Thursday, October 16, 2008
If you want to discourage something, making it more difficult will have some effect. But what if the effort to discourage results more in exasperation than in affecting long-term behavior? The dilemma that faces any parent trying to figure out punishment to a child is also faced by governments that are considering using land use laws to discourage driving and parking. For decades, local governments have imposed “parking minimums” on various forms of new construction, especially commercial construction. The thought was that people inevitably will drive to new construction, so new parking is needed. But what if we want to encourage people to walk, bicycle, or take public transportation?
Across the nation, local governments are debating whether to curb or even revoke the parking minimums. According to one advocate of trashing such laws, the question is: Do we want our city to look like San Francisco (dense, tough to park, but a pleasant place to walk and take public transportation, and, perhaps, “full of character”) or Los Angeles (diffuse, full of parking, but not especially walkable, and, perhaps, “without character”)? But is our choice really so stark and so simple? For some land uses, especially in suburban areas, we know that people will drive, and that only the most stringent restrictions on parking will stop them. If on-site parking isn’t created, they’ll park nearby, perhaps to the great annoyance of other residents. Consider the old Getty Villa Museum near Malibu. The wealthy neighbors knew that people would drive and try to park by their homes. To stop this horrible occurrence, laws were passed to prohibit parking and the Museum did not allow walk-ups; only those with a reserved, on-site parking space could visit. In other suburban locations, and absent such extreme regulations, discouraging nearby parking will just result in people parking further away.
So I’m all for junking parking minimums, but let’s not do so with the great expectation that this will have a great effect of discouraging driving. Just as harshly punishing a two-year-old for breaking a glass probably won’t stop the child from doing it again (but may the child feel very bad for a while), we should realize the limitations of land use laws’ effect on human behavior …
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Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I got away from bad news this weekend with a trip to the sunny Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I discovered this fascinating and informative local land use story (well, I do tend to look for these) about Stephens City, which is celebrating its 250th birthday. Stephens City was a typically dense town until the arrival of the Interstate (81, in this case) in the 1960s, right on the eastern edge of town. In addition to puling business away from Main Steet to the freeway ramps, the Interstate created a divided town, with the declining old walkable grid to the west, and new, auto-dominated, curving developments to the east (including a “Fredericktowne” – that extra “e” was sure to get an premium in home values). But the charm of the old buildings on Main Street is being revived (as it has been in force in nearby Winchester, the county seat), as the city government (which eventually annexed much of the eastern developments) has high hopes for attracting tourists to craft shops, restaurants, inns, and the like on old Main Street. (Winchester already has a downtown pedestrian mall (not always a great idea), which serves as a fairly successful tourist magnet. Indeed, one can still even buy a pair of cheap socks in downtown Winchester, although I suspect that this is a relic of the pre-tourism downtown, rather than a symbol of a revival.) Stephens City is planning bike routes and other features to encourage downtown living. While tourism is not a full substitute for the pre-auto town, it’s far better than the image of the abandoned downtown that places like Stephens City faced in the 1970s. I wish the town good luck …