Thursday, December 1, 2011

Park It

Just in time for peak retail season, I want to take a deep look at the effects of car parking. I'm not the supreme expert on this - that would be Donald Shoup - but I do read a lot of research studies. Unfortunately, these studies have been no match for the Fear of Not Finding a Parking Space.

As a bicycle rider (and occasional driver), I can certainly sympathize with parking anxiety. After all, car parking spaces probably outnumber bicycle parking by twenty katrillion to one. I often think ahead about the parking conditions at my intended destination, and adjust my travel accordingly. And that's the point.

Parking options have a huge impact on travel choices. When you know there will be plenty of free parking where you are going, hopping in the car seems like the easiest choice - in fact, preferable to walking or bicycling across a huge parking lot. Let's say you are meeting a friend somewhere for dinner. If there is lots of free parking there, maybe you will both drive and meet each other there. Now suppose there is parking available, but you have to pay for it. That might inspire you to pick your friend up on the way and split the cost. Next, suppose that you will have to pay for parking, and you will have to hunt around for several blocks to find an open space (on the street or in a garage). At this point, you might start to wonder if there are other ways to get there - isn't there a train station a few blocks away, or maybe I could try that new bike path?

The opposite psychological effect is true too - if you take transit somewhere but have to walk past several parking lots to reach your destination, you might think that it would be easier to drive next time. Of course, if your city is just building low-density strip malls, office parks, and disconnected subdivisions, parking doesn't have a huge impact because the alternatives to driving are so poor anyway. But if they are trying to do a little smart growth or transit-oriented development, parking has to be on the table, for the above reasons and more. The situation in Atlanta where parking is now raising its head is in the development codes for the BeltLine.

Minimum parking requirements can be found everywhere. Even the city of Houston, which does not use zoning in the traditional sense, still mandates how much parking has to be provided for each type of residence, store, restaurant, business, etc. In the debate over government regulation versus free-market activity, parking is a doozy. A grocery store developer may have to purchase 4 times more property than the actual footprint of the store in order to build the mandated amount of parking. It's an enormous financial burden on businesses and the construction industry, and it ultimately forces them to give away, for free, something that has inherent value.

Parking requirements are generally based on peak usage, as calculated by some relatively limited studies. And by limited, I mean they looked at a handful of locations, maybe a few decades ago, maybe somewhere in suburban southern California, and then they require that much parking for a store in Buckhead relative to square footage, or number of seats, or whatever. It's neither scientific nor context based, but it is universal. The result is that, except for a couple of days before Christmas, we have waaaaay too much parking. And there is very little flexibility in these requirements. If you build a bar next to an office building, they each have to have enough parking for their peak usage, even though their peak hours occur at different times and they could easily share the same supply of parking.

Since each property has to provide its own proprietary on-site parking, property owners get very protective of its use. So if you drive to the store, and then want to eat at the restaurant right next to it, you may have to drive there or risk getting booted by the store's security force. Of course, property owners have a lot of incentive for being so possessive - parking spaces are expensive! You have to buy the land for them, and construct them, and if land is expensive you can build a multi-story parking structure at great expense. The figures I've heard for the price of each parking space is about $8,000 for an onstreet space in a nice residential neighborhood, about $10,000 for a surface lot space, and $30,000 to $50,000 for each space in a parking garage. The developer (or the department of transportation, for onstreet spaces) spends a ton of money to build that mandated parking, but guess what - they can't recoup their costs directly. Why? Remember Econ 101? We've mandated a huge oversupply of parking, and when supply greatly exceeds demand, prices drop to almost nothing. We have a parking glut.

Of course, developers don't just take a loss on all of that expense. They pass at least some of it on to their buyers or tenants. If it's commercial property, those costs show up in your bill, even if you walked there. If you buy a condo, you can't say "I don't need those parking spaces, so knock $60,000 off the selling price, please." We all subsidize those parking spaces, even if they are sitting empty.

We subsidize them in another way, too. Since there is no functioning market for parking, all of those spaces are effectively non-revenue generating. Think about what that means for the tax base. If 10%, or 50%, or 80% of each parcel is occupied by free parking, you are taking that much land out of the picture for development. If you can only develop 50% of your city's buildable land, rather than 100%, then you have to raise everyone's taxes in order to pay for the same mileage of roads, sewer lines, police patrols, etc.

Eliminating parking requirements would not mean an end of parking. It would just revert parking provision to the free market, and it would be a very gradual process to boot. There are only so many new developments that go up each year; existing properties really wouldn't be affected. But imagine the new scenario - a developer wants to build 100 units of residential property in a new five-story development. In the past, she would have been forced to build 200 parking spaces along with it (on average). Now, she can undertake her own research to determine how many parking spaces she actually thinks are needed. She sees that there is a bike path, shopping district, good sidewalks, and several transit lines (bus and rail) nearby, so she thinks that many of her residents will only own one car and that their guests will only drive 50% of the time. So, she can already save some money on parking. But then, a local parking company approaches her, and says they heard about her development and a couple others in the area, and that they would like to provide the parking facilities. Now, the parking company may use or refine parking projections from the residential developer and other proposed projects. The developer does not have to build or sell parking spaces at all; she can sell her residential units at a lower price point and offer buyers the opportunity to purchase one or more parking spaces in the new garage a few doors down. Buyers have more control over their transportation options and local businesses see a little more foot traffic. These changes will be especially important in a district like the BeltLine, where residents and businesses may already be paying a locational premium to be near the transit, trails, parks, and stores planned for this area, and who may intend to use the BeltLine instead of buying a car (or a second car).

One of the big fears about elimination of parking requirements is that developers will underbuild parking, and that this will result in shoppers or office workers filling up residential onstreet parking instead. There are two perspectives on this. On the one hand, you can offer residential parking permits or a similar mechanism to prohibit parking on residential streets. On the other hand, you can ask whether it is advantageous to reserve onstreet parking for local residents (and I say this as a homeowner in a mostly-single family neighborhood adjacent to the BeltLine). After all, you buy or rent the home, not the public street in front of it - the parking spaces themselves are paid for with a mix of property taxes, local sales taxes, and some gas taxes. Most people have room to add more parking to their lot if they are willing to give up some of their yard for it. Older neighborhoods may not have consistent off-street parking, but they could have alleys and decent access to transit, bikeable destinations, and sidewalks. One could also argue that by provided so much free parking to residents, we are simply enabling them to store unnecessary personal property at public expense (rarely-used second or third cars) and discouraging them from exploring other transportation options.

These ideas need to be discussed if we are going to successfully redevelop Atlanta, or anywhere, for walkable, bikeable development. There is a lot of confusion and some deep-seated fear of change. I highly recommend that you find a copy of The High Cost of Free Parking and read if from cover to cover before attending your next public meeting - you'll never see the city the same way again!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Recreation or Transportation?

A while back, I came across another gem in the circular logic of suppressing transportation cycling by denying transportation funds to bicycle projects, based on the argument that it might be used for "recreation". From Sustainable Savannah.

This is something that really makes no sense to me in the development of cycling facilities. If you look at many of the bicycle or shared trails that have been built recently, it's obvious that it is quite difficult to use them for transportation. For instance, the Silver Comet trail runs parallel to US Highway 278 for a ways. 278 is lined with shopping centers and apartment complexes. The trail could serve to connect nearby residents to stores and restaurants, or to connect commuters from their condo or subdivision to "park and ride" lots. But there are hardly any connections that actually go to the shopping centers or residential complexes. The few roads that intersect the path have no bike lanes or shoulders, and no sidewalks for kids or for trail users on foot; they feature high speed traffic and deceleration lanes. There are no facilities along busy Highway 278 itself, if your destination doesn't happen to be right at the corner. So what happens? People put their bicycle onto a rack on their car, drive to the trail, ride back and forth, and leave. A few families who live near the trail ride around on it for an hour. The transportation potential, and potential economic impact, is mostly squandered. It's like building a huge expressway, but with exits that connect to dirt service roads that can only be traveled with a four-wheel drive truck, even though there are towns and stores less than a mile away. Would you be surprised if such an expressway saw little functional usage?
Silver Comet Trail, shown in red, near junction of US278 and GA92

Another example that shows the "trails aren't transportation" mindset of their planners is along Freedom Path in northeast Atlanta. Some parts of the path are pretty appealing - you can zip from the upper edge of the Sweet Auburn district over to the lower limits of Virginia Highland on a bicycle expressway that dodges under and around intersecting streets. But east of Moreland Ave, the arrangement falls apart. Here, North Avenue acts as the expressway, a direct and relatively shady route connecting to a major route to Emory University. But if you stay on the path, you'll travel at least twice the distance on a hot, shadeless hillside. You can't see the topography in the following image, but you'll also add several hundred feet in elevation change for yourself. It would be fine as an alternative sidepath to the direct main route, a scenic detour, or an option for people who are trying to work up a sweat rather than get to work. But as the only bicycle facility in this corridor, it's a failure. This path was not intended for going anywhere fast.
Freedom Path near junction of North Ave. and Oakdale Rd.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Newsflash! Lack of controversy swirls around new bicycle facility

WSB-TV has done a feature on the new sharrows installed on Ponce de Leon Ave by the city of Decatur. Comments from local planners, residents, and businesses show widespread endorsement of the markings. The TV crew is determined to bring a dose of hardened skepticism, but comes up short in bike handling skills and knowledge of cycling traffic safety. I might suggest a Confident City Cycling class before their next story!

Click here to view the clip.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

One Less Car

Finally. I am no longer a car owner. What a relief!

We aren't a completely car-free household. Mr. Step-through (who would probably prefer to be known as "Diamond Frame") owns a car. So when he moved in, we had two adults and two cars. But we only made a couple of driving trips per week, usually together in his car. Meanwhile, my car was starting to develop some issues due to deferred maintenance... deferred for years. The registration renewal was coming due. And when I got a repair estimate that was easily twice the actual book value of the car, I had to ask "Why?"

Why invest so many thousands of dollars and effort on something that I hadn't used in months? Why fill up the driveway? Why keep something that was effectively the world's largest paperweight? So I took it out to one of those big box car lots and sold it for some pocket change. Ironically, getting rid of your car involves going to one of the most car-oriented stretches of the region, a six-lane divided arterial off the interstate. Don't let the sidewalk in this photo fool you - it went about 100 feet and then ended.

I immediately felt a great sense of relief. When you don't drive all the time, owning a car becomes a real chore. You have to make a special effort to drive it often enough to prevent the brakes from seizing up or the battery from draining. You have to run home from work to take it for an emissions test or oil change. Do you own the car or does it start to own you?

No more, though... No more insurance or registration or repairs or oil changes. No more worry. We can use Mr. Step-through's car to schlepp stuff home from the hardware store or visit sketchy areas late at night. Heck, I can rent a car for road trips if I want to, it would still be cheaper than owning one. And maybe someday there will be a car-sharing program that actually serves my neighborhood. Whatever happens, I'll be enjoying the bicycle, bus, train, and my own two feet as much as possible!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Starting Big

The big news yesterday was adoption of "Plan 2040" by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC). This is the long range, 30 year transportation project and program list as well as the 5-year list of stuff that will actually be built before the next plan update. The cool kids refer to the long range plan as the LRTP and the 5-year project list as the TIP ("Transportation Improvement Program").

The use of the word 'improvement' in transportation proposals has actually been a bit controversial, and is discouraged. After all, a change to a particular road may function as an improvement for, say, semi trucks but actually degrade conditions for, say, walking or bicycling. Or vice-versa. It's best to leave such subjective terms out of the project description.

The LRTP and TIP have been narrowed down from a large list of nearly every project that has ever been proposed. The current plan, which seeks to be comprehensive, also has land use forecasts and recommendations, and supplementary programs such as aging services. However, ARC does not control land use or offer any direct services. These functions are all conducted by city and county governments. It will take a bit of political maneuvering to bring this part of the plan to fruition.

The ARC board voted in favor of the plan, with two exceptions. One of these was the Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed. I should point out here that representation is geographic, not population-based. Although he represents more people than any other city and many counties in the region, his vote is no more powerful than the City of Waleska (population 644). The dissenting votes were cast by members who thought the amount of transit in the plan was insufficient.

ARC staff were unable to state exactly how much transit funding was in the plan. There is no transit capital in the 5 year project list. Over the 30-year planning timeline, about 20% of the capital projects are for transit, 77% is roadway capacity and managed lanes, and just 3% is allocated to all other projects including pedestrian, operations & safety, capacity conversion, bicycle, and miscellaneous projects. The portion of funding going to programs and maintenance is a little more balanced in terms of transit share, but no better for bicycle and pedestrian projects. Those projects are mostly classified as 'travel demand management', meaning that they are intended to alleviate congestion by reducing car trips. But what about simple access and mobility for people who already can't or don't drive? By some estimates, that's about 30% of the population, when you consider children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, people who can't afford to own or operate a car, not to mention people who have chosen not to drive in order to obtain health or economic benefits. Maria Saporta has ongoing coverage of the issue in her online column.

How would you determine the right amount of transit funding? The right amount of funding for bicycle infrastructure? Will spending billions of dollars to widen roads improve quality of life, health, safety, or economic stability in our region?    

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


If you have been following this blog in the past, you noticed that my posts became less frequent and then stopped entirely. There were a number of reasons for this - I added new work and family commitments, lost my camera, and just didn't really feel like many readers were getting the message I was trying to convey.  Not to sound cynical, but after 5 years of cycling around Atlanta in dress clothes I had hoped that thousands of other people would realize it was doable and fun, and try it for themselves. And yes, we've seen an increase in bicycling for transportation. We've seen bicycles become trendy. We've seen more women and less spandex. But it's not enough in my opinion.

So, if you will bear with me, I'm changing the purpose and format of this blog. I'm going to focus less on my day-to-day observations in the city, and more on the things that could lead to big changes. Transportation funding. Zoning changes. Plans and policies. And because I am a scientist at heart, I am going to back it all up with tidbits of information that I find in my daily research. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Bicycle Built for Two

I have been really bad about posting lately. I've been a bit busy. This is why:

Yep, that's me and my sweetie, leaving our wedding reception on a tandem bicycle! There are some clearer photos around - I'll post them as soon as I can. All I can say is that riding away on that thing (and going about a mile back to our cottage) exemplified all of the teamwork and trust that we'll need for a lifetime together!

Better Bicycling Bill Becomes Law!

Today Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed HB101, the “Better Bicycling Bill,” into law modernizing outdated laws and implementing safety improvements for motorists and bicyclists.

Georgia joins 19 other states with the implementation of a passing law. Overtaking vehicles have always been legally required to provide a safe passing distance, but the new law defines 3 feet as a safe passing distance.

Other changes included in HB101:
• Bicyclists right-of-way in dedicated bike lanes is now recognized
• Minimum design guidelines are established for bicycle lanes
• Circumstances in which a cyclist may take the full travel lane have been clarified (sect 40-62-294)
• Recumbent and clipless pedals can now legally be sold and used in GA
• Taillights can legally be substituted for a rear reflector
• Cyclists can signal right turns with his or her right arm and hand extended horizontally or with his or her left hand and arm extended upward.

Click here to read the news article, which the AJC seems to have researched entirely in Roswell.

Click here to read the full text of the bill.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Dark Side of Spring

Spring almost always evokes a joyful time - the hard winter is over, flowers are blooming, birds chirping, bees are mating, and soon the villagers will go out and plant sorghum or something. In Atlanta, however, the relationship with spring is more ambiguous. For one thing, the winters are pretty mild and the first flowers appear in February. And while the spring is beautiful, it also means that another long, hot, muggy summer is on the horizon. Then there is the pollen. I don't have a problem with it (knock on wood!) but many people do. For at least a month, people are obsessing over daily pollen counts and even staying home from work.

And then there are the new bicycle riders of spring. Every year, people who haven't ridden a bike since they were 10 come creaking out of their driveways. Now, I am really happy to see new riders in general. I think people should just get out there and start traversing the city by bicycle regardless of age, experience, or current physical activity level. But not regardless of traffic rules.

Yes, you were allowed to ride on the sidewalk as a kid. Now you are not. You are required to follow traffic laws like everyone else on the road. There are classes to help you learn the rules and get comfortable with following them.
Riding on the sidewalk against traffic increase your risk of a crash by 5 times

I don't want to sound negative, but seriously. I probably saw two dozen people on bicycles on my commute home yesterday, and every single last one was doing something illegal and dangerous. Riding on the sidewalk. Riding the wrong way on a very busy one-way street. Riding the wrong way in traffic. Running a red light. Believe me, I understand how poorly our transportation infrastructure accommodates bicycle traffic, but at least try...

Maybe the city will start sending out a Georgia Bike Sense guide to every resident each spring and add bicycle education to middle and high school curricula, hmmm?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Clean Energy is Everywhere

There has been a lot of commentary in the 'transportation choices' world about President Obama's speech on energy policy and independence from foreign oil. Basically, the president spoke for, oh, 30 minutes or so last week about energy security. After worrying about the economic and political implications of oil dependence, he went on to endorse oil exploration, more oil drilling, biofuels, natural gas vehicles, and electric cars. There was one brief mention of transit. And there was not a single mention of the millions of Americans who have already cut their oil consumption by a third, or perhaps much more, by walking and bicycling instead of driving.

The best article I have seen, which really sums up the discussion, was on Grist. This will give you a feel for the spectrum of debate, which ranges from "hey, you forgot something" to "oh no, we're all doomed".

We have plenty of oil-independent folks in Atlanta, and there seem to be more every day.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Cycling Constituency

How many bicyclists does it take to get the attention of state legislators? 2,500 seemed to be the winning number this year. Thousands of people showed up at the capitol building for the annual "Georgia Rides to the Capitol" event. There were folks from all over the Atlanta region, kids from Safe Routes to School programs, competitive cycling clubs, and everyday commuters. And a whole lot of spandex. Some people had ridden 30 miles or more by the time they reached the gold dome, others (like me) just popped over from work. The diversity of ages and racial backgrounds was inspiring. Representatives from the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, and a number of other elected officials and advocates addressed the crowd.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dirt Town

I've really, really been slacking on these posts. Don't worry, I've been on the bicycle, and taking photos, and seeing cool stuff. I've just also been busy (and maybe a little lazy).

First, let me get things caught up since the great ice storm... which wasn't really an ice storm in the technical sense, but rather four inches of heavy, wet snow which melted and then refroze into solid ice. After several days of near immobility (except by foot or train), they managed to dump massive quantities of sand, dirt, and gravel on the roads. Within a few more days, the ice melted away. The gravel did not. Some streets looked more like a cyclocross track than an actual city street - the grit was several inches deep.

The next week, they brought out the streetsweeping machines (a rare occurrence in these days of fiscal austerity) to clean the grit up. The Edgewood Avenue bike lane was one of the priority routes, thanks to pressure from bicycle advocates. The RD Abernathy bike lane still has some problems, due to untrimmed street trees that prevent the sweepers from getting close to the curb. And other roads are just simply a mess. Still. Bicycles really can't use several feet that are usually available at the outside of the lanes, and cars kick up horrible dust clouds when they pass. But hey, it's better than the epic snowdrifts in Boston!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Those Hardy Souls

Atlanta has a reputation for being, well, kind of wimpy about winter weather. But I haven't really seen that, especially among Atlanta's non-motorized crowd. By wednesday, when the roads were still slick with sheets of ice and my office remained closed, there were still people riding down the street. I was out that day, walking to the grocery store.
By thursday, when schools were still closed and my office opened 2 hours late (with co-workers trickling in hours later), the bicycles were still rolling. Everyone who could get out of their driveway just wanted to be out, in fresh air and sunshine!

The cabin fever reached a crescendo on sunday afternoon, as the temperature soared to almost 50 F and the roads became almost completely passable. Young and old, spandexed and casual, I saw more people riding bicycles that day than I did on some of the finest days last autumn!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snow and Ice and Everything Nice

As the whole world knows, we have had some epic weather here in Atlanta. It wasn't that much snow, and it wasn't one of those ice storms that knocks down every utility pole for 100 miles. But it was 4 inches of snow followed by freezing rain and then a deep freeze. In other words, it was a plow and salt situation, and Georgia owns very little of either. Any surface that was not cleared of snow on the first day became a treacherous patch of ice and semi-frozen slush. The whole region came to a standstill.
Snow and ice blanket a local park

My office was closed from monday through wednesday last week, and had a half day on thursday. Schools were closed for the entire week. Stores ran out of essential items like milk and snow shovels as delivery trucks failed to arrive (some trucks tried to get through and caused horrendous wrecks instead). Most businesses didn't open at all. The roads weren't closed, but they probably should have been.

Aside from the closings, though, I was marginally affected by all this. MARTA canceled all bus service but kept the trains running pretty reliably. So it took me 20 minutes to walk or slide to the station instead of 15...I could still go to most of the places I normally travel to as long as they were open. On monday, I went sledding with my neighbors and then fell asleep while the Beau (now fiánce and co-habitant) went across town to see his family. On Tuesday, we cycled to the train station and rode it over to Decatur for drinks and dinner. 
Walking bikes to the station entrance
I didn't take any pictures on the road due to the slippery conditions. Honestly, we walked our bikes as much as we rode them! But it was good experience, learning how they would handle on the ice and goop. By friday, public authorities had covered almost every street with a thick mixture of gravel, dirt, and sand (but did nothing to clear sidewalks nor enforce statutes require property owners to clear them). It became feasible to get around by car, truck, or bicycle, but with new hazards from gravel patches and thick clumps of icy crud. That's a whole 'nother story, coming soon!
Our tire tracks remained frozen in the slush.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cycling Research Recap

I would like to direct everyone's attention across the pond to Munich, Germany. A great little blog there, Münchenierung, is offering a summary of some of the best research on urban cycling. He highlights half a dozen or so scientific articles about the benefits that bicycle transport brings to health, safety, and quality of life in cities. Check out the post!

Monday, January 3, 2011


Happy New Year! Good Solstice! Merry Winter Holiday of Your Personal Preference!

Personally, I have the most enthusiasm for the solstice, because it signals sunnier days to come. I am strongly affected by light (or the lack of light). I love lots of windows and time spent out of doors in the daylight. As daylight dwindles in the winter I find it harder to get out of bed into the dark morning and discouraging to go anywhere or do anything in the evening. The things that get me by are midday walks in sunlight, cheerful holiday lights, and the distant promise of spring and longer days ahead.

Vintage display bike hanging in the warm and happy Brickstore Pub
The past few weeks have been a big ol' winter hibernation blowout. Such a good time to huddle indoors with friends and food and drink. I work on an academic calendar, and the entire university shuts down for the week before New Year's, plus an extra holiday day or two. So I haven't been at my desk for the past, oh, 11 days or so. I stayed home and busted through an extensive project list, and didn't leave the house at all some days. Then there were holiday parties and family stuff, playing in the snow and trying to see the lunar eclipse, and finally and New Year's blowout weekend. I have had very little to blog about in this time, unless you are into rearranging furniture.

Now it's back to work, back to schedules and daily adventures. Back to posting. Once I find my camera, which I misplaced after a party...