Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wilshire BRT Scorecard

The past week has seen a flurry of activity around the Wilshire BRT. LA Streetsblog has done a great job of covering it all as it has unfolded. The Condo Canyon private traffic study rapidly upgraded, with the help of some key political players, from a shady contract study to a directive that Metro staff rethink that section of Wilshire. Richard Katz, Zev Yaroslavsky, and Paul Koretz all made statements to the press that the Condo Canyon section should come out. Almost immediately, Metro asked the FTA to approve a project revision, and within days the FTA said yes. I personally found this very disheartening; I had scrambled to put together a letter to the FTA which was signed by a practically unprecedented range of transportation activists. Before we could even send the letter, the FTA had granted Metro's request to change the project. You can still read the letter, which is in .pdf form at this Streetsblog article, which is a pretty good overview of the whole drama.

Things were looking down for the BRT, when Bruins for Transit took to the streets and collected 135 petitions supporting the original BRT project. They got signatures, email addresses, and zip codes from bus riders living in every single one of the five county supervisorial districts. Via twitter, facebook, this blog, and the LA Subway Blog, at least 47 emails have been sent to Metro Board members in support of the original project. The Bus Rider's Union got moving; theywill be coming out in force on Thursday to keep the bus-only lanes intact.

Today started with some bad news: the Brentwood "Community Council" saw that loud rich neighborhoods can get out of bus-only lanes and went ahead and made their own request to be excluded from the project. Hmm, see where this is going?

The Brentwood Community Council should check their math, though. Or maybe just their notion of fairness. They complain that the BRT will "take away 1/3 of the roadway from cars." Well, they should remember that 80,000 motorists use Wilshire everyday, and so do over 80,000 bus riders. So if we're going to divvy up the roadway fairly, buses should really get half. This project gives buses less than that, at only 1/3 through this section. And just to be nice, it still lets turning cars use the bus only lanes. Oh, and the bus-only lanes only last for peak hours, 7-9 AM and 4-7 PM. So we're actually only dedicating (1/3)*(5/24) = 7% of the space to buses. On a corridor where bus riders are half of the travelers.

On the other hand, today ended with some good news: the Bicycle Advisory Committee of the City of LA moved to support the original project.

To summarize, the scorecard on the Wilshire BRT is now:

Team Keep the BRT Whole: 47 emails, 135 street petitions, and one Citizen's Advisory Committee

Team Destroy the BRT One Rich Neighborhood at a Time:
2 Neighborhood Councils, 1 Rabbi, 1 County Supervisor (Yaroslavsky), 1 City Councilmember (Koretz) 1 Other Metro Board Member (Richard Katz), 1 FTA Regional Rep Leslie Rogers

Team Undecided: 1 Mayor, 4 County Supervisors,  1 Metro CEO, 4 Metro Board Representatives from Duarte, Glendale, Santa Monica, and Lakewood, 14 City Council Members

We only have until Thursday morning so the time to start your pro-BRT engine is now. Send a letter if you haven't yet. If you already sent a letter, call your county supervisor and pressure them to take a stand on this. (Let us know how your phone calls go in the comments :)

Ready, set gooooo!

Letter writing tools: (QUICK AND EASY)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Write Mayor V and your County Supervisor to Protect the Wilshire BRT Project!

Ahh, bus-only lanes. In a city where the vast majority of the public transportation network runs on buses, they are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to improve public transit. With bus-only lanes, transit doesn't have to compete with peak-hour congestion. Time tables are actually reliable, and travel times are a lot shorter. This all seems downright fair, considering that during rush hour, buses are packed with upwards of 50 people, while cars usually contain... one person.  Our streets should move people, not just cars, is my view, and bus-only lanes get us closer to that. Oh, and bus-only lanes may not be as sexy as subways, but they sure are cost-effective: a bus-only lane can achieve rail-like speeds for about 1/300th of the cost. In this era of budget crises, that sounds like a win to me.

Lucky for us. Bus-only lanes are coming to Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles! And are set to open by 2013! But there's one catch. If your neighborhood is rich and noisy enough, it can throw a wrench in the whole bus-only lane idea. Back when the bus-only lane project was being developed, Beverly Hills refused to participate. So Metro wrote up a proposal that excluded their city. This proposal was successful and won a whole bunch of federal money. Now, the wealthy neighborhood just West of the Country Club, an area known as Condo Canyon because of its many high-rise buildings, is refusing to do its part to move buses faster. This might jeopardize said federal money, and it will definitely slow down the buses. What's saddest about this whole scenario is that Supervisor Yaroslavsky is actually siding with this small group of noisy NIMBYs, instead of protecting the project for the rest of his constituents. It's clumsy politics at best, and clientelism at worst. Who knows if we'll ever be able to build out a true network of bus-only lanes in Los Angeles if our politicians continue to cave like this.

Lucky for us. A coalition of transportation activists is roaring back to oppose this exemption. LACBC posted this earlier today, and Bruins for Transit was on the streets tonight talking to 720 riders. As a co-founder of the UCLA Bicycle Coalition and a car-free commuter, I'm posting here to ask you to do your part to protect this important demonstration project. If you can, attend the Metro Board meeting on Dec. 9.

Whether or not you can attend the meeting, definitely send an email to your representative asking them to insist on a complete project and reject Yaroslavsky's NIMBY handout. Here are the steps to doing so:

1. Open a new email with a hard-hitting subject: Preserve the Wilshire Bus-Only Lanes! Protect Regional Car-Free Mobility!
2. If you live in the City of LA, put Mayor V in the to:
3. Go to this website and figure out what County Supervisorial District you live in (unless you're some kind of political savant / activist who already knows).
4. Paste the appropriate supervisor email

District 1, Gloria Molina,
District 2, Mark Ridley-Thomas,
District 3, Zev Yaroslavsky,
District 4, Don Knabe - he doesn't have an email posted on his website, which is strange and opaque, but umm, you can email his chief of staff at, or make your case here . That link also has a number you can call.
District 5, Michael Antonovich,

4. Copy the text below into the body, adding your name and zip code and any personalized comments you want to make.
5. cc: so that we can let you know how your politician voted.
6. Tweet it, blog it, facebook it, pass it on to someone at your office or someone in the street. Let's rally.

Dear Mayor Villaraigosa (if applicable) and [your supervisor here],

As a resident of County Supervisorial District [x] [and a citizen of the city of Los Angeles], I write to urge you to approve the Wilshire Bus Rapid Transit Lane (BRT) on Dec. 9th. Creating a bus-only lane between Centinela Ave. and MacArthur Park during peak hours can save up to 17 minutes one-way, or over half an hour round-trip.

The Wilshire BRT project will provide LA residents with a travel alternative more comparable with the car and attract more riders, improving air quality for the region. On weekdays, approximately 80,000 people board the bus along Wilshire, whereas an average of 80,000 cars drive along Wilshire. As the region grows, we need to find solutions like the Wilshire BRT that move people, not cars.

While we look forward to the Westside Subway Extension, we hope to see near-term projects like the Wilshire BRT that will open in 2 years, as we await the subway opening in 25 years. Improving bus service and reliability will also be important for future subway riders who also need to make bus transfers to reach their destinations.

More specifically, I am writing to ask you to protect your constituents and reject the recent proposal by Supervisor Yaroslavsky to exclude a select neighborhood in his district from participating in the project. Removing the bus-only lanes between Comstock Ave. and Veteran Ave in Westwood not only risks federal funding, it threatens the integrity of the project altogether. Buses will not achieve the fast times that have been promised if this exemption is allowed to go forward. We must not compromise the success of the project simply because a wealthy neighborhood dislikes it. Help us move toward a future where Los Angeles's streets move people, not just cars. Do not allow any more holes to be poked in this crucial demonstration project.

The Wilshire BRT will not only bring tremendous benefits to the commutes of the thousands of people that ride the 720 [with me - if applicable] every day, it will also improve the air quality of the region by providing an alternative transportation choice. It will also improve riding conditions for bicyclists, who will be allowed to share the repaved and widened curb lane.

Please approve the Wilshire BRT, and adopt Alternative A, Truncated Project Without Jut-Out Removal as the Preferred Alternative, which includes the Westwood portion of Comstock to Veteran Ave.
The vote on Dec. 9 is about more than just the Wilshire bus-only lanes. It's about fairness, and it's about priorities. Should a wealthy neighborhood that benefits from the regional economy not have to contribute to regional mobility? Should our streets prioritize cars at the expense of public transportation's speed and quality? I'll be watching this vote closely, and I hope you take the stance that moves us forward into a cleaner, greener, and more mobile future.

[your name here]
[your address or zip code]

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Google Biking Directions is Very Responsive

With this kind of rapid response to user suggestions I bet Google's "Bike There" routes end up being pretty good in most cities. Google impresses me. I sent them a suggestion and they got back to me within the week saying they would check it out. They then updated Google Maps the next week and sent me the following email. (This was in June 2010, by the way).

Hi Herbie,

Google Maps has been updated to correct the problem you reported. You can see the update here, and if you still see a problem, please tell us more about the issue:  Link to view and/or reopen issue

Report history
Problem ID: A1CC-89C3-E0EF-7B06

Your report:
The directions suggest a route that is much more unsuitable for biking than an alternative route just near the one google suggests. I am not sure if this is out of the scope of your capabilities, but average daily traffic on Olympic (the road suggested) is much, much more than ADT on 9th, which is just North of Olympic. If I were giving bicycling directions I would suggest 9th.
Thanks for your help,
The Google Maps team 

Do folks out there know of other crowdsourced bike route databases? I'm intrigued by the idea, since lots of bicyclists I know choose their routes based on word-of-mouth. The complexity of the route data seems to resist an internet platform: for example, I'll get word that a certain street is good to ride on, except during rush hour; or vice versa - some streets aren't bad to ride on during rush hour because they are so congested; or I'll get word that I should avoid a street at night, etc. Nonetheless, I think crowdsourcing has been both effective and self-reinforcing in Google's case. I've noticed an uptick on Carmelita Ave. (near UCLA, parallel to the much crappier Santa Monica Blvd through Beverly Hills) in particular, and at least one rider told me she learned about the street through Google biking directions. But Google's routes are not openly crowdsourced, they're controlled internally. When I have time I want to learn more about true and open crowdsourced bike route programs and how they perform. Thoughts?

Also, how do folks out there think Google's "Bike There" option is performing in LA? What are places where Google really gets it right? Or wrong?

Hmm... and: Can we tell what Google's routing criteria are based on the routes it suggests? If they have some magic routing algorithm for bicycling I most definitely want to see it. My guess is that it (1) routes on city-designated bike lanes, paths, and routes, whenever possible, and has some tolerance for routing out-of-the-way (i.e. away from the shortest distance path) to get on them. It has some trade off between hilliness and directness built in. It knows major boulevards and avoids them. What else?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

LA Bike Plan: Pretty Unambitious Compared to Tacoma, WA and Des Moines, Iowa

Oh, the rewards of reading all the way to the end of reports without disregarding their appendices and addendums. I just found this fascinating figure in Alta Planning+Design's "Seamless Travel" study. (If you're wondering, the study concerns extensive bike survey and count data collected in San Diego County, and efforts to model bicycling and walking demand based on the data). Anyway, the figure:

(You have to click to enlarge because I couldn't get a large version to display properly with the way the blog is formatted. Source is here, final report, p. AD-1).

It's painful to hear the depressing story this figure tells about where Los Angeles is and where it is going. First of all we are second to Des Moines, Iowa (?) in our ratio of bikeways to roads. And - wow - our ratio is three times smaller than San Diego's, and San Diego is not what I would consider a bike-topia.  Worst of all, of the six cities in the figure, Los Angeles has the lowest aspirations of any of them. Our planned bikeway mileage is only 9% of our total roadway mileage.

I'm not sure where the 655 mile number comes from, though I'm sure Joe Linton could answer that question immediately. As most people know, Alta Planning+Design wrote the first drafts of the LA Bike Plan, so it's possible the researchers who wrote this study just called up the Alta staff in the LA Office and asked them for a number.

In any case, the LA Planning Department has now taken over the Bike Plan and they are now touting a new number: 1,633. This number is HUGE on the cover of the Bike Plan, and the implicit message is that 1,633 is a great aspiration, one that sums up the plan's commitment to making Los Angeles a more bikeable city. Now even if we put aside the many ways in which this number inflates the Bike Plan's actual commitments, i.e. the long story regarding how many of the miles are "proposed/infeasible/whatever" and may or may not require an EIR, even if we put all that aside, this six-city comparison illustrates that the 1,633 isn't all that ambitious. If we were to update this figure to replace 655 with 1,633, we'd get a 23% roadway coverage goal, which is still lower than Portland's. But that would be inaccurate and misleading since the 1,633 includes bike paths and routes, and those aren't included in this comparison. The true coverage calculation should only include bike lanes and bike boulevards. I'll exclude the "potential/infeasible/future study" bike lanes since the plan offers up excuse after excuse not to do them. This gives 66 miles of planned bike lanes and 642 miles of bike boulevards (specious! but I'll go with it). This total 708 miles of planned on-street bikeway network corresponds to a proposed completion factor of just under 10%. Even if we include the "speculative" bike lanes we only get a coverage of 16.8%.

Let me say that plainly. Even if the new Bike Plan is passed and we consider all the Bike Boulevards and Bike Lanes as legitimate planned mileage (which no one who has been watching the planning process closely would ever do), LA has set lower bikeway mileage goals than Des Moines, Iowa or Tacoma, Washington.

Now, to be fair, I have no idea what the Bike Plans in any of these other cities look like. For all I know their Bike Plans are also filled with speculative and "infeasible" mileage. We also don't know how LA would compare in a longer list of cities.

Anyway, I think this is a thought provoking figure. I would like to see a more extensive version of this figure, comparing roadway coverage in lots of cities. How do San Francisco, Boulder, New York, or Chicago measure up in terms of proposed completion factor? This is a nice metric.

I hypothesize that the year in which the city's Bike Plan was updated would be a significant factor determining the size of a city's ratio of proposed bikeways to roads. Bike Plans seem to have gotten more and more ambitious in recent history.

Still, perhaps all the back-and-forth over the categories of bike lane mileage has obscured the larger point that relative to other cities, this plan designates a very low percentage of the roads in Los Angeles as planned bikeways.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

LA Bike Plan: Hearing before the Planning Commission

[wow, I haven't posted here in a long time. There is so much to say about Canada and school and my new home in Angelino Heights but I've just been too sleep-deprived to say it. I'm passing on some comments I'll be making to the city, which I already made the effort to type up, in this post.]

The LA Bike Plan goes up before the Planning Commission tomorrow, and I'm writing to post what I plan on saying to the Commissioners. Some people want to fail the plan. I am not really on board with this. I got into a long back-and-forth with Joe Linton over the details, but what it really comes down to is my lack of faith in the power of Plans to solve bicyclists' problems. Like Joe himself said on Streetsblog today, I believe that most of what gets done or not done is a matter of politics and organizing, not plans. Plans aren't laws. They aren't enforceable. If cities want to totally ignore them, as far as I understand, they can. The accountability processes for planning are thus indirect and weak. If you don't like the content of a given plan or its execution, your recourse is to complain to elected officials who are actually accountable to the public. Otherwise, cities can disregard plans all they want.

I say this because a lot of the criticism of the LA Bike Plan has been about how it is "The Plan with no Teeth" and how there are a lot of lines on it but nobody believes they will actually become real bike facilities. Based on what I said above, I don't think that is surprising. No plan really has teeth. As a consequence I've shifted my thinking away from the notion that this Plan should address all the problems that bicyclists can face in LA. After three years of adding routes and tweaking policies and increasing the specificity of the plan, I now want to pass it and get on with the business of building quality bike infrastructure. We can use the specifics in the Plan to hold agencies accountable, and if that is not strong enough, we can use laws and elections, which are stronger than plans. I think this planning process has been a drain on advocates' energy and time and I want it to end. I think our time would be better spent using the political process, elections, and laws.

All that said, I am nonetheless joining forces with other advocates in demanding some answers and revisions to the Plan. For what I hope is the last time. I want to share these here.

------What I plan on saying tomorrow. Hope it will fit in the time limit!---------------

Hello. I’m Herbie, I’m an LACBC member. I live in Angelino Heights. I co-founded the UCLA Bike Coalition which submitted extensive comments on this Bike Plan almost a year ago. I’ve come here to ask some questions that get at the underlying problems that have plagued this plan.

I am saddened that I have to ask these questions because there is a lot in this plan that is good. The web of bikeways criss-crossing the city on the maps - that is good. The idea of bicycle-friendly streets with very little car traffic that novices can feel safe on - that is good. So many of the policies are good, and there are pages and pages of them. I especially support revising the mitigation requirements for development so that trip mitigation funds can fund bikeways instead of road widening (p. 81 of ch. 4). [editor’s note: It’s a reform I’ve called for ever since I heard about how much mitigation money NBC Universal would have to shell out to widen freeways and arterials. It’s nonsense to use “trip generation” formulas that assume a certain percentage of people will drive with no recognition of how infrastructure influences those decisions. People and development don't create the need for road widening. Departments of Transportation do.]

But there are disturbing questions that remain and that undercut bicyclists’ faith in this plan. I come here to ask these questions in earnest and I hope that Planning will answer them immediately at this hearing.

(1) Why is it so important to segregate the bike lane mileage into categories? What is at stake in making this distinction? Clearly, someone in the city cares about this, but who, and why? The Plan has preserved these categories after two years of bicyclists rejecting them. In each revision, the categories are tweaked to hide them further away in ever more opaque language. Planning needs to explain why preserving these categories is more important than responding to bicyclists’ repeated feedback.

(2) Another question for Claire. Can you clarify whether the Plan recommends EIRs for all of the “potential”/”infeasible” lanes? The language in the plan is unclear. The Plan’s MND says that “bicycle lanes currently identified as potential will require additional analysis (particularly impacts on traffic) pursuant to CEQA” (24). Since many people in this room suspect that Alta’s initial analysis showed that many of the lanes in those categories could actually be done Today without any CEQA review, bicyclists will not accept those lanes being written off as second-rate “potential” lanes. The truth is that these lanes could be striped today with no studies, so why is the Plan giving the impression that they somehow need to be studied? They were already studied in the beginning of this process by Alta and they were found to be immediately possible.

(3) Finally, where are the technical analysis documents from Alta? Bicyclists have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for these documents and we have not been shown them. It is unacceptable for an agency that serves the public interest to withhold information from the public. These technical analyses are neither confidential nor sensitive; they simply describe the car traffic volume and road widths on a given street and then calculate the feasibility of putting bike lanes on that street. This document is sitting in one of your (Planning’s) desks right now and you need to come forward with it. Withholding a technical document from the public is a scandal when your agency exists to serve the public good. 

If these three questions can be answered, and if bicyclists’ concerns about incorporating equity measures and adequately defining bicycle boulevards can be met, then I can wholeheartedly support this plan. 

I hope Claire (Bowin) and Jane (Choi) answer these questions immediately so that all of us can celebrate the really good parts of the plan, which are the many miles of planned bikeways, the pro-bike policies and the detailed five-year implementation schedule. Planning has worked with advocates on many of these items. I want to see that work move forward.

I think I speak for many bicyclists when I say that we are looking forward to keeping the city on track with that implementation schedule and seeing a really different biking environment in Los Angeles within the next five years.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tattoos on the Heart: Stories of Hope and Compassion, by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart: Stories of Hope and Compassion I should mention, first, for the benefit of anyone who doesn't live in Los Angeles or follow closely the arena of gang prevention, that Father Greg Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the most well-known gang prevention program in the gang capital of the United States, Los Angeles. The organization's slogan is "Nothing stops a bullet like a job," and Father Boyle (or "G" as he is known) has made it his vocation to hire convicted felons straight out of jail and employ them in various Homeboy enterprises. They run a bakery, a screen-printing factory, they wash cars, they sell merchandise.

Tattoos on the Heart compiles the many extraordinary stories Father Boyle tells in casual sermon format, the stories that both sprinkle and structure his public speaking. He recently received an honorary degree at Occidental College's graduation, and his central message when he spoke was that we must create kinship. He said, "We are sent to create a community of kinship such that God might recognize it." That actually followed a joke that went like:

The homies, they teach me things. For example, they're teaching me how to text. I was driving a homie home, and he got a text on his phone. "What does it say?" I asked him. He said, its Louie. He says they've got him locked up in County holding facilities. He says they're charging him with being the ugliest vato in the universe. He says, "You need to come down here and show them they've got the wrong guy!"

Father Greg let everybody at the Oxy commencement laugh. Then he said that right after this went down he appreciated that these two guys used to be members of rival gangs. They used to shoot bullets at each other. Now they shoot texts at each other. He ended by repeating what he had opened with. We are sent to create a community of kinship, such that God might recognize it.

I don't know who God is, but this statement really stayed with me. It put all the infighting and disagreements in the bike advocacy community in LA in perspective. If rival gangs can get together and bake bread and hold down jobs, and even rib each other via text, surely LA's bike activists can put any hurts behind and aim for a higher purpose.

This is one of the only books I read during my first year of graduate school. I found time to read it because it forced me to - I couldn't put it down. Like an episode of This American Life, the book wanders all over the globe, from wacky circumstances to the improbable and seemingly miraculous. Fr. Boyle connects it all, somehow, makes it all attest to the immense possibility in this world, to our essential connectedness, our ineffable grace, our clumsy humanity... to deeper lessons than I can pretend to regurgitate in this review. I will need to revisit this book many times.

All of us, especially those of us who are trying to fire up social movements or make change, need spiritual leaders. I trust Father Boyle (a fact all the more amazing because of my distrust of religious institutions, especially patriarchal, homophobic ones). I trust him because of his overflowing armful of stories and the way his narration focuses on the actions of all the people around him, in all their shapes and sizes and backgrounds and quirks and graces and flaws. We must understand this kind of principled humility if we are to do any worthwhile work in this world.

Addendum: Homeboy has been hit hard by the recession. They really need your money, I mean, they really need it or they can't hire any more homies! They just laid off almost all of their staff, leaving only their core outlets, like the bakery and the printshop. Learn more about them and donate here.
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Monday, May 17, 2010

Confusing Survey Question

What would you answer if confronted with this question, as I was today in the 2010 UCLA Graduate and Professional Student Survey:

Which of the following housing situations best describes your CURRENT residence?
  • on-campus
  • University owned student housing (e.g. Weyburn Terrace)
  • Off-Campus, University owned student housing (e.g. University Apartments South)
  • Off-Campus, non-University owned housing - within walking or biking distance
  • Off-Campus, non-University owned housing - within driving distance

This question both dumb-founded and offended me, sufficiently so that I wrote the Student Affairs Information and Research Office an email:

I took the UCLA Student Affairs Graduate and Professional Student Survey today, and as a bicyclist and an urban planner in-training, I was concerned by the phrasing of question 30.

I find the distinction between "walking or biking distance" and "driving distance" a problematic one. I personally did not know which of these to choose. I live 12 miles away, which many people would consider NOT a bikable distance in Los Angeles. However, in Portland it's a bikable distance to many, and in Copenhagen plenty of people bike that far to work and school. I bike it, too, and of course I consider my home within biking distance of UCLA, but does that mean I should select "within biking distance"? Or would that be incorrectly interpreted by people who compile the survey?

Lumping walking and biking distance together as one thing is additionally confusing, because obviously much further distances can be covered much faster on a bike.

Finally, your categorization excludes the possibility that someone could live outside of "walking or biking distance" but still take transit. It's insulting to the thousands of UCLA graduate students that take transit daily from many far-flung areas of LA County to tell them that they live "within driving distance."

I hope in future surveys you can reconsider how you phrase this question. Depending on what you are using the survey results for, it might serve you to ask about travel time instead of mode.

Thank you for your consideration.

Kristen "Herbie" Huff
M.A. Candidate, Urban Planning 2011
UCLA School of Public Affairs
 After I sent this email, I realized that one of the prizes for taking the survey is a Parking Permit! Of course, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I disapproved of that, so I had to add this PS.

P.S. I should probably add that I don't think a parking permit is a good prize to incentivize people to take the survey, as the entire UCLA community is struggling with how to accommodate the immense costs associated with car traffic and parking, and UCLA Transportation Services is actively encouraging people to avail themselves of other options to get to campus, and parking lots are expensive to build and maintain; and air pollution and traffic fatalities afflict us all, and driving makes us fat and unhappy...

I mean this critique in the friendliest, most constructive way, but I still had to call you all on that. Plain cash will do better, I think.
I should have written that they could also give away bikes!

Transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians4LYFE out there, what would you have answered if confronted with such a question?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Free Parking, like Freedom, Isn't Really Free

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The benefits of market-priced parking are not intuitive. Sigh... (click this link, for example, and read all the ranting comments). As Streetsblog LA notes, the press has been all over State Senator Lowenthal for proposing reforms to the way we currently provide parking.

Streetsblog encourages us to respond and back Senator Lowenthal up. In an attempt to do that, here's a quick and dirty guide to why YOU should support market-priced parking. I promise to link this post in comments on all the misleading media articles. Streetsblog, you challenged; I responded!


Let's think about it this way: would we all be better off if most food was free? No, we'd waste a lot of time waiting in lines, and once we got the food, we'd eat too much. That's a pretty good analogy for what we do with parking now.

Here's an example that shows how providing ample free parking hurts us in unexpected ways. The City of LA requires new housing developments to provide a certain number of parking spaces - more than one parking space per unit of housing. That means that when I rent my apartment, the price includes the extra cost that was added because the developer had to dig underground and build an underground parking complex. My rent pays for parking; as a tenant, I pay for it whether I want it or not. If we removed minimum parking requirements like this (which is exactly what Lowenthal's bill encourages cities to do), then developers could provide the amount of parking they think the market wants. They could provide the amount of parking they think they can sell. This creates possibilities. You could rent an apartment with parking as usual. Or you could pay less and not have a reserved parking spot in your building. You could choose how much you are willing to pay for housing independently of how much you are willing to pay for parking.

Want to know a developer who has long lobbied for the removal of minimum parking requirements? Habitat for Humanity. This is because the kind of low-income housing that Habitat builds is simply incompatible with high occupancy, expensive underground parking lots. Habitat's tenants don't need that kind of capacity, and more importantly they can't pay for it. But cities require Habitat to build it. This basically kills a lot of low-income housing projects.

As Donald Shoup always says, parking isn't free. We all pay for it, but the costs are hidden. We pay for that land through higher costs that get bundled into housing, food, and basically everything we buy. The key insight of capitalist markets is that we can provide efficient amounts of a good by allowing supply and demand to reach equilibrium. This equilibrium tells us how much of something people want and how much they are willing to pay for it. It is very difficult for some central agency (like a city government) to replicate this process. Because city governments don't have good tools for estimating how much parking to provide, they basically always overprovide it. Thus, we see Walmarts swimming in seas of parking that will only be full on Black Friday.

Next time you park in a free parking lot, in, say your apartment complex or at a grocery store or a movie theatre, check out how many of the spaces are full. I bet most of them are empty (like the Food-for-Less parking lot shown above, captured in a moment in time courtesy of Google maps). That's because most of these lots are required by city zoning laws, and city planners overestimated. We should allocate parking like we do any other important good: with a market. (Which is not to skate over the fact that markets have failures, but that's another post, and I think a market in parking would work just as well as the markets we have for housing and land).

On a fairness tip, as somebody who rarely parks, I don't really want my tax (and food, and housing, and etc) dollars going towards other people's parking.

A good transportation system should provide choice. We should be able to comfortably use any number of modes (driving, walking, biking, transit) at a variety of prices for a variety of services (pay more to go faster and more comfortably, or choose to economize). One way to achieve more balance in our transportation system is to get the prices right. Right now, we provide (very expensive) roads for free and (very expensive) parking spaces for free. As a result, we get a lot of driving. People are only responding rationally to the fact that it is cheap and convenient to drive. Those of us who want to encourage biking and walking must realize that when we price driving according to its true cost, not only in terms of road and parking usage but also in terms of social costs like air pollution and congestion, we give people incentives to switch modes. Parking reform is good for bikers; it's good for the air; it's good for the environment; it reduces congestion!

But if none of that convinces you, parking reform is also good for the people who park. Sick of situations where you have to drive around and around the block, looking for a space? Well, all those spaces are filled because they are free. (Remember the restaurant example earlier? When you cruise around, you're waiting in the analogous line). When we correctly price parking, there are always a few spaces open, so you never have to struggle to find a spot. The right price is the one that keeps a few spaces open while using most of the parking capacity. No more, no less.

(Credit to Donald Shoup for ALL of the ideas herein).

Now get out there and support parking reform!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Mixed-Media Multiple-Scope Retrospective (1/3)

In the nostalgic spirit that seems to envelop everybody at the turn of a new year, and a new decade, I've embarked on three parallel retrospectives, each looking back at a successively longer period. I have a sudden intense need to recover lost memories, probably prompted by seeing some old, old friends and a strange (and completely inexplicable in this forum) voyeuristic obsession with high school love.

The retrospective work that is satisfying this need is:

(1) a data-centric retrospective of my fall quarter bicycle riding
(2) a selection of representative quotes from a year's worth of morning pages
(3) a CD-length mix of the decade's best songs

I wanted to post them all tonight, before winter vacation ends, but (2) entails reading over 1,000 handwritten pages and is taking way too long. So I'll start with (1) tonight, (3) tomorrow, and hopefully (2) within the next few days. By the way, the picture is of me (pretending to play the bass) about a decade ago, in early 2001.

P.P.S. Before I start, did you know that the decade's "top" song according to pop radio charts was... Usher's "Yeah"? If you listen to pop radio, that is probabilistically the song you spent the most time listening to this decade. I was about to muse on how we all feel about having spent possibly hours of our lives hearing Li'l John say, "...OhKay!" but then I realized that anyone who listens to pop radio has found a way to accept - no, enjoy relentless repetition, and so would probably be unmoved by such a contemplation.

Speaking of enjoying relentless repetition...

In the fall quarter of 2009 I bicycled 825 miles, approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is actually much less than the total I expected! My weekly average was 68.8 miles. Usually I biked to campus and back (24 miles round trip) on Monday and Wednesday, and on Tuesdays I bussed to campus and biked back. I did lots of little one miles rides down into Westwood Village and then back up to the School of Public Affairs at the northeast tip of UCLA campus. The last two weeks I did very little biking due to being sleep deprived and stressed (10 and 32 weekly miles, respectively). My highest mileage actually took place the first week, when I was biking all over town for the first-ever Los Angeles Bike Count and was totally enthusiastic about biking to campus under any conditions.

I only rode through Tuesday morning rush-hour once, and took the bus every other time. The day I tried it, I breathed a lot of cold exhaust and was surprised to find that I traveled basically the same speed as the cars on Olympic, at least through the congested sections in Beverly Hills. But I got honked at. Rush hour (and opening the accursed peak-hour lanes on Olympic) reliably makes motorists act a little more crazy, and I chose not to deal with it.

My daily high was 32 miles, which I did on 9/30. On 10/28 and 11/10 I rode 30 miles.

Had I driven 825 miles in my Toyota Corolla, it would have cost me $75 to burn about 25 gallons of gas. I also would have paid about $300 to park on campus. (And I wouldn't have had the bicycle on campus to give me the flexibility to ride into Westwood and back). This savings more than paid for the new back light I bought (about $20) and my occasional bus rides (about $12 for the quarter). Though to be honest, I probably did burn a substantial portion of the saved money on food. I've never been as constantly hungry as I was this quarter. When I was a DIII athlete I had access to a no-limits buffet style dining hall. It's substantially harder to feed high-intensity athletic activity when you actually buy the food yourself.

Of course, by not burning those 25 gallons of gas, I reduced our foreign oil import just a tiny bit, and I prevented about 488 pounds of CO2 from being emitted.

I suspect that if I had had my car handy (my commitment to biking allowed me to park it in a garage about 8 miles from my house, and keep the spot at my apartment complex open for visitors), I would have driven more miles, so this estimate is conservative.

Folks at Helen's cycles in Westwood were invaluably helpful, mostly providing me with bike-centric study breaks and regularly well-inflated tires. I learned to bring a change of shirt to wear to class.

These 825 miles were basically incident free, except for a couple unpleasant interactions with motorists. I learned to signal much earlier when moving to the left to go around a parked car on Olympic. For the record, Santa Monica smells bad because of all the trucks on it. And of course, there's really no good route to UCLA from the East. But I co-founded a student advocacy organization that now has about 90 members, and we're working on that.

A quarter of spinning cranks and velo-love.