Entitled to Parking

“Dude, c’mon – I was only in the hour-long parking space for two hours! What’s the problem?”

There’s a great “Pick of the Day” letter to the editor in The Roanoke Times this morning.  You need to go read it, but here’s the crux of the problem the writer presents:

I parked across the street [from the Taubman Museum] in an hour-long parking space. I was in the museum for about 45 minutes. When I came out and checked my car to see if there was a mark on my tires, there was not, so I went to have lunch at the Thai restaurant, and when I came back to my car, I had a ticket.

You might not be surprised to learn that he’s upset he got a ticket for parking longer than an hour in an hour-long space.

The Roanoke Times should have headlined this, “Duh of the Day.”

This attitude of entitlement is one of the reasons it’s so hard to develop smart parking policy.

Blue Skies in the Roanoke Times

Shenandoah National Park: Good air quality day vs. poor air quality day | Photo by the National Park Service

Mark McCaskill, a Senior Planner here at the Regional Commission, had an air quality op-ed published in The Roanoke Times this past Sunday:

The unusually early and hot summer has resulted in higher risks of the creation of ground-level ozone, or smog (the pollutant that causes the haze that obscures our gorgeous vistas). Besides restricting views, ground-level ozone can make it difficult to breathe – particularly for groups like the elderly, small children and those with respiratory diseases such as asthma – and in high enough concentrations can even affect very healthy people.

One of the reasons RIDE Solutions does what it does in the Roanoke region is to help mitigate air quality issues.  Check out Mark’s op-ed for more information on ozone pollution and what you can do to keep Roanoke’s sky’s blue.

What’s Water Got to do With It?

Parking lot at Wachovia call center on north Plantation Rd.

Monday’s Roanoke Times featured commentary by Robert Craig concerning Roanoke City Council members David Trinkle and Rupert Cutler’s proposal for a new stormwater management fee scheme to address the city’s aging drainage infrastructure.  Craig recognizes the need to improve the system but is against the proposed $3-per-month residential fee and $3-per-1,920 square feet for non residential users proposed by Cutler and Trinkle.  “Interesting,” you may say, “but what does that have to do with transportation?”  The answer is two words:  Parking lots.

Parking lots do two things in regards to stormwater management:  they create a huge amount of impermeable surface, and, by making it easy to find parking (often by providing a surplus of capacity), they encourage single-occupant vehicle trips, which means more roads (more impermeable surface), and related issues of congestion, vehicle emissions, and so forth.

By assessing a fee based on on the size of impermeable surface, the City creates an incentive to minimize that surface.   Developers may choose to eliminate surplus spaces, or to invest in bike parking or transit benefits in order to reduce parking demand and, thus, the necessary size of the parking lot.  As Trinkle and Cutler’s original commentary piece says:  “It is a plan that is funded based on the demands each property places on the storm drain system.”  This seems to be the most fair way to pay for the system improvements:  Charge the people who use it the most, and create a system which creates incentives for smarter development in the future.  In this regard, Craig’s fear that “Joe Blue-collar” will feel the bite of the fee (which amounts to $36 a year for homeowners) is a red herring; clearly, the real targets (and rightly so) are industrial and commercial sites who contribute most heavily to the problem.

Oil puddle on pavement - Wikimedia Commons

There is a secondary transportation/stormwater management intersection that has less to do with drainage and more to do with water quality.  Most cars of any age leak a little of something – oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid.  Probably barely enough for the average car owner to notice, and in some cases not worth the trouble to fix.  But that stuff collects, and aggregated across a huge parking fall full of cars (think of Valley View Mall during Christmas, or any of Virginia Tech’s parking lots on any given days), you can start to see significant quantities of toxic chemicals are building up.  For example, in an interview with PBS’s Frontline, Jay Manning, Director of Washington State’s Department of Ecology, says:  “[T]he volume of oil that is carried into Puget Sound by stormwater runoff [every two years] is equal to the oil spill in Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez spill.”  Granted, Manning is speaking here of statewide impact, but the principle is the same:  the stuff that drips slowly from the undercarriage of your parked car is eventually washed into the Roanoke River.

A funding scheme that buries the cost for stormwater management in property taxes or other general fund sources, as Craig proposes, might pay for system improvements but would do nothing to curb the growth of harmful development patterns that put additional strain in the system.

The main problem with Trinkle and Cutler’s proposal is not the fee structure but that it is limited to the City of Roanoke.  To be truly successful, this fee needs to be applied to all development within the Roanoke Valley and anything that contributes to the strain on our drainage system or runoff into the Roanoke River.  The danger with the fee as proposed is that it could encourage sprawl by pushing new development into the rural portions of Roanoke and Botetourt Counties.  Not only would this not solve the problem with drainage, it would exacerbate it by contributing to sprawl that, in turn, contributes to longer commute times and distances, more roads, and unnecessary energy consumption.  This effort is a necessary start, but the region should come together to take a more comprehensive look at drainage and water quality and make sure that the problem of unchecked growth does not outpace the proposed solutions.

In Defense of Ciclovia

A few weeks ago, the Friday after August 1st’s Ciclovia, a Letter to the Editor appeared in The Roanoke Times that took a critical look at the event (letter appears second from bottom, but is quoted below):

Since Roanoke spent a lot of money making bike lanes around parks, I do not see why they have to have a bike show downtown (“Taking to the streets” Aug. 2 photos). Streets are blocked, interfering with traffic. More important, children are riding their bikes in the street and could be hit by a car or bus.

If the city built bike lanes around parks and other areas, they should be used, not city streets made for cars and buses.

My response appeared in today’s paper, quoted below in full:

In response to Catherine Wydner’s Aug. 7 letter, “Use bike lanes, not the city streets,” I want to clarify a few misconceptions she seems to have about our recent Ciclovia event.

The Ciclovia, organized by the Roanoke chapter of BikeWalk Virginia, was an effort to show how much more vibrant our urban space could be when it is opened to people rather than dedicated to cars. Indeed, the 500-plus attendees of the event — including cyclists, artists, families, health professionals, rollerbladers and others — enjoyed the opportunity to “play in the streets” and experience Downtown Roanoke in an exciting, new way.

I take issue with her assertion that city streets are “made for cars and buses.” Streets are made for transportation, regardless of mode. Citizens should feel comfortable and safe choosing how to commute, do their shopping and visit friends, whether they do so in a car, on a bus, on a bike or on foot.

Smart cities concentrate on transportation designs that move people, not only cars, and Roanoke’s support of events like Ciclovia reveals its dedication to this principle. BikeWalk appreciates the city’s support and the support of all who attended the event.

This idea that “streets are for cars,” as if cars are creatures with rights, is one we have to get past if we’re ever going to make significant improvements in our transportation infratructure and energy use.  A century ago, people might have argued vehemently that “Streets are for horses!”  Before that, “Streets are for the market stalls!” and even “What the heck is a street?”  Now, as always, streets are a function of our cities and how we choose to move around within them and connect to others.  They should always be viewed with an eye toward moving people the fastest, safest, most efficient and, now, cleanest way possible.  In many cases that may be by car, which is fine.  But not always, and not for everyone, and the more we keep this top-of-mind the better off our cities will be.

Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together

This piece by Dan Casey in the Sunday Roanoke Times could be probably use some fleshing out, though when all is said and done I agree completely with Casey’s argument (indeed, he and I had a lengthy discussion on the subject last week, boiled down to the two sentence quote he eventually uses).

First, in the City’s defense, the existing standards for bike racks as “street furniture” are there for a reason – the common, and admittedly boring, inverted u-shape (or hoop) is accepted as being the safest way to secure your bike by allowing two contact points with the bike’s frame.  Wave style and grid racks, while more compact, generally require attaching the bike by its wheel or spokes, which can result in the wheel being bent easily if the bike is bumped.  The hoop also has a very small footprint and, under the City’s standards, is installed in such a way as to maximize pedestrian use of the sidewalk.  Given all this, I think that the City was correct in rejecting the initial offer of the rack by John Wilson.

However, where the City dropped the ball was in not immediately seeing the value in what Wilson was trying to do and make all the connections that Casey makes in his article.  They should have sat down with Wilson and worked with him, as an artist, to revise the standards in such a way as to maintain the small footprint, ease of pedestrian movement, and safety features of the hoop rack while encouraging some creativity.  It’s a bit difficult to tell from the photo accompanying Casey’s column, but Wilson’s rack basically meets all of the City’s standards in principle:  It has a small footprint, two contact points against which the bike frame can be locked (there are two trapezoidal outcroppings on either side of the central pole), and poses no obvious harm or obstacle to pedestrians.  In fact, with the giant bicycle sculpture on the top, it does a better job than the hoop rack of advertising its purpose.

One of my coworkers pointed out that the City does need to be careful when allowing exceptions to the existing standards – we don’t need bike racks with giant spinning blades on them (unlike the outdoor sculpture at my alma mater), but the City could open them up enough for individual pieces to be considered on a case-by-case basis.  With the booming of both bikes and art in our humble burg, this would be an excellent way to combine them.