Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No Riverside meeting tonight

Presumably, the team is digesting my posts about Riverside parking. But, more likely, the cancellation is weather related.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cheap parking is absurd

The comments on recent posts are full of thoughtful challenges that I hope to address. I'll start with this one:

Aside from that, the flat statement that cheap on street parking hurts businesses is absurd.

Well, no. But, first, you have to define "cheap."

In the context of parking, cheap means underpriced. Underpriced is not some vague, I-know-it-when-I-see-it concept. It's simple economics: parking is underpriced if demand exceeds supply. Parking is properly priced at a price that creates an equilibrium between supply and demand. Put more plainly, parking is properly priced at a price where occupancy is a little below 100% -- when there is a vacancy or two each city block.

Imagine a motel that's at 100% occupancy every night. Any owner in her right mind would conclude that prices are too low. She'd be leaving money on the table not to raise prices.

With parking spaces, it's not only a matter of lost revenue. Without regular parking vacancies, turnover is low. The consequence to businesses of low-turnover is that people who want to shop in a commercial district can't find spaces to park. And, that hurts business.

In different areas at different times, the price that's high enough to ensure turnover is different. What's cheap around St. Mary's place during a Red Sox game is not the same as cheap when the Sox are out of town, which is not the same as cheap in Newton Centre during the weekday lunch crunch.

But the analysis is the same: cheap parking = low turnover = less business.

Not absurd.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Brookline gets market-rate meter rates

Brookline, clearly influenced by a particularly well-reasoned op-ed in the Globe, is considering higher meter rates near St. Mary's place during Red Sox games.

Guess who the higher rates are intended to benefit? Local businesses!

Business owners recognize that the provision of too cheap on-street parking (seventy-five cents an hour compared to game-day $35 off-street parking) means that spaces are occupied by folks spending a few hours over the bridge at Fenway and not across the sidewalk in their shops and restaurants. They understand that there is good parking use -- by people who spend money in their businesses -- and bad parking use -- by people who take advantage of the town's subsidy, but are not customers.

Brookline may take an approach not heretofore discussed on NS&S: start low and end high. They may have a relatively low rate for a couple of hours and then raise the rate substantially. The total cost of parking for a game will be a still-bargain-rate $10.

Start low and end high also has the potential to address a concern that market-rate public parking will put street-side commercial districts at a disadvantage versus competitors with free off-street parking. For a short shopping stay, the difference isn't substantial.

The game-day situation is extreme in terms of the value of the spaces as measured by the cost to park in nearby private lots, the severity of the lack of turnover, and the ability to distinguish the good parking v. the bad parking. But, the fundamentals apply in any commercial district.

Cheap on-street parking hurts businesses.


Walk to the Tavern

There's a little density nugget tucked into the story about Brookline considering higher meter rates during Red Sox games (discussed here).

The owner of the Beacon Street Tavern estimates that 50% of his customers drive to the restaurant. Half of his customers don't get into a polluting car, don't add to local traffic, and don't need to have valuable real estate turned into an impermeable surface to provide temporary housing for cars.

Density helps business.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Beacon Street -- the end of the end of the bike lane in sight

Thanks to the leadership of Boston Bike Czar Nicole Freedman, the Boston portion of Beacon Street east of Cleveland Circle has been striped with bike lanes for a while. The absence of bike lanes from the Boston/Newton line to Hammond Street has been glaring. The abrupt end of the bike lanes at the cities' border is particularly poignant.

Concern that Newton has just dropped the ball can be eliminated. Filed last week with Traffic Council:

ALD. FULLER, BAKER, & SCHNIPPER requesting on Beacon Street east of Hammond Street to the Newton/Boston City Line adjacent to Boston College: (a) changes to the existing parking regulations to facilitate the addition of marked bicycle lanes on both the north and south sides of Beacon, and (b) installation of parking meters on the north, and possibly, south, sides of Beacon, to facilitate through travel and short-term daytime parking.

The parking west of Chestnut Hill Dr. complicates the installation of bike lanes. In particular, there's a point west of Lawrence Ave, where there is not enough room for the existing parking on both sides, automobile travel lanes, and proper bike lanes. To do the bike lanes right, the city had to wrestle with the parking implications. That explains the delay.

To his credit, Associate City Engineer Clint Schuckel has been working with the Ward 7 aldermen, BC, and the Chestnut Hill Neighborhood Association to reconfigure the parking in a way that will provide a net increase in on-street parking (always good!) and provide full bike lanes. Having reviewed the pulp-based, reflective technology (paper) version of the plans, it looks like the time was well spent. The plans look great. (I'll post an electronic version when I get it.)

Here's the kicker: the parking is going to be metered, at least on the north side of the street. Bike lanes, smart parking policy, and new revenue!


Riverside -- what's the point?

The MBTA ought to be in the business of reducing car trips -- both number and mileage.

The single best thing that the MBTA can do to reduce car trips is to create dense, walkable, mixed-use communities around transit hubs. It's not just that many of the residents and on-site workers (including retail workers) will use the T to travel to and from work. It's also that a dense, walkable, mixed-use community has the potential to reduce the number of non-work car trips for the folks who live in the new residential development and for people who live nearby.

Done right, dense, walkable, mixed-use communities are an antidote to the car-centricity that is polluting our environment, clogging our streets, and ruining our health.

Park and ride, while it is better than ride and ride, doesn't offer nearly the same overall benefits. Park and ride, by its very definition, doesn't reduce the number of car trips. Each commute includes a to and a from drive, albeit a shorter ride than the alternative. And, park and ride is part of -- and enables -- a more suburban, car-centric lifestyle.

Between the two models, there is no question about what's the right approach.

But, what about the neighborhood? How should neighborhood concerns and desires play in the T's decision about how to develop the site?

There's another word for dense, walkable, mixed-use communities: urban. Not everyone who lives near Riverside is going to be delighted with an dense, urban outpost in the middle of what is a pretty suburban 'hood. But, the potential value of the right kind of development is bigger than objections to fundamental nature of the right development.

But, the neighborhood has a right to demand that the MBTA do the development right. And, maintaining a vestigial park-and-ride capacity and all of its traffic while adding the new traffic of eminently justifiable mixed-use development is simply unfair and unkind to Riverside's neighbors ... not to mention that clogging an already restricted site with a garage big enough to accommodate 1,000 park-and-riders seriously undermines the developer's ability to create the right kind of dense, walkable, mixed-use community.

Hey, MBTA. Do it right or wait until you're ready to do it right.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Riverside and Parking, Pt III

If it's better for surrounding neighborhoods to eliminate the park-and-ride spaces, why are nearby residents concerned that the developer create enough parking to satisfy current park-and-ride demand. In fact, why do some want more T parking, enough to satisfy demand on Red Sox game days?

In a word: overflow. Neighbors don't want the traffic that now goes directly to the Riverside lot to start trolling the neighborhood and parking in front of their houses.

But, on-site parking to prevent parking on residential streets is a crude tool with substantial negative consequences. Adding on-site parking limits either or both density and walkability. Without a walkable, human scale, Riverside will be just another sprawly, car-centric, suburban strip mall. Less density means less opportunity for the vitality that people on the street create. And, as surely as night follows day, parking generates traffic.

There are tools, however, that can limit neighborhood parking: residential parking permits, short-duration parking restrictions. I'm not sure that on-street parking should be discouraged on all streets around Riverside. On-street parking slows traffic and creates a buffer between moving traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk. But, if the neighborhood wants no parking on a street or streets, parking ought to be restricted directly, not indirectly by requiring "enough" spaces on-site.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Riverside and Parking, Pt II

Yesterday, I argued that the MBTA's current use of the Riverside Station lot as a park-and-ride lot is incompatible with the development vision of a mixed-use, transit-oriented community. While there are some compelling arguments against development in Newton (at least right now), any development ought to be mixed-use and transit-oriented. Let me expand a bit on why.

Residential density is economically and ecologically sustainable. Dense residential near commercial districts creates a starter group of customers that don't need to be accommodated with expensive and ecologically unsound parking. This means that the stores can be closer together -- denser -- which in turn makes for a more pleasant shopping experience.

If you're thinking Newton Centre or Coolidge Corner, you're on the right track.

Transit is a tremendous enabler of residential and commercial density. To the extent that residences can be provided with a minimum of parking, the denser the residences can be. Providing for cars takes space. And, to the extent that shops can be provided with customers and employees with a minimum of parking, the denser the shops can be.

Transit near housing means that residents can use transit for a large percentage of trips, reducing car trips and parking demand. Transit near a commercial district means that some portion of customers and employees can arrive by transit, reducing car trips and parking demand. And, mixed-use development means that the denser residences provide stores and restaurants with customers who arrive by foot.

The result of reducing the parking demand and designing to suit nearby residents and those who arrive by transit is an attractive, walkable community.

Even a walkable community, however, generates car trips. Not everybody walks to shop in Newton Centre. Lots of people who live in Coolidge Corner drive to work. Dense residential development around transit doesn't eliminate car trips, it just creates far fewer than traditional, car-centric development.

Thinking globally and regionally, the benefits of and the need for creating transit-oriented development are clear. But, it's not so clear that Newton should be bearing the burden of the traffic new development creates*, even if it's relatively smaller than comes with traditional models. The choices at Riverside are not between suburban development and transit-oriented development. They are between no development and substantial development.

Fortunately, there is a trade-off to be made. If the T eliminated its requirement for park-and-ride spaces, the reduction in traffic volume would substantially offset the traffic generated by the site. And, just as importantly, eliminating the park-and-ride spaces would free up significant space on the site and developer dollars, which would lead to a richer, more walkable, more connected development.

Again, the city's position needs to be no deal if it includes park-and-ride.

* Development creates other burdens on the city, not the least of which is increase school enrollment. Those burdens are every bit as significant as traffic, but traffic is the scope of this blog.


Riverside and Parking, Pt. I

While there are lots of pieces to the Riverside story, it's starts and ends with parking. Parking defines the current site and parking will define whatever gets built.

The station, in its current configuration, is a T-friendly, neighborhood-unfriendly suburban park-and-ride model. There are roughly 1,000 spaces. The drivers who fill those spaces drive through Newton streets (though some come off 128), but contribute little to Newton.

Riverside Station is a big ol' slab of suburban sprawl, with all its attendant ills. (Compounding the problem, the MBTA has turned Riverside into another kind of parking lot: for trolleys. As other lots have closed, Riverside absorbs more and more storage and service.)

Park-and-ride, though, is a good model for the MBTA. The Green Line itself, like all T services, operates at a deficit. But, parking is a revenue generating proposition. So park-and-ride sprawl makes sense from a very limited perspective.

From the wider perspective, park-and-ride is a short-sighted disaster. Each mass transit station is an opportunity to create denser, walkable, sustainable communities. Setting aside, for the time being, the question of whether Newton can absorb more housing -- a reasonable concern -- these opportunities should not be squandered on surface parking to be used by people whose only connection to the site is to drive to and from.

The MBTA is, sorta, exploiting the opportunity with the planned development at Riverside. But, it's a half-assed, revenue-inspired nod to Smart Growth, not a full commitment to sustainable development.

How so? The MBTA has hobbled the developer with a requirement that the new development include the same number of park-and-ride spaces. So long as there is that requirement, it won't work and Newton should reject any plan.

It's a relatively small site. Even concentrating the parking in a garage, the parking will overwhelm the site and limit the opportunity to create the kind of walkable, sustainable, mixed-use development that the site deserves.

And, it's a site with relatively limited access. The surrounding community cannot absorb the traffic to be generated by the new uses on top of the traffic already generated by the 1,000 commuter spaces.

Newton's got to make the MBTA choose to develop the site right and give up the park-and-ride, or not develop at all.


Langley Pedestrian Sign Blinks

The Langley Path pedestrian signal previewed here is now online and flashing.