Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Are parking requirements holding up infill development?

No, not city zoning requirements. In Madison, there are no (car) parking requirements in the downtown area. If someone wants to build an apartment building or offices with no parking, they are free to do so.

But I heard a strange story last week, and this article echoes the same problem. A woman wanted to open a store on the Capital Square, but couldn't get a business loan. Why not? Because she had no parking. She wasn't worried about it. There are parking ramps quite close, and thousands of people would pass by her store by bus, foot, or bike every day. But the bank wouldn't give her a loan. No parking, no loan.

But as soon as the city turned the outer lane of the Square into a parking lane, viola! she got her loan. Doesn't matter how the majority of her customers got the the store. Doesn't matter that people get on and off the bus yards away. Doesn't matter if 10,000 people walk by during the Farmers' Market, or bike by as they come and go during the week. No parking in front, no loan.

What this means is that walkable, bikeable, transit friendly areas of the city are being penalized for being accessible and not car-oriented. If one small store couldn't get a loan, think what the restrictions would be for a larger building! [For more on how urban, mixed-use development is being screwed by federal loan rules, see this recent Forbes article.]

Now, most developers of larger buildings will build parking anyway, regardless of how expensive it is, because they think they can't rent out their space - residential, retail, or commercial - without parking on site. But if a brave soul decided that downtown Madison already had enough parking, and more office (or retail, or residential) space was a better thing to build than parking, they would be shut out of loans.

How crazy is that?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Yes, you can ride the bus, even if you live way outside the city.

Just because there isn't bus service to your home doesn't mean you can't arrive at work by bus.

This morning brought another conversation about driving, parking, costs, buses, and the possibility that transit and driving could be combined to save some money. It doesn't really matter what the details of the situation were today, because the conversation followed a familiar path. I've has variations on the same conversation dozens of times. This particular one occurred as a woman was trying to renew her parking permit on the UW campus.

Woman complaining about parking costs: It's so expensive. Parking should be free. Nobody else charges employees to park!

Me: [After pointing out that the UW Transportation Services gets no state funding, and has to somehow raise revenue to provide the parking she wishes were free. And that actually, many places charge for parking. Some employers in Madison don't provide any options other than parking in the public ramps, so that costs way more than the spots at UW.] Why don't you take the bus? Then you wouldn't have to pay for parking at all?

Woman: I live in [outlying community about 20 miles away], so I can't take the bus.

Me: Well, you could drive into an area in Madison with good bus service, and then take the bus from there. Just park on the street. Lot's of people do it. No cost for the parking, and then the UW provides the bus pass for you as well.

Woman: It takes too long.

Me: Actually, it's only about fifteen minutes from Hilldale. There are a bunch of buses that go from there right to the campus.

Woman: Well, what if my kids get sick? I have to have my car.

Me: The UW provides an emergency ride home. If your kids get sick, you can take get a ride to where you parked the car, and then drive from there.

Woman: I wish they told us that.

Me: They do. They send out an email every semester to all employees outlining the options other than driving alone and parking.

Woman: Well, I didn't see it.

Me: OK, well, now you know. It's just one option to save some money.

It doesn't matter what community this woman lives in, or whether she works at the UW or somewhere else, except that the UW has done an excellent job of providing information to all employees on how to get to and from work without driving. This woman gets all sorts of emails on this subject, and probably has seen posters at her office, received mailings, and even heard people talk about the bus pass program, but she rejected it for two reasons:
1. She knows there's no bus in her community, so she assumes that a bus is not an option for arriving at work, never considering the possibility that she could take the bus part way and avoid that pesky parking fee.
2. She's never taken a bus in her life, and it scares her to think about taking a bus.

OK, I'm speculating on that second point. But Madison is just small enough that there are a lot of people that still view buses as for poor people, brown people [oh, the horrors!], students, and crazy environmentalists. Buses are urban things, and she lives in a rural community. She wouldn't have the first idea how to find the correct bus, and she has no intention of finding out how to use the system.

So she'll continue to complain about the cost of parking. But maybe, just maybe, one day she will try riding the bus, just to prove that it won't work for her, and she'll find out it's actually pretty easy. Then she'll think about all the money she could save by giving up her parking spot, or getting flex parking, and maybe another multimodal commuter will be born.

And by the way, the City of Madison can also help you find ways to avoid driving (and parking) every day. So you don't have to be a UW employee to get that emergency ride home. But if you happen to be a UW employee, and don't already know about the services they provide, check out the Commuter Solutions page. It's great information for anyone in Madison.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lack of action on federal transportation bill actually benefits bike-ped projects

Not everywhere, of course, but Sheboygan County and Minneapolis, as well as Marin County, CA, and Columbia, MO, have gotten far more money than they could have every imagined. And the money just keeps coming.


Because those four communities: one rural county (Sheboygan), one suburban county (Marin), one small city (Columbia), and one large city (Minneapolis) each got $25 million in the last five-year transportation bill under the Non-Motorized Pilot Program. That's $5 million per year for the life of the SAFETEA-LU bill. The goal was to see if a massive influx of funding could change the mode share and significantly improve walking and biking.

But every time Congress fails to pass a new transportation bill, they pass a "continuing resolution", that keeps money flowing to the same programs, in the same amounts, for another chunk of time. We are now 835 days past due for a new transportation bill. Yes, over two years. That means that each of the communities listed above have had another $10 million handed to them to keep trying to change their local transportation system towards being more pedestrian and bicycle friendly!

To see how they have done, you can click around on the NMPP site, but much of the information is not up to date, and many of the changes in behavior and mode split may not be apparent for a few more years. After all, some of the trails, bridges, and other infrastructure aren't even finished yet. And educational and encouragement programs are just starting to have an effect.

For us here in Wisconsin, Sheboygan County was definitely starting the farthest back, as far as being pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. They had to start almost from zero on their planning efforts and educational programs. The other had already done some of the work, and just needed the money to make their bike-ped dreams a reality.

We often read about how great Minneapolis is for bicycling. It was rated # 1 by Bicycling Magazine, and is #2 among the top 50 largest cities in the percent of work trips by bike. [Note that Madison beats Minneapolis, and ties with Portland, OR, but is not among the top 50 largest cities.] They have worked really hard, and I don't want to take anything away from the advocates, planners, engineers, elected officials, and everyone else that is working on making Minneapolis bike-friendly. But having $35 million (and still coming) drop on you helps a lot as well!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The most dangerous consumer product in the US

This AZ press release makes some very good points about driving and road safety. As I am fond of saying, "If any other consumer product had this sort of safety record, it would be pulled from the market within a week."

When I say things like that, people point out that the majority of Americans either drive or ride in a car every day, so it's not surprising that we have a few deaths. OK, let's look at this another way. What if 30,000+ people were killed every year using a computer, or a credit card? Those are some pretty mundane task that tens of millions - maybe more than a hundred million - of people use every day. Would we accept someone using a computer dying every 15 minutes? Would we accept 30,000+ people dying from turning on the lights in their homes or making coffee?

Why is it acceptable to lose this many people every year by motor vehicle? Especially when the majority of those deaths could be easily prevented by making sure that people take driving seriously. No, you can't talk on the phone. No, you can't drink alcohol. No, you can't go over the speed limit. Not OK. A motor vehicle is a large, complex, dangerous machine, which is why we require people to have a license to operate one.

In many countries of the world, getting a driver's license is hard and expensive. And losing one is easy. In some European countries, you can lose your license for a year if you get your first DUI, and if you get three, ever, you will never be issued a license again, for the rest of your life.

Yes, we make it easy to get a driver's license, and hard to lose it, in this country because most people have no other way to get around, if they can't drive. Children can't get to school, unless their parents drive them. People wouldn't be able to work, shop, visit friends and relatives, see the doctor, or otherwise do normal activities. Of course, 30% of the US population doesn't drive, but they are considered some sort of freaks, those too young, too old, too cheap, too frail, or too environmentally conscious to drive or own a car.

But we need to rethink this whole transportation thing. People shouldn't be trapped in their cars to live, work, and move about. It's too expensive - for both individuals and taxpayers, too unsustainable - in so many ways, and yes, too dangerous to have everyone doing it.

My mantra: "Driving should be a choice, not a requirement."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Transit funding crisis: Maybe we should treat city services the same way

Transit services across the country are facing painful questions regarding service cuts vs. fare hikes, as shown by this interactive feature at Transportation for America. Which is worse?

Fare hikes often hit the poor and transit-dependent* very hard. A fare hike from $1.50 to $2.00 might as well be a change in gas prices from $3.00 to $4.00, plus a hike in registration, insurance, and parking. Each represents a 33% hike in transportation costs.

But service cuts also hit these groups as well. They may need to ride the bus at odd hours or access locations that are not on core routes+. Transit dependent people may not be able to get to work, the doctor, shopping, or to visit family and friends unless there is service when and where they need to go. If the bus isn't running, they often have no alternative.

So when faced with limited funds, do you put them into service that benefits the greatest number of riders? That would likely be the core routes during commuter hours: Buses that run into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the evening. Or do you continue to provide what is known in the industry as "lifeline service?" That would be buses that run to areas of the city with no other transit service, but also may have low-income populations, jobs, and services that people need. If you cut that off, those areas are then off limits to anyone without a car, or a sturdy set of legs to bike or walk.

An article today outlined that debate going on in Boston, but the article could have been written about almost any city in the country.

So I started thinking about how we decide who gets transit service. In Madison, there are plenty of areas of the city that do not have transit service, usually on the edge of town where there aren't many people (yet.) Metro doesn't have the money to extend transit service to these areas, so everyone that lives, works, or shops there generally has to travel in and out of the neighborhood by car.

I believe that transit is a core city service, and maybe we shouldn't be building in areas where we can't provide transit service. We pick up trash and leaves, even though there are very few people there. I can assure you that people would scream bloody murder if their streets weren't plowed. It's expensive to provide services in areas where there isn't much density. you have to drive all those city vehicles up and down the street for only a handful of people, instead of serving hundreds of people that live along the same length of street in my neighborhood.

And then I head people complaining that they see buses with almost no one on them. Yeah? Well, I see lots of streets with almost no one on them as well. Those streets get plowed, fixed, serviced by the city.

Maybe we can save some money by just not providing services to those areas of the city with a population density of less than X units per acre. Pick a number. Or a traffic volume. "We don't really need to plow that street, there aren't that many people living there anyway, and money is tight." Or maybe, "I'm sorry folks, you will have to carry your trash, recycling, brush and leaves to a main street, because it's just not efficient to have the truck come down your street for so few people." After all, they all have cars anyway, they can put all that stuff in the back of the car for a few blocks to save all the taxpayers of the city some money.

Transit dependent is a term for those without any other way to get around - the elderly, children, people with disabilities, and those who simply can't afford a car. The opposite group would be "choice riders," who can chose to use transit or some other option, such as driving.

+ Core routes are those that serve the downtown, major destinations, major corridors, etc. They often run evenings, weekends, holidays, and have frequent service.