Chicago rated worst city for parking – but this could have some benefits

Nerdwallet named Chicago the worst city for parking based on the factors of price and number of car thefts:

Takeaways:

  • Chicago is the worst city for parking — and also the most controversial. Parking prices skyrocketed in 2009 after the city made a deal for a group of investors, organized by Morgan Stanley, to operate its meters for 75 years.
  • Though you’ll probably enjoy Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu is an extremely expensive city to park in; it’ll run you $42 a day.
  • There are a lot of car thefts in Oakland — 124.59% more per capita than the national average.

1. Chicago, Ill.

This city is known for its parking woes—especially the controversial privatization of the parking meters, which led to a dramatic increase in parking fees in 2009. A consortium called Chicago Parking Meters LLC operates the meters. You’ll drop $35 a day to park in the city and $289 per month. The city lists the fines you’ll receive for various parking violations on their website.

This spring, Chicago will test its new ParkChicago app, which allows drivers to pay for parking via an app rather than a meter. There are various websites that help you find the cheapest parking in the city. Chicago is one of the cities supported by SpotHero.com, which helps you find parking and prepay. However, if you want to ditch driving altogether, the city has multiple public transportation options. Bus and “L” riders will soon be able to use their phones to pay for rides.

Unfortunately, Chicago also has 33.4% more motor vehicle thefts per capita than the national average. And if you get a citation, you must contest it within seven days of receiving it or pay the fine online.

Parking is heavily dependent on the number of people and amount of space available. In other words, urban density. If you look at the bottom of the list, or “the best cities for parking your car,” they are all sprawling Sunbelt cities. Presumably, they have much more space and are less dense, driving down parking prices.

Of course, there are positives to having bad parking. Such urban densities that make parking more expensive can lead to:

1. Vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods with plenty of housing as well as businesses, stores, public spaces, and culture. Lots of people in a small amount of space can lead to some exciting urban scenes.

2. Plentiful and efficient mass transit. This is difficult to provide when there are a limited number of riders and the transit has to cover a lot of ground.

3. A lot more people walking and riding bikes. This is good for health, limiting pollution, and livelier streets.

4. The space that might be devoted to cars (wider streets, on-street parking, parking lots and garages) can be devoted to other things. For example, see this analysis of snow plowing on Philadelphia city streets that reveals the potential space.

Snow reveals why we clearly need parking stripes

I pulled into the parking lot this morning at my normal time and I saw a common winter situation: packed down snow (we got 5 or so inches overnight) covering the parking stripes meant drivers were at all sorts of angles and depths. It is a bit of a different lot – angled parking, sloped – but this is common across parking lots, including big box lots with straight parking, when snow obscures the pavement.

The biggest issue? Spacing goes out the window. Without lines to guide them, parkers are either too close or too far. Looking at the same lot later in the morning, it ended up where people are much too close together. In other lots I’ve seen this winter, people are further apart than necessary, pushing new parkers further out than necessary.

What might be solutions?

1. Some kind of glowing parking lines. This would have to be a strong glow to make it through snow. How about bioluminescent paint?

2. Heated parking lines. The cost might be prohibitive but it works for heated floors.

3. Pop-up parking lines. I’m not sure exactly how this would work with snow on top of them but perhaps they would be activated before the snow falls.

4. Parking lines that are more like rumble strips so people know when they are going over them. Again, having snow on top poses a problem.

There has to be someone working on this, right?

Convincing suburban drivers that downtown parking is available

The Chicago suburbs of Wheaton and Glen Ellyn are looking for ways to convince residents that there are plenty of parking spots in their downtowns:

For years, officials in Glen Ellyn have been hearing from residents about a lack of parking in the downtown, despite studies showing plenty of spaces available for customers…

“It dawned upon us that it isn’t a lack of parking, but addressing the perception of the lack of parking,” Glen Ellyn Police Chief Phil Norton said at a recent village meeting. “We’re going to shift our focus and start working on addressing the perception. You can go anywhere and be within a block or a block and a half of convenient parking.”…

The changes include creating 12 “Customer Only” parking spots where parking meters were removed in the Main Street and Pennsylvania lot. It also includes making the Union Pacific lot at Crescent and Main customer parking only, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and making Schock Square customer parking only, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays…

In Wheaton, parking was one of the issues addressed in the final draft of a downtown strategic plan and streetscape plan recently released by the city’s consultants. A parking analysis shows there is enough parking in the city’s downtown, despite a perceived parking issue reported by residents who participated in the survey, officials said.

In the plan, consultants recommended the city consider adding differentiated time limits on certain spaces such as 15 minutes, 1 hour and two hours. That will encourage employees to park in other areas and free up spaces for customers, consultants said.

It would helpful to know why exactly residents think there isn’t much parking. Is it because the parking isn’t right in front of the store? Is it because the parking is more difficult to get into, say angled or parallel parking, than a large parking lot? Is it because the streets or narrower or they can’t perceive they can walk to multiple stores? Some of these issues might seem plausible yet people are willing to endure walks in large, crowded parking lots for big box stores or malls.

The interesting thing to me is that this is a decades-long problem for these downtowns. It dates back at least to the 1950s when downtowns had to start competing with new strip malls and shopping malls which offered multiple stores as well as free parking (as opposed to having parking meters). Even though downtowns might offer plenty of stores within a short distance, I suspect suburbanites perceive that it is more congested and more difficult to get to, even before they know whether parking is available.

Another creative solution: apps or websites that display available parking spaces downtown which gives people real-time information as well as combats percetions that parking isn’t available.

A downtown law firm no more

A law firm in Austin, TX is leaving its downtown location for the suburbs:

Law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP [website] is vacating its current location at 600 Congress Ave. and heading to more suburban digs southwest of downtown [about 6 miles away, map here]….“Yes, price was a consideration but we’re not getting a tremendous difference in rent costs. There are other things that entered in like tenant improvement costs, and parking had a significant impact,” [Michelle Bailey, chief of operations] said.

The company had no parking allocation downtown and at its new location it will have 96 complimentary spaces for 44 employees — more than enough.

The article notes that “finding large blocks of office space [in downtown Austin] is somewhat akin to going on a treasure hunt” and suggests that lawyers “are now being challenged for territorial rights by emerging technology and energy firms.” In other words, plenty of businesses still want a downtown presence, and rents are being bid up by new entrants. This sounds more like a story of urban revival than suburban sprawl to me, though the two are clearly linked here.

Perhaps a more fascinating revelation, however, is Bowman and Brooke determination that it “wasn’t necessary for its attorneys to be downtown, close to other law firms and courthouses” because “[w]e tend to be a national firm with our attorneys flying all over the country” and “we don’t have a lot of local interaction.” What does it mean to practice law without significant local interaction, especially when one is “a nationally recognized trial firm that defends corporate clients in widely publicized catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims“? While simply having a downtown (rather than a suburban) office location may do little to humanize a corporate law firm, it seems telling that Bowman and Brooke seems to place such a low priority on engaging its local community.

Encouraging sprawl or downtown growth

A recent Canadian conference brought together scholars and practitioners interested in strengthening downtowns. Several of the participants made comments regarding the relationship between a city downtown and the suburbs:

By themselves, speakers warned, studios, galleries and quaint little bistros won’t solve the problems of troubled downtowns. Real solutions will have to overcome public policies that favour urban sprawl and punish core businesses with excessive parking requirements.

Consultant Pamela Blais pointed an accusing finger at municipal development charges that she argues favour suburban “McMansions” over turning downtown buildings into condos.

As one example, she pointed to one Ontario municipality that collects lot levies of $31,000 per parcel regardless of size — that means a house with a 30-foot frontage actually pays more toward the cost of water and sewer mains and parks than a bigger property.

Michael Manville, of Cornell University’s city and regional planning department, argued minimum parking requirements in city centres actually harm development by driving buildings farther apart.

“Most parking policies turn downtown into a sorry imitation of a mall,” he said. “We have to stop this quiet process of turning downtowns into suburbs one parking lot at a time.”

He argued for maximum parking requirements, rather than minimums, a policy he said will make downtown living attractive to people whose lives aren’t centred on their cars.

There are a lot of moving pieces here including big cultural forces favoring suburbs over denser environments (though perhaps not with younger generations). For planners in individual communities, it can be difficult to counter all of this at once.

At the same time, this is not a new issue. Urban (and suburban) downtowns really started to face these issues in the 1950s with the advent of the strip mall and shopping mall. Some of these same issues are reflected in the comments above: what to do about parking? How can a downtown compete against a mall where there are a number of interesting stores within a climate-controlled space? Other communities may not be completely on-board with promoting condos over single-family homes, particularly when condos can be tied to higher densities and bigger buildings which might clash with a community’s character.

One thing I have wondered before: is it always worthwhile for a community to try to revive a downtown? On one hand, a core is a valuable asset as it represents an opportunity to bring people together and to share a common history. Some newer communities have no real core or public space. On the other hand, downtowns can require a lot of revitalization and it can require fighting an uphill battle in some communities to put the kind of money and attention needed to get a downtown up and running again. It is one thing to present people with a thriving downtown that is attractive and exciting (see: downtown Naperville, which can lead to its own issues) but another to ask a lot of people to undergo a 5 to 20 year project to really transform a downtown. Frankly, some people don’t care about having a downtown and see it as a relic of the past – why not just build the newer versions of downtowns: lifestyle centers?

Here seems to be the primary strategies for downtown revitalization these days:

1. Promote mixed-use development, preferably buildings with retail on the first floor and then condos or offices above. This ensures social spaces and residents to use them.

2. Take advantage of transportation advantages such as mass transit. If you can increase density around important rail or subway lines, you can attract more people.

3. Generally aim to attract two sets of residents: younger professionals and creative types (a la the creative class). These groups like the idea of denser, exciting areas and are more willing to try things out. If you need a third group, aim for downshifters and young retirees who are also looking for a new scene.

Working on parking issues in Naperville’s downtown: shuttles? Parking garages? Perceptions about available spots?

This is an ongoing issue in Naperville: is there enough parking at peak times and, perhaps more importantly, do people think that there is enough parking? Here is part of the background to a discussion the city recently had about having shuttles to the downtown:

The topic came up again last year during the city’s strategic planning discussions, leading to planners’ latest look at the feasibility. Robles said they found the city’s cost per ride would be about $58, up from $45 in 2006 and the city hasn’t been hearing a demand from residents.

The issue, she said, seems to pop up every few years in part because some people have a perception there isn’t enough downtown parking. Including both public and private spots, there currently are about 3,300 downtown parking spaces.

A 2010 study showed on Friday nights – peak parking time – 77 percent of those spots tended to be full on average. The city will be doing a follow-up study this summer and Robles said she anticipates that occupancy percentage increasing into the lower 80s.

Reaching occupancy rates in the 80s tends to make people feel there isn’t enough parking, she said. But she hopes the city’s parking guidance systems that tell drivers how many spaces are really available in some facilities will help ease that perception.

Several thoughts about this:

1. I don’t think the “parking guidance systems” cited above are accurate all the time. For example, we drove into the Van Buren garage a few Fridays go because the sign said there was 45 spots available. We drove slowly, in a long line of cars, all the way to the top and all the back down again, finally finding a spot near the exit where someone was pulling out.

2. There is always street parking in the residential neighborhoods just north and west of the downtown. However, that would require a 5-10 minute walk for people. Is this the real issue: visitors (resident and non-residents) demand to park within a minute or two of their destination?

3. People perceive there is not enough parking when it occupancy is in the eighties percent range. This is fascinating: this still means that at least 1 of 10 parking spots are available and possibly as high as 1 out of 5. The issue of parking seems to be more about perceptions than actual availability.

4. Is this only an issue on Friday and Saturday nights between roughly early May and early September? In other words, how much parking does one build for 40 nights out of the year when those spaces will go unfilled at other times?

5. Has anyone ever tried to quantify for Naperville (or other places) how much business they might be losing by not having the sort of big box store/shopping mall parking lots?

6. Of course, this is not a new issue in Naperville. A few years ago, the city was considering building a three-level garage that would have replaced the Nichols Library lot but there was some opposition from residents (this parcel borders a residential neighborhood) and the city shelved the plans. Is building more garages really the answer in the long run?

Of food trucks and lawbreaking

It’s no secret that the U.S. economy continues to struggle, particularly on the jobs front.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that lots of people are getting in touch with their inner entrepreneur and are seeking employment via their own small businesses.  Food trucks, although looked down on by some, clearly are a part of this self-starter trend, particularly in certain urban areas like Portland and New York.

Which is why I found a recent NPR Planet Money podcast on food trucks in NYC so interesting. From the transcript:

[T]he city sets lots of rules about where food trucks are not allowed — then lets the truck owners duke it out over the scraps.

You have to be 20 feet away from subway stations and building entrances. Two hundred feet from schools (call it the ice-cream truck provision). And the NYPD just started giving out tickets for selling food from metered parking spots.

“Following all the regulatory constraints that are currently enforced at this moment, there really is not any place for a food truck to park,” says David Weber [author of the Food Truck Handbook].

In other words, NYC on one hand licenses an activity (vending from food trucks) and on the other hand makes this activity illegal (through parking regulations that provide literally no legal spots from which to vend).  Of course, what this really means is (1) that food trucks continue to operate but (2) that they do so in technical violation of the law and subject to the whims of law enforcement’s discretion.

As a lawyer, this infuriates me.  It undermines the rule of law in a number of ways:

  • It tells citizens that one has to break the law simply in order to run a business.
  • It implies that there are two classes of law (laws one must obey and laws one need not) without providing a clear principle on which is which.
  • It institutionalizes an incentive for corruption and discrimination since every food truck operator is now a technical lawbreaker subject to law enforcement’s “discretion” (and thus harassment, solicitation for bribes, etc.).

To be clear:  I do not know whether any corruption or discrimination is taking place, and I am not accusing anyone of anything.  (Indeed, I have no direct knowledge of the situation on the ground and do not live in NYC.)  Taking David’s assertion at face value, however, it is clear that such facts would incentivize corruption and discrimination at the institutional level.

Ruminating on the American parking lot

Here is part of a review of a new book that discusses better ways to design large-scale parking lots:

Mr. Ben-Joseph does offer some parking-lot success stories, few that there are. He introduces us to the Herman Miller factory in Cherokee County, Ga., whose segmented, 550-car lot is sympathetically integrated into the surrounding woodscape. He also approvingly notes the canopied car plaza in front of the Dia:Beacon Museum in Beacon, N.Y. (a collaboration between American artist Robert Irwin and the architecture firm OpenOffice), where the angled planters separating the parking spaces point the way to the museum entrance. Renzo Piano, redesigning the old Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, took a similar approach, creating dense and splendid colonnades of trees…

Mr. Ben-Joseph is also guilty of sociological overreach. “Parking lots are a central part of our social and cultural life,” he writes, calling them “a modern-day common.” Wait, what? They are? Yes, teenagers gather in parking lots for one rite of adolescence or another: fighting, racing, dancing. True, community farmers markets spring up over the weekend in business and municipal parking lots; tailgating is a ritualized feasting before sporting events; RV drivers form impromptu villages in Wal-Mart parking lots, a practice known as “boondocking.”

But these interactions happen despite the forbidding nature of open parking lots, not because of them. I find parking lots to be intensely anti-social. I do not engage with strangers on my way to or from the car, and because these tracts are typically shelterless, there is no architectural cue as to where to congregate even if you wanted to. One can’t let go of a child’s hand in a parking lot for even a second. If you’re in a car, a parking lot is an obstacle course to negotiate. If you’re on foot, it’s a place to escape unscathed.

Surface parking lots don’t have to be the minimalist slabs of nowhere-ness we’ve grown accustomed to, Mr. Ben-Joseph suggests. Maybe. And yet there are few signs that this aspect of our infrastructure will get much better anytime soon. For now, I was glad to reach my car and drive away.

I think you could make a case that parking lots really do matter beyond what kind of social activity takes place in them. Thinking more broadly, parking lots represent the American love affair with the car and development based around driving. The zoning laws about the required number of parking spots suggest that one of the worst things we can imagine in everyday life is the lack of an easily available parking space. Shopping malls and big box stores and fast food restaurants are dependent on these giant lots. In cities, parking lots are often profitable holding operations until the land is profitable enough to justify a large development. Overall, the big parking lot is emblematic of a whole lifestyle built around cars and trucks that took over America starting in the 1920s.

Argument in Ottawa, Canada for parking as a human right

Here is an overview of an argument made in Ottawa, Canada for the human right for a parking spot:

In a novel case before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario in Ottawa Monday, Ms. Howson argued that the city discriminated against her on the grounds of family status by not letting her build a parking pad in front of her house.

But city lawyers argued that Ms. Howson has never applied for a minor variance from the city’s committee of adjustment — the body legally able to consider her request — so she actually has never been denied anything…

Ms. Howson shares with a neighbour a narrow driveway that varies in width from 2.6 to 2.78 metres. It’s technically possible for her car — a 2.25-metre-wide Mazda 5 — to squeeze through the laneway.

But such manoeuvring is difficult at the best of times and impossible in winter because of snow and ice buildup, she said.

Under the current zoning, front-yard parking isn’t permitted on her street, which is in a heritage preservation district.

However, exceptions can be granted under certain circumstances.

Two years ago, Ms. Howson — a former investigator with the Ontario Human Rights Commission — approached the city to see if it would grant an exemption based of her family’s “special circumstances.”

The city’s refusal “constitutes discrimination on the grounds of family status,” she said.

While some might dismiss this quickly because it is a trivial application of the idea of human rights, this does seem like a bigger issue of zoning and who can grant exceptions. This woman may not win by casting this as a human rights issue but her argument does highlight how zoning and preservation districts can conflict with modern wants. Zoning may be an helpful tool for governments on a broad scale, but it also can lead to a large number of requests for variances and changes for specific properties and political accusations about who gets awarded variances and how long the process takes.

Also, this is a reminder of how important the car is in today’s society. In order to get around in many communities, a car is required and one needs a place to park a car. How much one should have to be inconvenienced or have to pay to park their car is another story but it does have to be factored into discussions about having and promoting an automobile society.

Designer parking garages in Miami

Parking garages tend not to have good reputations as they are often functional blocks of concrete that are measured by how many cars they can fit. But, Miami apparently has a number of “designer” garages including a proposed parking elevator for a new high-rise:

The $560 million Jetsonesque tower will rise in Sunny Isles Beach as part of a collaboration between Germany-based Porsche Design Group and a local developer, Gil Dezer. It likely will be the world’s first condominium complex with elevators that will take residents directly to their units while they are sitting in their cars…

Here is how it will work: After the resident pulls over and switches off the engine, a robotic arm that works much like an automatic plank will scoop up the car and put it into the elevator. Once at the desired floor, the same robotic arm will park the car, leaving the resident nearly in front of his front door. Voila, home!

The glass elevators will give residents and their guests unparalleled views of the city or of the ocean during their high-speed ride, expected to last 45 to 90 seconds…

The car elevators are the latest twist on Miami Beach’s burgeoning passion for designer parking garages. The highly acclaimed 1111 Lincoln Road designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron opened in 2009; also planned are garages by London architect Zaha Hadid, Mexico’s Enrique Norten and Miami’s own Arquitechonica.

Being able to live in a luxury condo that is greatly enhanced by parking right outside of your door sounds like a uniquely American prize. This is another reminder how American culture is dominated by the automobile.

At the same time, this could also be seen as an architectural or design issue: how can one successfully design parking garages so they are aesthetically pleasing? While these garages in Miami might be for more luxurious residences, there are other options. One option that seems to be growing in popularity is underground garages. While this is great in dense urban spaces where valuable land can’t be wasted on a separate parking structure, it can also be found in denser suburban developments where the goal is to allow condo or townhome owners to park directly below their units and to keep the garage out of sight. After all, large houses with prominent garages may be called “snout houses” in reference to the overarching emphasis on where the garage is going to be parked.

This reminds me of one of the parking decks in Naperville. The Van Buren structure features a stained glass window memorializing the “Cars of the Century.” Also, Wheaton has done a nice job of hiding their downtown garage behind more traditional looking structures.