Over the past couple of months I’ve visited downtown Phoenix several times for my day job at the Tribune. When I first arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by the city; my previous impression had been that Phoenix was all sprawl and no city, but the downtown is quite nice.
However, after walking around in downtown Phoenix I was struck by how much vertical parking it has. Salt Lake City also has a lot of downtown space devoted to car storage, but the breadth and creativity of Phoenix’s garages is impressive:
None of this is especially unusual — many generally car-centric cities do this — but it still represents a massive amount of resources dedicated to cars. Just in the three pictures above, 30 percent or more of the buildings seems to be dedicated to parking.
Imagine if the money that went to this kind of parking went to something else, particularly something that directly generated revenue. Or, imagine if it had been used to build entirely new structures. Much like Salt Lake, only more so, downtown Phoenix feels completely abandoned at night; if the city half a dozen new residential buildings that feeling would radically change.
In any case, I was curious why developers in Phoenix were willing to devote so much of their budgets to parking. Actually I was pretty sure I already knew, but a little investigation confirmed it: parking minimums.
Like so many cities, Phoenix requires developers to include parking. You can read the requirements here (scroll down about a quarter of the way), but here are some of the stand out points:
• One- and two-bedroom apartments must have 1.5 parking spaces.
• Single family homes must have two parkings spaces.
• Gyms must have one space per 150 square feet.
• Movie theaters must have one parking space for every 3.5 seats.
• Skate parks, veterinarians, tennis courts, swap meets and just about anything else all must have parking.
I could go on and on with these highly specific and highly expensive parking requirements. Offices, which abound in downtown Phoenix, also must have parking, though the requirement varies by square feet.
So, is it any wonder that Phoenix is famous for sprawl and car dependency? Or that despite being one of the top 10 most populous American cities it’s downtown just barely compares with much smaller Salt Lake City?
This is probably a good place to point out that parking minimums are among the most absurd and ill-concieved land use policies ever. If people actually want parking, the market will respond; there’s no reason to require supply via laws and ordinances.
Luckily, some cities are beginning to recognize that. In Vancouver — which despite a reputation for good planning also has parking minimums — city leaders are working on a plan to allow condos without parking. Significantly, that move is expected to lower housing costs:
Removing underground parking can slice about $40,000 off the price of a unit, which would help Vancouver tackle its housing affordability problem, Somerville said.
That, I think, is the key: when parking minimums are eliminated, everyone — from developers to home buyers to companies renting office space — have greater choice and cheaper options. Parking will still exist as a result of demand, but those who don’t want it suddenly don’t have to pay for it. It’s a win-win approach that hopefully more American cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake City will embrace.
The Atlantic Cities had a great post earlier this week on why the U.S. is strangled in car traffic while Europe is not. The reasons vary, but one thing stands out: in America we throw vastly more government money at cars.
Probably the biggest, and least equitable, factor mentioned in the article is outright government subsidization:
Over the last 40 years, gas taxes, tolls, and registration fees have covered only about 60 or 70 percent of roadway expenditures across all levels of U.S. government. The remainder has been paid using property, income, and other taxes not related to transportation. These subsidies for driving reduce its cost and increase driving demand in the United States.
This is a problem no matter how you look at it.
Obviously more demand for driving creates environmental problems and degrades the physical quality of the city — no one likes walking through a parking lot, for example. But it also means that everyone is paying for big highway projects, for example, regardless of how much they use them.
Imagine for example, a lower income worker who lives near and uses transit possibility out of nessecity. Or, conversely, a higher income earner who has chosen to live in a transit-oriented neighborhood. Why should either of these people have to pay directly for roads that they’re not even using? (Clearly, they pay the gas tax when they purchase goods and services.)
And that’s just the outright subsidization of car infrastructure. The article also mentions several other factors — zoning, the interstate system, etc. — that also act as either direct or indirect subsidizes for a particular slice of the private world.
Two things stand out to me about this system: First, that it’s really quite contrary to our American values of fairness. And second, that it wasn’t inevitable; after all, Europe became what it is today through a series of conscious decisions.
More and more, sprawl is described as a government-funded scam, a Ponzi scheme that requires endless new investment just to stay afloat. But an article in the Jan. 27 issue of The New Yorker inadvertently raises a curious question: so what? And: can it survive anyway?
The article profiles L. Brooks Patterson (sorry about the paywall), Michigan’s despicable-sounding but highly effective Oakland County chief executive. Patterson’s county is adjacent to Detroit and, in contrast to Motor City, thrives because it has managed to attract international companies and rich people fleeing the city.
It’s also aggressively suburban, apparently. The article describes a stroad-like eight-lane highway in the county and Patterson is quoted as saying “I love sprawl. I need it. I promote it.”
That’s a vicerally cringe-worthy statement — at least for smart growth-ers — because it captures the economic recklessness underpinning sprawl: the only way for sprawl to keep going is for more and more people to keep buying into it. Because sprawl is too dispersed and too expensive to build — think big, wide government-funded streets that serve tiny numbers of people — it’s always on shaky financial footings.
So, Patterson’s Oakland County really does need sprawl in order to maintain its prosperity. It’s like Rome carrying the spoils of war back home; if that’s your economic plan you just have to keep move further and further out, going after tougher targets — and in Patterson’s case that means more international business and more sprawling development. Forever.
Which, I suppose, is fine. Patterson openly acknowledges as much. It’s a provocative thesis because it accepts the economic criticisms of sprawl but calls them attributes instead.
Time will tell if this suburban county is right, but it’s difficult to imagine history going in its favor. For one thing, the article itself foreshadows coming trouble; the mayor of nearby Detroit points out that younger people increasingly eschew suburbs in favor of cities. Later, the article forbiddingly quotes Richard Florida as saying that Oakland has “it easy. They have wealthy people and virtually no poor. They have the upsides without the costs. How selfish.”
More importantly, the strategy seems fundamentally unstable, as many sprawling communities are now learning. Just days before the New Yorker piece, The Atlantic Cities ran a story about another upscale suburb, this time in Illinois, that could no longer fund its roads. And as author Eric Jaffe points out,”it’s an uncertain time for public roads in general.”
In any case, it’ll be interesting to watch places like Oakland County over the next five, 10, even 20 years. If Patterson is right, good management is enough to keep them thriving. But if he’s wrong, these places are going to have to grow smarter, not just bigger.
I grew up in Glendora, a suburb of Los Angeles that epitomized car-centric sprawl. Though there are good things about that part of California, urban design is not one of of them. And in Glendora, that’s still mostly the case.
But during a recent visit I was astonished to see neighboring Azusa becoming surprisingly urban, at least in terms of infrastructure. The main street — a mostly car-crushed and dilapidated place — is about to get a train station:
The train station isn’t finished yet, but when it is it will link sleepy, suburban Azusa with the greater Los Angeles area. By train. For a place that historically epitomized car culture, that’s not bad.
Even more interesting is what has sprung up right next to the train station:
This target is already open and fully operational.
This is more or less a “city” target, meaning it’s not ringed with parking like more suburban designs. There are similar Target stores the downtowns of major cities like San Francisco and Seattle. The store in the picture above has parking, but it’s below the store, on the ground level where you see the arch.
Here’s another picture:
What’s remarkable is that Azusa is still very car-oriented and there’s still space there, meaning Target could probably have found a spot for a more typical store.
But for some reason that’s not what happened.
This design, with the parking on the ground floor and the store above, seems like the perfect solution for keeping everyone happy. There’s still plenty of space for cars — seriously, the lot is massive — but the wasteland-like expanses of normal parking structures are avoided. This solution is also presumably much cheaper than building actual underground parking.
It’s also impressive that this went in before the train station.
I don’t know why we don’t see more of this in Utah. Obviously no one can force a store to come to a community (and I have no inherent love of Target in particular), but in general we’re seeing long delays between when we build our transit infrastructure and when we actually see any transit-oriented development. The Frontrunner south line from Salt Lake to Provo has been done for more than a year now and I haven’t even heard of any preliminary proposals. Moreover, Salt Lake Central has been functioning for some time now (I don’t know how long, but years) and it’s still ringed with empty lots, homeless shelters and crime. It’s a wasteland.
By contrast Azusa, a smaller and poorer city than Salt Lake, already has a vastly more vibrant train station. What’s going on?
City Tank recently reported on how the Vancouver region’s focus on density and transit has allowed it to succeed. The post basically points out even the “suburbs” of Vancouver are dense and transit oriented. Pictures in the post of Burnaby really do look like they could be showing downtown Vancouver.
The post concludes with this salient point:
Imagine that instead of a huge surface parking lot and some scattered low-rise apartments and strip malls, there were half a dozen high-rise towers clustered around the Sound Transit LINK light rail station in Tukwila. That’s the difference between how the greater Vancouver region does things, and how the greater Seattle region does things.
And it’s why greater Vancouver will continue to be a more sustainable region for decades to come.
And I think that’s the key. Seattle is a great place that I love and that has excelled in many ways. But Vancouver, just a short distance away, has pulled ahead by building better. Moreover, that outcome wasn’t automatic or foregone; it was a decision people made because they wanted to have a better, more successful city.
There’s an obvious lesson in this for cities along Utah’s Wasatch Front: the benefits of growth will vary in magnitude depending on the type of city we built to handle that growth.
During a few days spent in the San Diego area recently I had a chance to ride the Sprinter commuter rail from Escondido to Oceanside. It was a pleasant ride that took just under an hour.
The area around the Escondido station is still very car-centric, but when I arrived in Oceanside I was pleasantly surprised to find a bunch of new development growing up around the station:
As is apparent from the large parking lot in the foreground, this is still a car town. But it’s also a growing region transit hub. The large yellow building is full of condos on the top floors and retail on the bottom. There were other buildings going up just behind me when I was talking the bottom picture.
The Sprinter is kind of a cross between TRAX and Frontrunner. The line opened in 2008. And while it hasn’t entirely revolutionized this area of north San Diego County, it clearly is having an impact, as these pictures show.