Tuesday, January 8, 2013

How much of "density" is just less space for cars?

There are many benefits from living and working in dense environments, but there are plenty of people who are against density, and come out in large numbers to protest any large development or increase in zoning allowances. Today, for example, David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington wrote about a full-on NIMBY freakout over small houses in alleys. Often this is couched in some half-baked argument about "quality of life" or "preserving the character of the neighborhood." As I wrote before, it's worth listening to NIMBYs, but NIMBYs are people, which means that you can't take everything they say at face value.

When I first heard phrases like "quality of life" and "the character of the neighborhood" I had no idea what they meant. I couldn't understand why Rudy Giuliani claimed to care about quality-of-life issues, but didn't seem to care that hot dogs come in packages of ten while hot dog buns come in packages of eight.

I got a lot of help understanding the anti-density mentality from StongTowns's Ian Rasmussen, who laid out his "party analogy" in this podcast with Chuck Marohn. Ian points out that at some parties, the guests bring more than their share of alcohol (and food, I would add), so every guest increases the fun.

In recent years, however, urban development has been more like a bad party full of stingy guests who don't even bring enough alcohol for themselves. "Every time someone shows up at the party, the party gets worse," Ian says. In the experience of residents, "Virtually every time a shovel went in the ground in the last fifty years, things got a little worse."

How did things get worse? Kaid Benfield talks a lot about access to "nature," and how often "dense" developments reduce the amount of parkland per capita. Others have talked about similar competition for resources like schools. While schools and parks are definitely important, I'm not convinced that they're the primary motivators for most NIMBYs. I think racial and social prejudice is definitely a factor for some people, but I'm not going to go into that in this post.

Ian Rasmussen paints a picture of the first arrivals at a new suburban development who are "fifteen minutes to downtown, fifteen minutes to the lake." But as more people arrive, congestion increases on the roads, and our suburbanites are now "more removed from the nearest pasture because there's another ring" of development beyond theirs. Both Benfield and Rasmussen point to congestion as a big factor. Others talk about competition for parking.

I'm leaning more and more towards the idea that in a lot of cases "density" just means less space for cars. A comment from "Bob" on Alpert's post lays it all out:

So, if these dwelling units become matter of right and are located where garages usually are, where will new residents park their cars? More vehciles flooding onto the streets? I know a family in AU Park that has a sub rosa 2 story ADU on an alley with several adults living in it. (Looks a lot like the photo, actually). Trash flows into the alley because there's no place to put it and the number of people living there. Plus 5 or so vehicles now squeeze onto the street in front of the house from this one property. And I thought that all ADU hipsters walk, bike or use Zipcar....

As in most cases, the threat from these cute little houses has nothing to do with parks or schools. It's about the value of allocating land for parking and driving. For David Alpert and most of the Greater Greater Washington readership, parking is a nasty scourge that separates people's homes from each other and from businesses without adding anything pleasant or interesting. For Linda Schmitt and Bob, parking is a scarce resource that is being gobbled up by the unwelcome new residents.

For the most part, "density" is an unhelpful, unenlightening way of thinking about neighborhood conflicts. Most conflicts about "density" are really conflicts about parking or road space. Try it yourself. Next time you're thinking of using the word "density" in this context, try replacing it with "competition for parking" or "competition for space on the road." I bet you'll find it clears some things up.


Matthew said...

I definitely hear specific complaints about parking and traffic regularly at the public meetings. That and height, anyway. Locals want to protect their free resident parking spots. And they worry that certain intersections can't handle more vehicles. They don't seem too thrilled to listen to me when I point out to them that forcing minimum parking requirements on new developments is only going to lead to further congestion on the streets.

I do think they exaggerate their claims. For example, a recent development project got a pretty heavy backlash about traffic in a particular intersection. As it happens, I coincidentally ended up spending a whole bunch of mornings standing out at the intersection doing something unrelated. And I realized while watching the cars go by that it was really not so bad, especially compared to the amount of screaming I'd heard at the meeting.

Another development which I first learned about over a year ago is now finished. They were able to get a 1:1 space:unit ratio approved, which is lower than the required 2:1 but they are near a major Green Line station and buses. The developer said that the parking lot is not close to full, even at the 1:1 ratio. And his other buildings have parking spaces available too. Some of the locals are still upset that he didn't provide the 2:1 but others are listening and taking note. So there's some hope.

Steven Vance said...

Cap'n, I think you may be interested in hearing about the new NIMBY drama playing out with bike lanes in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago.

The tl:dr; version of this story is this:

1. Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) proposes a bike lane to the alderman on Independence Boulevard. The bike lane will be of a "protected" design that puts the bike lane between a floating lane of parked cars and the curb.
2. Alderman Michael Chandler, CDOT, and Active Transportation Alliance (similar to but not quite like Transportation Alternatives) hold a public meeting in which a few people show up.
3. The alderman approves the proposed project in December 2011.
4. In November 2012, the protected bike lane (PBL) appears on the street. Because of the way CDOT and its contractors have been building these bike lanes, they provide little to no warning about where one should park their car during and after construction. Occasionally there have been temporary "no parking" signs. The residents receive a lot of parking tickets (if contested, they were thrown out).
5. The residents complain to the alderman, and the alderman complains to the city. At least three public meetings were held, at a church, at which very few residents show up. The complaints go beyond the parking: the design is unsafe because it means drivers must exit their cars into traffic and passengers must exit the cars into the bike lane. Residents also complained that there were now fewer parking spaces and it was less likely they could park right in front of their homes.
6. CDOT gives in to the adamant clergy and removes the PBL and installs a "buffered" bike lane on the left side of parked cars.
Moral of the story: There is competition for parking, and there is competition for space on the road.

The Amateur Transporter said...

Where does the work of Donald Appleyard fit in here? As more development brings more traffic congestion, the blocks become less friendly and less cohesive, according to his work.

Eric Fischer said...

Which of Appleyard's publications are you (Amateur Transporter) referring to?

The references to congestion I see in Livable Streets are to complaints about about traffic diverters increasing it on already heavily traveled streets. As far as I can tell, it is traffic volume and speed that he credits with hurting life on heavy traffic blocks, not congestion.

If he does have another study about the effects of congestion, I'd be interested in reading that too.

Rob Pitingolo said...

I agree with a lot of what's written here. In DC at least, when new "dense" apartment buildings are proposed, neighbors often fight hard to require the developer to build on-site parking and for the city to ban residents of that building from obtaining residential street permits. For all that's written about why "minimum parking requirements" are a bad idea, the fact gets lost that it's sometimes a political play by residents who don't want to share the public property they currently enjoy.

crzwdjk said...

It's not just about access to parks though, it's about access to everything. Suppose you have a suburb that's 15 minutes away from a city. Then another ring of suburbs is built further out, but the roads in the inner suburbs stay the same size, so they get more congested, and now it takes twice as long to get to the city, so the suburb that was 15 minutes away from the city is now half an hour away, with not change to the suburb or the infrastructure between it and the city.

LetsGoLA said...

The further you get out into the suburbs, the less of an issue parking becomes. So in cities, that's the issue NIMBYs latch onto. Anytime you go to a public hearing for a project in a city, you'll hear about parking. Even if it's a transit project with no parking, because people are convinced everyone's going to drive to the station and park in the hood.

But in the burbs, especially on the East Coast with its swank leafy subdivision and two-acre lots, it's pretty hard to argue there's not enough parking, and in those areas you hear a different argument. I've sat there while people told me with a straight face that building a commuter rail line would increase crime - that, you know, "those people" are going to ride the train out here and cause problems.

In a way, NIMBYism is a lot like the Cox/O'Toole shell game against transit that the Cap'n wrote about not so long ago. The goal is to stop development by any argument that works (or, in the case of Los Angeles, to blackmail the developer into giving you a bribe).

alai said...

For all that's written about why "minimum parking requirements" are a bad idea, the fact gets lost that it's sometimes a political play by residents who don't want to share the public property they currently enjoy.

This is a big part of it, to be sure. I think lots of people believe that the street space is "theirs", or at least a share of it is theirs, and that this share will be diluted by the arrival of additional residents, so they will lose something of value.

To make an analogy, if the city widens the street and narrows the sidewalks in front of your house, you have certainly lost something of value, though it was and is all public space.

So I don't think they're wrong, really-- they may be self-interested, but there's no law against that. The problem is that what they lose (more convenient parking) is much less than what is gained overall (additional housing in a good location).

As such, I think banning residents of the new building from obtaining residential street permits is a pretty reasonable solution (or perhaps limiting the number of permits on a per-lot-size basis instead of per-household). Yes, it gives the existing residents a perhaps-undeserved benefit, and deprives the new ones of a valuable perk. But the important thing is that new housing is built, and indeed the lack of permits would make the housing cheaper for the carless (if you consider a permit as an unneeded amenity). The parking policy can always be revisited later.

David Edmondson said...

I just had an interesting Twitter conversation with some folks in Marin Co., CA, about development. One woman said that density doesn't fit with the community character unless it's for senior housing. When I asked about the difference, she said that normal density would mean more crowded schools and more traffic. I didn't press the point because she made another few odd statements that I wanted to address, but it does fit with what you were saying.

To take the party analogy another step, nonprofit development - the typical way Marin does affordable housing development - doesn't even pay taxes. Since a given development and land is owned by the nonprofit, it's exempt from taxation and the residents pay for only a fraction of the public services they consume.

calwatch said...

It's not just the cars but the noise, the "transient" population, etc. that multi family housing brings (never mind I can rent out my single family house to a family of 8 if I wanted to, and unlike condos with HOAs, there's nothing you can do to stop it).