoted as a stand-alone program that will allow the sprawling suburban lifestyle to continue, nothing will be accomplished.

At one time, transit advocates were trying to get SOV drivers to vote for transit by saying that it would reduce congestion and thereby improve life for the SOV drivers, too. This approach was wrong on two points, in my view: it attempted to convince SOV drivers that their lives would get better with no lifestyle changes (thereby removing the incentive to consider alternative ways of getting around); and factually, it was incorrect (and dramatically so), a fact which anti-transit types have used with devastating effect in influencing public opinion, particularly against the now-dead monorail project. By promoting transit projects based on reducing congestion, transit advocates opened the door to framing the reason to vote against transit projects as "it won't reduce congestion, so why should we spend the money?" Paying for transit projects is not about reducing congestion (because they never will accomplish that goal - just ask NYC or San Francisco); it is about creating alternatives to congestion.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Feb 11, 2006 7:07:27 PM

On the 80/20 rule: As I understand it, that ratio applies to the of allocation of new hours. Seattle could do a lot to increase service levels by making its current bus hours more efficient. That is, SDOT could presumably create dedicated bus lanes, install transit signal priority devices on stop lights, ask Metro to remove inefficient stops, etc. If those kinds of improvements can speed up a route by, say, 20%, Metro could presumably redeploy the freed-up hours for more Seattle service without violating the county council's rules.

Posted by: Steve Mooney | Feb 13, 2006 10:55:20 AM

I believe you're right, Steve, though I'm no expert.

If I'm not mistaken, the city has some plans to do the kinds of transit priority investments, on its own dime.

But the city, like most municipalities face a variety of funding constraints written into state law.

This is frustrating, as many of our cities want to do things more creatively and sustainably than state law allows.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Feb 13, 2006 1:57:57 PM