Is “free” parking possible?

People love free things. In my oddly skewed social circle, one of the things I hear that they love the most is ‘free parking”. Businesses want it for their customers, residents want it in front of their apartments, and many people will spend half an hour or more at a time circling the block looking for it.

But just what exactly are they looking for? What is it they want so bad?

The Free and Open Source Software(F/OSS) community seems to have noticed something about the English word ‘free‘ that transportation people haven’t yet quite grasped: that it has some very distinct and sometimes misleading meanings. F/OSS advocates have gone to extraordinary lengths to deal with the inadequacy of the word ‘free’ to communicate what it is that they’re trying to do. ‘Free software‘ is software that grants freedoms to it’s users and developers, such as the ability to see the source code, modify it, and to redistribute the program. The general public though often hears ‘free software’ and thinks of those awful AOL CDs that were everywhere ten years ago or of cheap software that can be downloaded at no cost. F/OSS advocates are neither cheapskates nor champions of the poor; they’re more akin to software libertarians. They’re concerned with freedom rather than free-ness, ‘libre‘(or liberty) rather than ‘gratis‘(lacking a price).

There’s a third meaning of ‘free’ that isn’t relevant to software at all, but that’s critically important to parking. Let’s put it this way: “Is the restroom free yet?” Clearly, our interlocutor doesn’t seek the restroom’s liberation nor probably do they expect they might be charged for it’s use. Free here can mean ‘available‘ when we’re talking about things with potentially limited access.

I know, I know. It’s gratis parking most people say they’re looking for. Free as in “free sample”. Just as with the word ‘free’ itself though, with ‘free parking’ three or more specific meanings twine inextricably around a central concept and each has an effect on the others. Is accessibility of much value if liberty is lacking? Is liberty meaningful if it costs a fortune? And, most relevantly, is gratis parking worth anything if none of it’s available?

For the last few months, the City of Cincinnati has been talking about eliminating all minimum parking regulations from the zoning code for Over-The-Rhine and Pendelton1. Basically, with the current regulations people are required to build a certain amount of parking on the same site as a building if they’re going to legally use the building. Some small, old buildings that have been in continuous use since before the law are exempted. The city has simply proposed to remove this requirement in OTR and Pendelton.

Concurrently, several community groups, myself among them, have been advocating various sorts of permit parking plans for their neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

Some people in both communities have been opposed to the deregulation proposal because of the negative effect it could have on the availability of gratis parking. Others have generally supported the plan because of the positive effects it would have on parking liberty and potentially, availability.2 Many people have supported the concept of a permit parking plan aimed at increasing availability to some or all people, but the details of any such plan have been contentious. Normal people have been at home watching TV and not giving a damn.

The whole discussion has made clear that people who care about parking issues in Cincinnati’s central neighborhoods are operating with two very different paradigms, and two very different understandings of which aspect of freedom is most important and for whom.

Those who see value in the City’s current minimum regulations value available, gratis parking as the highest good and are looking to match the almost limitless demand for unpriced spaces with actual spaces. There’s is a supply side solution to a problem that by their definition of it can’t really respond well to market forces. They view cars and parking as almost necessarily associated with people, and assume that people don’t want to pay anything at all for parking. Therefore if there are to be people, there must be ‘enough’ free or cheap parking. For them, for a developer to not provide parking is for that person to impose an externality on others who will have to pick up his slack. It’s generally an older crowd that feels this way.

Those who are looking to deregulate parking in OTR, Pendelton and perhaps eventually elsewhere value liberty highest, including a liberty from driving and from parking itself. A city that doesn’t mandate a certain type of transportation in all places is one that allows more liberty for it’s residents to decide which method they prefer. Not full liberty of course, but more of it. Perhaps on the balance the collectively chosen method or collection of methods will include more walking, bicycles and transit. This is generally a younger crowd.

Crossing both paradigms is the insistence that where there is parking, it should be available to people. That is to say, if a street has 30 spaces then all things being equal it’s better at any given time that only 28 of them are occupied than that 30 are. Post-Adam-Smith common sense tells those belonging to the later paradigm that one very logical way for us to achieve this goal is to put a price on those spaces that accurately reflects their value, letting people decide themselves who gets to use them just like we do for cabbage, cars, political speech, and most other saleable commodities. The other group, because of their insistence on the importance of unpriced parking doesn’t see this as an acceptable solution, so seeks to mandate a surplus that gluts the market thereby freeing spaces.

I say that at the end of the day there is no free lunch. Avoiding parking fees at the point of sale(that is, when you’re actually parking) just shifts the costs(and disincentives) to other people and places, including non-parkers like myself and the ~25% of Cincinnatians who don’t own cars. Most people would like the rest of society to subsidise the things they do…Truly, people really DO like free things. But they also like just as much getting to choose what they do and don’t pay for, the later category mostly including things for other people. Since all parking must be paid for at some point, I say let us live more frugally by having somewhat less of it as a result of us also having more liberty: more opportunity to choose another way of getting around. Gratis parking is in the big picture an impossibility, and so we should pursue the other aspects of ‘free’: availability and liberty.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. …and for a while Downtown, though that seems to have been dropped now for some reason
  2. I include in the second group the City’s planning staff and seemingly most of council since they made the initial request.
Comments: 7
Posted in: Definitions | Investments | Logic | Misconceptions | Priorities
Tags: | | | | |

‘The Streetcar’ – 3 – The role of transportation in economic development

This is the third post in an 8 part series on “The Streetcar”.

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on therails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

Summing up the last couple of posts, I’ve said that The Streetcar was motivated by a desire for economic development and that that driving goal shaped the project in such a way that it was less than ideal as an actual transportation improvement. I’ll argue here that if it isn’t a substantial transportation improvement, it won’t be an engine of real economic development either.

Transportation is a necessary foundation of any economy. Transportation is the intentional movement of people or things to other people or things that they want to be closer to. These things could be tractor trailers full of widgets or people bicycling to a holiday party. They could even, with a bit of a stretch be encoded data physically moving about on the internet or through the air in waves. In any case, things that have started in one place have found themselves in another.

In a really essential way, this lies at the root of all commerce. If we couldn’t move our bodies, our ideas, parcels, products, or whatever else, there could be no commerce at all because there’d be very few people to talk to or exchange things with. Each of us would exist in the space we were born into, unable to move from it and unable to do anything outside the reach of our limbs. Without transportation, we might as well be lichen. To the extent that we expand our physical reach, we expand our possibilities for commerce by increasing the number of people and things to which we have access.

This is actually the reason cities first formed thousands of years ago: because the more efficient transportation, and thus exchange, possible inside dense areas, even very small ones, allowed an irresistible growth of commerce that’s still drawing people from poorer rural areas all over the world. If there are 1,000,000 potential customers within ten miles of me(and there probably are right now as I sit at a coffee shop OTR), I have a lot more immediate economic opportunities than a farmer who has three neighbours within the same distance. With that increase in scope comes all of the benefits of economies of scale, economies of agglomeration, and the ability to specialize.

But most of us have lived most or all of our lives within a dense urban, highly developed state(I’m talking about you, Ohio!1) and we can easily take these basic facts for granted. Relatively speaking, transportation is pretty good where us city-folk live, and we take for granted that if we quit a job, we could find another one without having to move too far or at all. If we want to try a new restaurant there will be one we haven’t been to before, perhaps even within walking distance. Still, we find ourselves to some extent living within effective boundaries. Since moving to Pendelton, I hardly ever go out as far as Northside any more even though I can get there without too much trouble. It’s just easier to go to Shadeau even if I might feel like going to Take the Cake. If I could get to Take the Cake with as little trouble, I would go there more often and the contrary is probably true of Northsiders craving some fresh bread. Better transportation in this case could expand our options locally and allow both shops to specialize a bit more as they reach a broader base of customers. That’s “economic development”, or more etymologically, the development of “economy” or efficiency or thrift.

But like I said, we can forget this living in a place that already has a well developed2 economy. Often when we talk about “economic development”, we’re really talking about hyper-local competition for a supposedly limited number of things like jobs, shops, offices, and rented apartments. When we think of economic development in this way, we often come up with proposals for things that don’t develop broad efficiency or economy and that sometimes work against it. The use of massive tax breaks to lure businesses to a certain municipality has been well documented as a collective action problem. Cities, states and countries often find themselves competing for a corporation that’s looking to (re)locate an office or factory that will bring job opportunities to the community. First a few places will desperately offer to waive all taxes on the new factory for as much as a decade, an offer that’s hard for any company to refuse, then every other place has to offer the same or better(/worse) if they want to compete. Seeing this, other companies start making threats to relocate unless they get their taxes cut and before you know it, you have areas where the largest, richest corporations are the ones that pay the fewest taxes while those least able to bargain pay relatively more. It’s often a rapidly developing race to the bottom that’s hard for either companies or cities to extract themselves from without some sort of a binding “arms agreement” or tariffs.

Tax incentives like this are of the competitive model of ‘economic development’ that places municipal boundaries above the actual development of broadly shared economy. And I worry that to a large extent, this is the model the streetcar is relying on for it’s intended economic effects. As I argued, the streetcar is not a substantial addition to the transportation system, or perhaps more accurately, not as good a contribution to it as it could have been given the resources and even assuming the basic premise of a streetcar in that general area.

I think instead it will rely on the perception of the area that the streetcar will create to pull people from other cities and other parts of Cincinnati to a neighborhood that they’ll see as more in line with their values. That’s a bit like a restaurant hiring an interior decorator and putting a neighboring restaurant out of business by attracting all of their former customers with modern lamps and Ikea cutlery. It hasn’t created new business and economy. Rather, the transactions would simply have moved a door or two over, and the successful restaurant will be out the not-insignificant cost of the interior decorator. From a disinterested perspective, very little will have changed.

Now, I don’t want to say that the City shouldn’t spend any money to make OTR and Downtown more attractive to potential residents. That would be silly. But to spend $100,000,000 or more on one aspect of that goal does seem a little inefficient. More than pointing out that inefficiency though, I want to make clear what kind of “economic development” this project is. It seems to be a lot more of the competitive model, than the holistic one. And that sucks because projects like this could do both models well at the same time. The wonderful thing about people flocking to areas with the perception of “urban” amenities like trains and subways and streetcars is that it affords another political justification for building them for their original purpose: transportation. An area that builds a subway because of popular or political demand has the opportunity to make it a major transportation improvement as well. The people who want “rails in the ground” without fully understanding why they would be needed will still get them, and the place where it’s built can actually substantially expand it’s access to other places. That would cause both holistic economic development for the whole regional economy and have the effect of increasing local competitiveness for business investments.

Our contemporary local political focus on the competitive model has made us miss the holistic model on this project, and our City planners, responding to strong political demands have failed to remind us of the lost opportunity. Instead, our streetcar literally spreads itself thin in an effort to spread it’s perception to as many streets as possible. In doing so, it minimizes it’s effect as transportation. It’s a clear tradeoff, and the clear winner is aesthetic competitiveness.

Watch out Portland, OR. We’re wearing Air Jordans now too, and we’re going to start flirting with all of your boyfriends.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. and Northern Kentucky…I didn’t forget you, babe.
  2. Compare Greater Cincinnati to Southeast Ohio.
Comments: 2
Posted in: Analysis | Back to Basics | Definitions | Logic | Mobility | Politics
Tags: | | | | | | |

‘The Streetcar’ – 1 – Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge

This is the first post in a rather deep series on The Streetcar. I’ll be critically analysing the City of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar, known as “The Cincinnati Streetcar” in the local vernacular. I think it’s a poorly developed plan, but not one that deserves the abuse the local right has heaped on it, nor even half the praise the urban liberals have been lofting skyward. Like most things, it’s hideously complicated, and like some things, I’ll try to make it’s twists and turns illustrative of broader concepts. So roll your bicycle onto this level-boarding train of thought and get comfy! Here’s quick lay of the series:

  1. Conceptual Flaws: civic boosters lead the charge
  2. Errors of Geometry: split one-ways are dumb
  3. The role of transportation in economic development
  4. Symbolic Transit
  5. On the back of branding
  6. Separate and Unequal: on the rails of division
  7. Chicken or Egg: Shaping the future or following the past?
  8. A New and Highly Sarcastic Plan for Economic Development

The plan for the streetcar is conceptually flawed. From the beginning, it’s been advanced as an economic development device first, and only later as a tool for transportation. This has lead to errors in basic design that will prevent it from being truly successful as either. Let’s verify that initial intent a little bit though in case you don’t believe me. As seen in materials and quotes provided by the City and other advocates of the project, the streetcar is generally about improving the neighborhoods and the city by making them more attractive, and bringing commerce to the areas around it:

slide from a city of cincinnati presentation on the streetcar

From a presentation provided by the City which actually mentions pretty little about basic transportation principles.

“…Streetcars will bring economic development, population growth, and mobility. Buses will bring mobility, but the increased noise and emissions, along with their impermanence, will cut down on their potential to create growth and development.

-from the second to original post on the Cincinnati Streetcar Blog

“‘This is not just a streetcar,’ LaHood said shortly before he joined Mallory and others in a ceremonial groundbreaking outside Memorial Hall on Elm Street. ‘It’s going to be an economic corridor. It’s going to create jobs all along the corridor. It’s going to connect your communities. … When people say, ‘what’s the vision thing?’ This is it.’”

-USDOT Secretary Ray Lahood quoted by the enquirer

“We must move forward in order to attract jobs and residents to our region.”

-Mayor Mark Mallory Quoted by CityBeat

This really is a very quick skimming of the surface of a deep pool of public discourse. If you’ve been around the last few years for all the ongoing debate/arguing, you probably already know what kind of language and reasoning streetcar advocates will use to support it. If you haven’t, use the links above as a jumping off point and do a little digging yourself. It’s at least 85% about economic development and “quality of life”. It’s about creating jobs, attracting people to the neighborhood/city, and somehow creating a generally more pleasant downtown environment. These reasons were the impetus for the streetcar and they continue to be the driving force behind it. I’m betting a lot of my readers will not argue that point. For most people, the streetcar just is about economic development, and lifestyle preferences.

But here’s a pretty basic fact that I think is hard to deny: streetcars don’t cause economic development by themselves. You can imagine this pretty easily: let’s say we dug a big hole and buried a streetcar under the ground in an empty Alaskan field. Would businesses with good-paying high-tech jobs spring from the thawing earth? They wouldn’t because there’s no magic in streetcars themselves that creates economic development. As Aristotle said, “If the art of shipbuilding were in the wood, we would have ships by nature.” So if economic development doesn’t spring forth from the essence of streetcars, where does it come from? What are we getting at here? One of the fundamental starting points of a complex economy is transportation. Without transportation, in it’s most basic form, there could be no economy at all. We would be like lichen stuck immobile to a stone, unable to engage in even the most basic exchange.

Improvements to transportation bring long-term economic development, and transportation may or may not be related to the presence of a streetcar as we’ve seen. A permanently static vehicle (vehicle though it is) is obviously not a device of transportation. So some capacity of the streetcar for transportation as such is essential to almost all economic development effects.

In our public reasoning, we’ve gone in the opposite direction though. We’ve gone from a desire for economic development and reasoned toward something that is supposed to provide transportation. Something was lost in translation though, and the streetcar plan doesn’t seem like it will really do the transportation part all too well. We made some decisions while we were still thinking primarily of economic development what shaped the discussion. An area had been settled on. Long-standing landmarks that the city is rightly proud to show off (The banks, Findlay Market, the Zoo, Union Terminal, Fountain Square) were considered integral to any economic development plan, and were thus naturally included as the means of economic development settled on a streetcar type of lifestyle, and finally on transportation by streetcar as the means of creating it.

streetcar proposal map

People made maps showing the major tourist destinations that could be hit by the streetcar. Two major exceptions are Newport and Walnut hills unless I’m missing something. Most of the rest are places you might take your mom when she visits. Notice, there are NO non-rail based modes of transit mentioned here.

Starting from the goal of economic development, planners and advocates settled on a streetcar as a sort of desired-life-style indicator. Places they wanted the city to be like(including a Cincinnati of the past) have or had streetcars present. They thought there was a connection between the presence of streetcars and the development of the place into something desirable(to be fair, the correlation is quite strong). There’s undeniably an idea in many people’s minds that rail-based transit is deeply important to the kind of lifestyle they want to live. So planners set out to make a streetcar in order to cause economic development by creating a sort of transportation lifestyle in every place the streetcar passed. They looked at routes that would take the streetcar to all of the places that are important to the region’s self-image(mentioned above). To have the biggest impact, they wanted to spread the streetcar far and wide. They even made maps showing how widely it could travel, with buffers showing clearly what a large, important and potentially valuable area would be within a short walk of it.

And so, the streetcar is planned to hit all of the visibly important public places, right off the bat, in it’s first few phases. This is less than ideal for a new transit route that operates within a large existing transit network, and indeed within a very large and complicated system of transportation that includes not only transit but walking, cars, bicycles, etc. I’ll get to explaining why in another post, but for now, let it suffice to establish that the motives of the origin of the streetcar led it almost inevitably to include certain destinations in it’s route.

And it’s important finally to note, that to the extent that the streetcar will fail(or not) to be a substantial improvement to transportation as such, it will either fail to develop the broader economy in the long term or it will rely on the perception of transportation or of an implied or actual lifestyle for any realized local economic impacts.

Comments: 6
Posted in: Logic | Misconceptions | Talking about Transit | Technology Choices
Tags: | | | |

What is transportation? Why do we need it?

Don’t say ‘economic development’!

Transportation is one of our most basic human needs. Without it, we would die pretty quickly. Transportation is the act of moving something from one place to another. We need transportation because all of life’s necessities and pleasures can’t possibly fit within the reach of our static bodies from birth to death. We either have to move ourselves to things or have things moved to us. Transportation gets food to our mouths, glycogen to our toes, rabbits to other rabbits to do rabbit things, and people to their boyfriend’s gallery openings. This is essentially all transportation is. It doesn’t matter how it happens. When I looked up the wikipedia article on the topic just now, I was a little put off that it jumps rather immediately from a basic definition of transport to an exhaustive list of technology used in institutional, large-scale, contemporary transportation. This awkward disjunction is a perfect example of our typically distorted thinking. Transportation isn’t about highways and trains and bicycles and space shuttles as is most people’s first thought. These are all temporary manifestations of transportation, not transportation itself. When we talk about transportation, we aren’t talking about these things, but the more essential act they help us bring about.

Transportation allows economic development to occur because it’s a basic prerequisite for anything human. Neither could our economy exist without air, sunlight, or an expectation of immediate bodily safety.

Transportation planners generally define a person’s ability to transport in two ways: mobility and access. Mobility is the extent to which you’re able to physically move. If I went for a jog around the block, we might say that I had an urge to be mobile. Access is the extent to which you’re able to get to the things you want to get to, or have them brought to you. If I need a laundromat, but every laundromat in the city is closed, I have very little access, even if I go all over the place looking for one. The important distinction is between method and end. Access is the end to which mobility is the means. (In almost every case)

You may start to see pretty quickly how these two measures might effect each other in practice; If you increase your personal mobility(perhaps you buy a helicopter), all things being equal, you’re likely to have increased your access to the things you need because you can now likely reach more things for a given amount of effort or time. If your access increases(say a 24 hour laundromat moves in downstairs), then your need for mobility is likely to decrease, all things being again equal because more things you need now exist within the same scope.

It is very important here to note that all things are never equal, and that a change in access or mobility, especially if it’s widely shared has enormous effects. More on that in another post though!

Comments: 6
Posted in: Back to Basics | Definitions | Talking about Transit
Tags: | | | | | |