Reducing Parking to Reduce Traffic

What a nightmare! For Valentine’s Day my wife and I made a reservation at a sushi place on Sawtelle for seven o’clock. After checking with Google, which told us the trip would take 24 minutes in current traffic, we left at 6:30. We arrived an hour later (what were we thinking?) and after two calls to the restaurant asking them to hold the reservation on a busy night. (The meal was wonderful and our marriage survived the non-romantic traffic.)

I hate being trapped in Santa Monica every night, but I also hate the fact that in the name of fighting traffic, for 80 years we have been doing everything that makes traffic worse by encouraging, in fact by requiring, more driving: by increasing road capacity, by sprawling out development farther and farther away, by destroying and underfunding transit, and by overbuilding and subsidizing parking.

Parking, the black hole of planning, is crucial because people make decisions not to drive to places where parking is scarce.

The Santa Monica Planning Department, which is drafting a new zoning ordinance under the LUCE, recently unveiled plans to reduce parking requirements for new residential developments.

Many members of the public responded with outrage. That didn’t surprise me. What surprises me is that people who complain about traffic congestion also complain about reducing parking requirements. My primary reason for agreeing that we should reduce the parking supply is that I want to reduce traffic.

No, not everyone will stop driving cars if we only wish it so. But not everyone drives as much as everyone else. I don’t want to attract to Santa Monica new residents who drive more, and we can discourage them from moving here by reducing the amount of parking available in new apartments and by requiring new residents to pay the real costs of their parking spaces.

Consider: It costs about $40,000 to build an underground parking space. To amortize that amount, at 5% interest over 30 years, the monthly cost is $215. Add in maintenance, and round it up to $250. Let’s say we have a couple who both work and who want to move to Santa Monica. Your prototypical American working couple who own two cars would need to pay $500 a month for parking if they moved into a building where parking was only available at cost. But if one of them doesn’t need a car to commute, they’ll only need one car and one space, and save half the money.

More to the point, if only one parking space were available for the apartment, and street parking is limited, too, a two-car couple would want to live somewhere else.

As a Santa Monican who wants to reduce traffic congestion, I want to attract new residents who drive less, and to do so I don’t want to subsidize car ownership for those who drive more.

Maybe you are saying – why build apartments and attract any more residents? The answer is that in Santa Monica, where nearly every lot is developed, if we build housing in commercial zones, we’re probably reducing traffic because either the existing commercial development on the site already causes more driving than housing that could be built there would, or if the property is redeveloped as commercial it will certainly cause more driving than new housing.

As for the argument that not requiring developers to build more parking is a giveaway to developers, why do we need to give anything away? Just because you’re not requiring developers to waste money on something that’s not needed (surplus parking), that doesn’t mean you can’t require them to spend it on something else – like paying for traffic mitigations and transit improvements.

Thanks for reading.

9 thoughts on “Reducing Parking to Reduce Traffic

  1. Pingback: Reducir Estacionamiento para Reducir Trafico | salvolomas

  2. Hi Frank. Very glad to have the opportunity to read your stuff again!

    Very interesting article. However, it sounds to me as if you’re saying “I wish fewer people had cars in Santa Monica so I could DRIVE MYSELF AND MY WIFE TO WEST LA for dinner.” Pardon the caps. When it comes to traffic I think we would all like to have fewer people driving cars, but none of us wants it to be us.

    In a way, I think that part of the problem is that traffic isn’t bad enough! Let’s face it, even though traffic is bad, it isn’t bad enough for you to stay home. And it’s the same for a lot of us. We complain about it, but we still go out in our cars to get to work and to the grocery store and to the doctor. And to sushi. As a society we won’t feel compelled to actually take action against congestion on the roads until people say “Enough!” and quit going to work and to the grocery store and to the doctor. And to sushi.

    I do have some friends who don’t come to the Westside anymore. And I don’t leave my home on 9th Street after about 4 PM if I can help it due to how long it takes to get east to the 405. I just don’t like wasting that much time. To me, it’s just not worth it. No one likes to hear me say “Sorry, I’m not going to come over tonight, it’s just not worth it” but that’s the truth. So, personally, I have reached my limit. The trouble is, most people have not.

    I think that trying to limit the number of cars in Santa Monica by reducing the amount of parking associated with new development is a mistake. First of all, we already have a major issue with traffic, regardless of what happens with new development. We need to solve the current problem, not do little things to keep the problem from getting worse. Second, other than the Expo line, what alternatives to driving do people have? I’ve read that Santa Monica’s population rises to 250,000 during the day, thanks to people coming to Santa Monica to work. They’re still going to come… and a lot of them are still going to drive. Finally, if reducing the number of cars on the City’s streets is your goal, why not just do it, rather than TRY to do it by HOPING that reducing parking will also reduce cars on the street? The one does not necessarily follow the other.

    If we want to reduce the number of cars we ought to be forthright about it. Let’s just do it. We could….

    a) prohibit driving during certain times of day, based on license plate numbers (your plate ends with an odd number, you can drive at any hour on an odd-numbered day, but on even-numbered days you can drive only after 7 PM, for example). This follows the water-conservation model which allows you to water your yard based on your house number.

    b) build park-and-ride lots on the edge of town (I know, I know– you don’t want parking, but this is for our mutual good), or at any location desired, and run shuttle buses from there into downtown and to the pier and to the beach etc. (Think of how many people are going straight to the beach, and how many cars they’re in. Wouldn’t it be great if our beach and the pier weren’t the biggest parking lots around? That’s the wrong place for the cars.)

    I like the idea of limiting the number of cars on the road. I don’t like doing it by reducing parking.

  3. Hi Frank. Welcome back. I always enjoy reading your stuff. This time I don’t agree with you but it might be a matter of not understanding your logic.

    Here’s the way I see it.

    You wanted to go out to dinner. You CHOSE to drive. You assumed, whether consciously or not, that you’d be able to park your car somewhere near the restaurant, and that you’d be able to park somewhere near your home when you returned. Your basic argument appears to be “people don’t drive to where there isn’t a lot of parking”– so how would your night have been better with less parking?

    The answer is, less parking would have made your night worse.

    According to your theory, reduced parking at the restaurant would have made you reconsider going there for dinner, and reduced parking at your home would have made you reconsider moving your car in the first place. That would be good for the rest of us (the ones who would have had to share the road with you), but worse for you. Staying home on Valentine’s Day, or at the least not being able to dine at your chosen restaurant, would not have made your night better. You would have helped traffic overall, which is good, but you didn’t want to sacrifice your own trip for the greater good. You did what the rest of us on the Westside do, lacking a decent transportation system: you got into your car and drove.

    You’re hoping that reduced parking leads OTHERS to drive less, so that you can drive to sushi more quickly. I think that’s what all of us do: we want others to get off the roads so that we have smoother sailing. Sure, you could reduce parking and hope you get the result you want, but it sounds as if what you really want to do is reduce the number of cars. I don’t know the legalities of this but wouldn’t it be better to prohibit more than a certain number of cars per housing unit rather than trying to make it so uncomfortable to have a car that a sort of “natural selection” occurs?

    In my multi-family dwelling neighborhood more and more people have more and more roommates in order to pay the rent. More people per dwelling leads to more cars per dwelling, and in my neighborhood many buildings offer NO off-street parking at all. (My immediate neighbors to the north– a building with 8 units– and my immediate building to the south– a building with 9 units– have no off-street parking.) Does the lack of parking spaces keep people with cars from living in these units? Not at all. It might keep SOME people with cars from living in those units. But the people who live in those units now all have cars. They are terribly inconvenienced as they hunt around for parking on the street, but they retain their cars, because if you’re going to get around in Santa Monica and West L.A. you pretty much have to drive.

    What we need in Santa Monica, if we’re going to reduce car trips, is alternative transportation options. And those options have to be better than driving, or else we’ll just stay in our cars. (We could just stay home but that’s not why we live in a place with so many great attractions nearby.) Right now, the options are not better than driving. Buses are stuck in the same lousy traffic as our cars are, and are less comfortable. Bicycle riding and walking are great for shorter trips but you couldn’t have taken your wife to dinner on Valentine’s Day on your bike. The Expo line, when it gets here, is the first “better than driving” option to come along and having used it myself to get from Culver City to the Rose Garden at Exposition Park, I can tell you personally that it IS better than driving. Faster, easier, and fun. People will take Expo at every opportunity because it’s BETTER, not because a City policy puts the squeeze on automobile parking. And I think that’s the key: Expo is better than driving, and that’s why it’s so well-used.

    I think your theory is interesting but frankly I don’t want to experiment with it. I’m already 50 years old– I can’t wait for redevelopment with reduced parking to somehow reduce the numbers of cars on the street (and what if, as I suspect, it doesn’t work?). Besides, there are too many cars on the street already. What you’re talking about is “let’s not make things worse when we build more apartments,” but what I care about is fixing the traffic problems we already have.

    You have a voice that people respect. If you champion alternative transportation options– the kind that people will choose because they’re BETTER than driving– people will listen, and you’ll make a big difference. If instead you champion the notion that we can make traffic better by making parking worse, I think you’ll spend your time trying to convince people you’re right– and I don’t think you can win that fight.

    People will get out of their cars when they’re given viable options, not because we’ve made car ownership inconvenient or troublesome. It reminds me of Aesop’s fable about the Wind and the Sun, as they try to strip a traveler of his jacket. The Wind tries to blow the traveler’s jacket off, but the harder he blows, the more tightly the traveler holds his jacket on. The Sun takes another approach, and as he sends warmth the traveler takes his jacket off– willingly. Let’s focus on doing things that make people give up their car trips by their own free will. That’s the way to the result we all want.

    I started this comment by stating that maybe I didn’t follow your logic. That’s still a possibility, and I’d be glad to read a follow-up by you that explains things a little more. (Since I often agree with your opinions, and always respect them, I suspect that this is more a matter of me not understanding your position than opposing it.)

    In the meantime, whether I understood your point or not, now you’ve heard mine.

  4. The best way to reduce the parking and traffic crunch in Santa Monica is to recall everyone on the City Council and elect a resident friendly council!~)

    • Agree- in theory this would be good but in reality – it will cause even more issues and make development more lucrative- thus attracting more and more- we need to stop it and now – and how?

  5. Pingback: The Transportation Impact Fee: A Good Plan | The Healthy City Local

  6. Frank, good as ever! If only your cost of parking were true. It is higher and rising. If I understand the policy correctly the City does not require the developer to build less. It just reduces the minimum. If that is the case, then the market can help regulate, just as in your example. The higher standard minimum parking is a one size fits all that is typical throughout the region. That does not give the market a chance to offer positive change. The appeal of living in smaller densely located apartment units that are clustered in commercial districts is the value of living in a neighborhood with many options for getting around (walking, biking, bus, taxi, and vehicular) while also having the advantage of many accessible lifestyle, household convenience and workplace destinations. One step more to go. With less parking the buildings can be more imaginatively designed and owners as well as the City can collaborate on district parking solutions. Nothing new….Santa Monica was one of the earliest pioneers when the third street system was put in place beginning in the 60’s.

    • John — I went w/ 40K because I thought I’d be conservative on that, but I know it’s getting to be more like 50K plus. You’re right, only the minimum would be reduced; we’re not at the “parking max” stage yet in SM. So if a developer thought the market demanded the parking, and could pay for it, he or she could still build it. But under the LUCE we are moving towards decoupling the price of parking, and so the tenant or condo-buyer would not have to rent or buy the space. And yes, thanks for mentioning that SM was a pioneer in the 60s, with shared parking, and as a result, the amount of parking in downtown SM in relationship to square feet of development is relatively low — yet look how good business is.

  7. Frank, welcome back as a journalist! I have missed you. This is an incredibly important message for the people of Santa Monica: that parking enables driving and thus congestion on our small roads, which we can’t widen. Parking has to be linked to road capacity, and our roads are just about maxed out at peak periods.

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