Americans fight for the right to have cheap or free parking

One columnist uses a story of obtaining a parking ticket on vacation to argue Americans like cheap parking:

I finally paid my parking ticket last week, but only because my wife reminded me. The ticket arrived unbidden on my windshield while we were on vacation. I parked too long in what I should have recalled but didn’t was a one-hour zone. I had no defense and sought none. As one who tries to be a good citizen, I stuck the small manila envelope above the visor on the driver’s side of the car, planning to pay up as soon as possible … and immediately forgot its existence. We arrived home from vacation with the ticket still hidden above the visor…

Indeed, the fact that the city increased the fines by only $5 helps illustrate the uneasy relationship between drivers and urban planners. Planners hate cars; drivers love them. Drivers have more votes than planners, so parking stays cheap…

Which brings us back to my parking ticket. Nobody has more status and power than the state, so why didn’t I pay my ticket at once? Because the state’s status and power are not strongly signaled. The face value of the ticket was relatively low — $20 — and paying late increased the fine only by $5. Now imagine increasing both by a factor of 100. Were the fine $2,000 and the late fee $500, most of us would pay on time. As a matter of fact, we’d go out of our way never to be ticketed. We might even forego our beloved cars and turn to public transportation.

Except that we wouldn’t. We’d rise in revolt instead, demanding a return to cheap parking. We’d be wrong, but we’d win.

For many urbanists, the car is the antithesis of urban life. To have thriving street life, the sort of streetscape described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, people need to be walking rather than seeing places go by at 30 mph and above. Perhaps cars should be banned all together in some places. Reliance on the car ends up shifting resources to having wide and efficient roads rather than the traditional style and walkable neighborhoods New Urbanists tout. The sprawl of the suburbs is only possible because cars enable wealthier residents to leave the city and its residents behind for the night.

On the flip side, American love cars. Arguably, the suburbs are the prime illustration of a life built around and enabled by personal vehicles. The federal government largely funded interstates, allowing more workers to move to the suburbs. The new shopping malls of the postwar era included many indoor stores at once but also free parking. Communities, both suburban and urban, fought over whether to compete with the shopping malls with free street parking or continue to use parking meters. If owning a car is expensive enough, does the average user want to also have to pay for parking?

Outside of the densest areas in the United States, such as Manhattan where parking can go for a premium, parking will likely remain rather cheap. It would be interesting to see one or two cities really try to go after cheaper parking to push mass transit or other transportation options. Could places like Seattle or Austin get away with it? Maybe but even there many people in the region need a car. Perhaps significantly raising parking prices would have to go hand in hand with constructing and pushing transit options to truly change behaviors.

Looking at where snow is and isn’t plowed on Philly streets reveals where public spaces could be created

One astute observer looks at snow plow patterns on Philadelphia streets and shows how spaces where snow is not plowed could become more public space:

If you haven’t heard of a “sneckdown” yet, it’s a clever combination of “snow” and “neckdown”—another name for a curb expansion—that uses snow formations on the street to reveal the space cars don’t use. Advocates can then use these sneckdown photos to make the case to local transportation officials that traffic-calming interventions like curb bump-outs and traffic islands can be installed without any loss to car drivers.

One of the areas of Philadelphia with the best opportunities for pedestrian plazas is East Passyunk Avenue, which crosses the street grid at a diagonal, creating lots of triangular intersections. I thought the snow would provide some good examples to help you visualize what I’m talking about, so I headed over there to take some sneckdown photos. And to my delight, the snow revealed some awesome traffic calming ideas I hadn’t considered.

At the intersection of 6th and Passyunk and Christian, near the excellent Shot Tower Coffee, there is a triangular plot of land that I always thought would make a great public plaza, but there’s a “for sale” sign there now, indicating it will probably become housing.

The city’s choice to allocate the public right of way around this triangle to curb parking for cars means the parcel is smaller than it could be, but even so, the snow formation shows it could be larger even without taking away parking. Try to imagine how much more sidewalk there could be if not for the curb parking around the island though:

Very thorough. This is a clever use of observational data: snow plowing makes the point that not all space on streets and roads is regularly used by cars. How might this space be used differently if it is not required as part of the road?

I wonder how much of this has to do with standards for road construction, whether in the past or today. For example, in Suburban Nation several New Urbanists argue that most road standards today are way too wide which then encourages faster driving and limits sidewalks and public space. They also suggest that we make choices as a society about how we want roads to function: are they there to maximize vehicle efficiency and speed or are they streetscapes that can help cultivate social and civic life (which usually means toning down the emphasis on vehicles)?

Claim: New Jersey McMansions being built in well-connected places

If McMansions are on a comeback, one observer in New Jersey suggests the state’s new McMansions tend to be built to certain places:

The National Home Builders Association survey found growing interest in them, but Rutgers trend watcher James Hughes says not in New Jersey – with a few exceptions.

“In well-placed communities with rail access to New York city, some McMansions are being added.”

He says a large baby boom generation may be vacating their McMansion, but the pool of buyers for them is shrinking.

Hughes is hinting at a few things that influence McMansion placement:

1. Places connected to New York City by train may be likely to have more money, tied to their jobs in the city. These communities may be desirable because they offer options to driving as well as the possibility of more established suburbs.

2. Younger generations aren’t as interested in McMansions so there is less demand for such homes.

These may be actual reasons but the first one is also a bit paradoxical. New Urbanists as well as those interested in transit-oriented development have tended to emphasize that suburbs with mass transit nodes can be home to denser housing. What happens if McMansions and other big housing options come to dominate such suburbs and end up pricing out many suburbanites?

We know a McMansion when we see the outside but what is inside?

A Quora forum member asks a broad yet intriguing question about McMansions: “What do McMansions look like on the inside?” Most of the attention McMansions receive is about the exterior. There are several common issues. It simply looks like a large house. Such homes do not have a consistent design as they can borrow from a variety of architectural styles. The house looks imposing from the street. The garage, at least two cars, can dominate the facade. The home does not fit with the style of the rest of the neighborhood. It may dwarf nearby homes. The front may be well-appointed but the sides and rear have vinyl siding, little brick, and little character. All of these critiques have something in common: houses should fit in with their surroundings and also present a coherent and less-than-ostentatious image. One group who have critiqued McMansions at times, New Urbanists, tend to make this argument that homes should be part of a larger neighborhood and have less to say about the interiors of large homes.

But, there is another aspect to McMansions that seems to receive less attention. I assume the reason for this is fairly obvious: most observers of McMansions, whether they are driving by homes on the way home from work or academics writing about the phenomenon, have less access to the interiors. In other words, homes are private spaces that generally aren’t open to private viewing. We might know some of the broad trends: people in recent years like granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, McMansions can have large foyers, there is a lot of interior space including rooms in addition to the standard ones, relatively more money is spent on the size of the home so less is devoted to long-lasting appointments, and McMansion owners may have little furniture or nice appointments because they spent so much on the house (this is a common stereotype).

There are architects and others who are more worried about the interiors of large homes. Architect Sarah Susanka, developer of the Not So Big House, argues that it is much better to have a home that fits a homeowner’s individual needs than to simply have a large house. She advocates for custom spaces within a home that both reflect the individual tastes of the homeowners as well as their activities. In contrast, McMansions are viewed as soulless homes that homeowners must fit into rather than the other way around. There are also others who argue there should more of a psychological fit between homeowners and their home.

This reminds me of the 1981 book The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. The two researchers spent time observing people’s homes as well as talking to them about how they related to the objects they had in their home. I think there is a lot more research that could be done in this area. On one hand, we often buy into the idea that the products we buy and display say something about us (and we often also view our homes as expressions of our self) and yet, we don’t think too deeply about this most of the time.

How streets came to be for cars and not for pedestrians

There is little doubt that American streets and roads are typically made to optimize the driving experience. It wasn’t always this way:

According to Peter Norton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the change is no accident (so to speak). He has done extensive research into how our view of streets was systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself.

“If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”

Streets back then were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses. When the automobile first showed up, Norton says, it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel. That image persisted well into the 1920s…

Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver.

Public opinion was on the side of the pedestrian, as well. “There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets.” Auto clubs and manufacturers realized they had a big image problem, Norton says, and they moved aggressively to change the way Americans thought about cars, streets, and traffic. “They said, ‘If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.'”

A fascinating story: as the car became more popular and the auto industry banded together, understandings of streets changed. If you look at old pictures of streets before the 1920s, they often seem like the Wild West: there are carts big and small (plus animals providing the power), pedestrians, sometimes electric streetcars, and more.

This reminds me of the efforts of New Urbanists to redesign streets so that cars become less dominant. They typically suggest several changes: reducing the width of the road, allowing cars to park on both sides of the road (this makes drivers more cautious), and putting trees close to the edges of the road to create another barrier between cars and pedestrians.

The suburban critic James Howard Kunstler is also fond of showing pictures of barren intersections where multiple 4-6 lane roads come together and the scale dwarfs even the most hardy pedestrians.

It is amusing to think of cars being portrayed today as “Satan’s murdering machines” – even though car accidents are a leading cause of death.