Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Parking or Transit?

A new study by researchers at USC showed that people who live within half a mile of LA Metro’s new Expo Line were driving significantly less—as much as 40% less than they did prior to the opening of the light rail line.  They also drove less, and had a lower carbon footprint than those who don’t live near transit.  This is excellent news, and most welcome to those of us who understand that driving is not hard-wired into Angelinos, but is a result of an infrastructure that has been built almost entirely around the automobile for the past 80-odd years.  The study showed that infrastructure matters.  If we build it right, we maximize the chances that many more people will leave their cars at home and take transit more often.

The study also contained some important insights about infrastructure around transit stations.  For example, the study found that those who walked to the Expo Line stations showed improvement in health as a result of the approximately 20 minutes of daily moderate physical exercise they got walking to and from the station and their destination.  The study also found that connectivity to bus networks increased use of the Expo Line.  One of the factors that decreased a person’s likelihood of walking to the station was the existence of a large arterial roadway with heavy automobile traffic that had to be crossed in order to reach the station.  Crossing streets with heavy automobile traffic is intimidating for many people, and in such cases, they wind up taking their cars instead.

So, if we want to increase the use of a light rail transit (LRT) facility, the study strongly suggests we should design it to be comfortably and safely accessed by bus, walking, or bicycling.  This means providing easy connections to bus transit, prioritizing safe pedestrian and bicycle access, and reducing heavy automobile traffic on streets around stations.  Improved bus service and a network of bike lanes leading to a station can significantly increase the radius of people who use those means to get to an LRT station.  On the other hand, if we want to decrease the likelihood that people will walk or bike to an LRT station (thus decreasing the health benefits that accrue), design it primarily around automobile access.

What about those people who live beyond the half-mile radius around a light rail station.  Unfortunately, for many Southern Californians the default answer is to promote automobile access.  Take Ms. Leda Shapiro, whose letter to the L.A. Times in response to the study complained that the study didn’t emphasize “the common practice … of parking your car at the station and taking the train.”  Ms. Shapiro apparently misses the point that the study, for good reason, was trying to measure how many people didn’t drive to the station, Ms. Shapiro then reverts to a car-centered default position in her understanding of the role of transit:  

It is time to demand that parking structures be built so we can park and ride and get our cars off the freeways.  Buses … do not run often enough outside normal working hours or are too unreliable.  Many more people could ride the train outside that walkable half a mile if there was parking available (even with a small fee).

While she’s not wrong to bemoan the paucity of good bus service in many areas of our city, I would argue that after a point, more automobile parking is actually counterproductive.  A major problem is that at a certain point plentiful automobile parking and (as the USC study demonstrated) the resulting heavy auto traffic may discourage people from walking or biking to the stations.  

But the problem of prioritizing automobile parking is broader than that.  Large parking lots and parking structures tend to make the approach to the stations more distant and time-consuming for people arriving on foot or bicycle, who have to travel further to reach the platform, and contend with entrances to the station designed for cars.  Moreover, the large physical footprint of a parking lot makes it more difficult to build transit-oriented shops and apartments within convenient walking distance of the station, because the function of the station changes from being one that is comfortably accessible on foot to one that is primarily accessible by car.  Light rail patrons who arrive by car are less likely to patronize small shops nearby, because they’ll get right in their cars and leave.  If they want to shop, they’ll be much more likely to patronize shopping centers with plenty of parking, perpetuating the auto-centered sprawl model of retail development.  Thus, stations with large parking lots don’t lend themselves to the kind of mixed-use development that entices people who live nearby to walk or bike to those local shops.  Let’s not forget that local shopping keeps more dollars in the local economy and creates local jobs, unlike the Wal-Mart style of retail centered around shopping by car.  Build transit for cars and we lose the virtuous cycle of car-light living and replicate some of the worst aspects of the automobile-centered lifestyle, such as sprawl, traffic, parking lot purgatories, and unhealthy sedentary travel habits.

Light rail transit should be designed to gradually shift people away from car dependency, not continue it.  If we want to get more people to use transit and further reduce traffic, our carbon footprint, improve our health, and our local economy, we should not “demand” more car parking, as Ms. Shapiro wants, instead we should demand more frequent and longer running local bus service to transit stations, more bike lanes and low-stress bike routes to those stations, good bike parking, and pedestrian-friendly streets in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The good news is, those pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure improvements are much less expensive than the infrastructure that must be built to accommodate significantly more car traffic.  And if we subsidized local bus transit to the same degree that we currently subsidize automobile parking, we could afford more frequent bus service.  And make no mistake, more frequent bus service is essential to make our cities less car-dependent.

So here’s a dilemma: do we build multi-billion dollar parking structures at all LRT stations that significantly raise the cost of building those stations?  As UCLA economist Donald Shoup has demonstrated, there’s no such thing as “free” parking.  What if the additional costs of building a large capacity park-and-ride facility (and they are considerable) make extending our LRT system so much more expensive that it becomes politically difficult to build more light rail?  I guarantee you, Ms. Shapiro and other car-dependent citizens will raise a ruckus if they have to pay parking fees sufficient to recoup the full cost of new parking facilities, so parking costs will likely have to be subsidized to entice them to bring their cars to the station.

I’m not saying new transit stations should lack any automobile parking, but motorists should be required to pay the full cost of providing parking.  Perhaps parking structures could be located away from the station, reducing traffic and the physical footprint of the station itself so that it is more convenient and welcoming for people arriving by bus, bike, or on foot.  Perhaps a few stations (at the end of a line, for example) might provide extensive park-and-ride accommodations while others should be designed primarily around transit, walkable, and bikeable access with a minimal amount of car parking.

We should pay close attention to the USC study’s encouraging results.  It proves that we can design transit and the surrounding infrastructure in a way that has the potential to alter people’s transportation choices.  Designing stations primarily for automobile parking may bring a few more drivers to the station in the short run, but it unfortunately tends to negate the other, more virtuous choices.  It is a trade-off we should carefully consider when building new LRT stations.

You can say I’m a dreamer

I ride a bike for transportation.  By choice.  I still own a car, but I wish I could get rid of it (and I may someday).  Generally, this has made me happier and healthier than when I drove everywhere.  This makes me something of a, well—a freak—in the eyes of many of my friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and many drivers “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race,” who rush past me on the road.

But there’s nothing that will clarify your perception more than breaking the chains of automobile imprisonment.  What I mean is that I think the mental liberation I’ve gained by leaving the car at home is as important as the physical benefits and the benefits to the planet.  Ride your bike and you begin to realize that we’ve made a series of choices to construct a car system (what environmental historian Christopher Wells calls “car country”) and locked ourselves in, then many of us claim that there’s no viable alternative.  The only choice we assume we’ve left ourselves is what kind of car to drive.  Of course, there are plenty of people who for a variety of reasons (lack of money, lack of legal status, cognitive or physical limitations) are unable to buy into the only choice we’ve made available, but it is assumed that if you have the means, owning a car is as natural as breathing, despite the irony that cars have made it harder for us to breathe.

Then there are those like me who’ve made a conscious choice to opt out of the car system to whatever extent we can, living car-free or (in my case) car-light.  My own journey started riding my bike once a week, and gradually built up over time as I became more comfortable riding my bike and taking transit where I needed to go.  As I’ve done so, a kind of clarity about the limitations of our car-based transportation system has gradually dawned on me.

As I’ve left the car behind, I’ve begun to realize how interconnected are our problems of climate change, air pollution, sprawl, traffic congestion, stress, public health, and the erosion of local communities, to name just a few.  While the car is not the sole cause of these, it is the nexus.  In a venn diagram of these problems, the car would be at the intersection.  I’ve come to see that automobiles kill more Americans every year than just about anything else except firearms, and maim or seriously injure more than a quarter of a million a year in the US alone (worldwide, the figures are astronomically higher).  When people say bikes are dangerous, what they really mean is cars are dangerous, and especially so to anyone not wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel, glass and plastic.  Lurking beneath the “bikes are dangerous” claim is an unexamined assumption that being virtually required to purchase an expensive 1-ton exoskeleton to get to work is a normative state of affairs instead of an incredible waste of resources and money.

The economic costs associated with this form of transportation are also staggering, when one factors in the cost of the infrastructure, the cost of motor vehicle management and traffic enforcement, the economic cost of injuries, obesity, cardio-pulmonary disease, stress-related diseases, not to mention the billions—nay, trillions—spent on securing steady supplies of petroleum and other raw materials to feed the insatiable demands of the machine.  Not to mention the multi-billion dollar marketing juggernaut that fills our minds with the message that the car = freedom, setting us up to spend an average of $6,000 – $9,000 a year just to keep the damn thing on the road.  The machine clearly owns us, not the other way around.  Freedom, my ass.

Most appalling is the way so much of our public and private space has been given over to this machine.  Over the decades, cars have gradually taken over road space from other users—people.  These expensive cocoons of privatized space have so come to dominate our public spaces that it is no longer safe for children to walk or bike to school or play in the street as we used to do when I was young.  The bulk of the space of any retail or commercial development, by law, is given over to the storage of our empty metal boxes.  And if you really want to have fun, just try suggesting to your city that space along the road be set aside for protected bike lanes rather than a traffic lane or parked cars and, as soon as they realize you’re serious, witness the mouth-foaming that results.  The solution to our traffic problem is always that more neighborhoods must be bulldozed to build/extend/widen more freeways/highways/parking lots.  This moloch, master of our universe, must be served.

It’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, this rabid defense of the automobile domination of our lives.  As the great historian E. P. Thompson understood, people’s consciousness is profoundly shaped by their lived experience.  The “windshield perspective” reinforces itself until it is internalized and naturalized.   When it is reinforced by a massively subsidized physical infrastructure and gigantic industries that propagandize it daily, it becomes essentialized.  It becomes what Vandana Shiva calls a “monoculture of the mind.”  People will defend it as if their very lives depended on it, when in fact our lives—and the future of the planet—depend on doing the opposite.

Despite the naysayers, change is slowly coming.  With each new bike lane, each new rider I see on the road, my spirit lifts.  Just maybe, I think, there’s hope for us yet.  So, you may say I’m a dreamer.  But, as John Lennon once sang, I’m not the only one.  I hope some day you’ll join us ….

Open Letter to Senator Boxer

Dear Senator Boxer,

On January 1, Congress is reducing the modest tax break for commuters who use public transit.  This would be bad enough, and unwise, but somewhat more bearable if it was part of a shared sacrifice in a time of tight federal budgets.  How distressing then, that Congress is at the same time increasing the federal tax break for automobile commuters.

This policy will reward those who drive and punish those who use transit to get to work.  This is unfortunate, indeed, as we should do all we can to encourage people to use transit for a variety of reasons, including reducing traffic congestion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as public health (studies have shown that transit users walk more than motorists, which means they get more exercise).

For the past several years, transit commuters and automobile commuters have been able to set aside up to $245 a month in pre-tax income to pay for commuting costs (transit fares and parking, respectively).  While the transit tax break is set to be cut almost in half on January 1, the automobile tax break is set to increase to $250 a month.  This has occurred in part because the tax break for automobile parking is automatically renewed while the transit tax break must be voted on annually (why the unequal treatment?).  Apparently Congress this year thinks it’s a good idea to balance the federal budget on the backs of transit users.

As Donald Shoup has argued, there are a myriad of hidden costs associated with automobile parking, and this is one significant way society subsidizes the automobile.  Such subsidies for automobiles skew the choice people make about transportation.  Senator, we must shift to more sustainable modes of transportation and Congress must critically scrutinize every penny that subsidizes automobile use in order to create economic incentives to alternative transportation.  We should use revenues to bolster our public transportation system so that people have a genuine choice about transportation alternatives.  Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize an environmentally unsustainable automobile system with its attendant problems of gridlock and parking congestion without at least offering similar benefits to those who take transit to work.  At the very least, Congress should maintain parity between the two instead of giving special treatment to automobile users.

While I expect an auto-centric perspective from some members of Congress, I was extremely disappointed to see your defense of this policy’s unequal treatment of transit users.  You told NPR recently:

I don’t agree that you should put one group against the other. 

You’ll pardon me Senator, but that is exactly what this unequal tax policy does.  It treats transit users inequitably, and in effect encourages more driving, which is a questionable policy from a transportation and environmental perspective.

I think we should encourage fuel-efficient cars, and if someone really needs their car for work, I don’t have a problem with saying, you know what, there’s enough expense here, we can make sure that this isn’t exorbitant for you.

As I’ve argued before, there’s no such thing as a “green car,” and giving people another financial incentive to drive by providing taxpayer-subsidized parking does nothing to encourage truly sustainable transportation, let alone fuel efficiency.  Moreover, wouldn’t the same argument hold true for transit use?  Why are you willing to subsidize driving, but not transit use?

My own view is there are some people — many people — who don’t have the luxury of being able to take transit.

This argument is wrong on several levels.  First, as a transit user, I can tell you that “luxury” is the last word that comes to mind when I’m riding the bus to work.  There are many reasons I like taking the bus, but “luxury” isn’t one of them.  Second, human mobility is a right, not a luxury.  For millions of Americans who can’t afford the approximately $6,000 – $9,000 per year the AAA calculates is associated with car ownership, transit is a necessity, not a “luxury.”  I suspect not many of those Americans make it to Capitol Hill to lobby for tax breaks like the auto, highway, oil, and real estate interests do.  Indeed, as a recent article in Salon concluded, there’s a deep political bias toward the automobile that keeps transit starved for funds in this country.  As Salon noted, the bias runs deep: “for most of the political class, everyone they know and interact with owns a car.”  I suspect that most members of your Senate Transportation Committee haven’t actually tried to use transit on a regular basis.

You might try to spin this as automobile populism, Senator, but any policy that privileges the ownership of the motor vehicle as the foundation of its transportation system is not only environmentally unsustainable, it is economically elitist.

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