We all know the frustration of looking for a parking space – leaving early for a meeting or get-together to allow extra time to find a spot. Driving endlessly in circles, hovering like an automotive “vulture” waiting for someone to leave to swoop in with that spot. Feeling like you’ve won the lottery when you achieve that glorious parking space.
It doesn’t have to be that way, says author, artist and the current chair of Urban Planning at Cal Poly Pomona Richard Willson, a Mt. Washington resident who has penned the recently published book, “Parking Reform Made Easy.” A handbook for city planners the nation over, the book is not only an overview of the existing parochial problems that are inherit in so many municipal parking requirements (some cities are using 40-year-old plans), but it’s also a toolkit for how to change and improve parking conditions.
In short, Willson is providing city planners a guidebook on how to make smarter parking codes that serve the most people with the least environmental impact.
Sounds good, right? Well, the hard part of Willson’s parking nirvana reform, folks, is that it shouldn’t be free.
“No one likes to pay for parking but residents are going to pay for it in other ways,” he says over coffee at Café le Leche on York Boulevard in Highland Park. Even if you find a “free” parking spot, it’s not free, contends Willson who says that the true cost of free parking dominos into higher rents/mortgages for developers and tenants not to mention merchants who, in turn, raise prices on goods and services and often lower workers’ wages. Plus, studies show that free parking creates more single drivers, adds to pollution, contributes to congestion as we cruise for curb parking, and well, the list of ills goes on.
Parking has its other woes in the form of outdated parking codes. Often, these requirements thwart revitalization efforts, since they usually require businesses to have X number of parking spaces per X number of square feet of space … and businesses can’t count on-street parking as their own. What’s a new shop owner to do?
Parking requirements shape land use, patterns, transportation systems and travel behavior, he explains. That vacant parking lot, row of parking meters or big parking structure influence how we travel (car, bike or walk?), where we travel and when we travel.
Willson contends that parking shouldn’t be just a technical matter left to the engineers who plot out the next apartment complex or shopping centers. It’s a policy decision that brings together community goals of transportation, design and urban form, economy and sustainability.
But it all starts with the individual city, because, as much as we like to think that we “own” a specific parking spot, “technically the city owns that road and the parking,” says Willson.
Cities, however, usually want to work with neighborhoods about parking issues. Willson describes how some neighborhoods – like Melrose and those surrounding UCLA – are receiving parking meter revenue for community improvements, a practice that has been successfully done in Boulder, CO. “It’s a good idea and I’d like to see more neighborhoods embrace it,” he says pointing to the nightmarish parking around the retails area of Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake.
Willson is equally impressed with the example of Old Town Pasadena, which built parking structures within the fabric of its trendy shops and restaurants. Here, people would know directly where to park in an easy and efficient manner.
Parking lots, in general, can be a waste of land especially if they only serve one purpose. Willson shows an aerial shot of the Ontario Mills Shopping Center and the nearby Citizens’ Business Bank Arena. Huge parking lots surround both complexes – space that is wasted when no events take place or when shopping is at a lull. “This was the typical suburban way of thinking about parking,” he says adding that arena folks could have worked with the nearby shopping center to shuttle folks during events.
Parking in established older neighborhoods is often mired in antiquated parking requirements. Willson points to South Pasadena as an example of how out-of-touch parking requirements hampered new businesses on Mission Boulevard until that code was recently updated and freed businesses from parking code chains.
Willson sees Los Angeles’ parking codes as being flexible and less demanding, as shown by measures that have allowed the conversion of historic buildings in downtown Los Angeles to residences, and programs to help restaurants open in historic structures in Eagle Rock. Still there is plenty of room for improvement, such as making it easier to build housing for households that do not own cars, especially around transit stations. The city’s Recode LA zoning reform effort will address these parking issues.
Originally from Canada, Willson came to Southern California in 1986 to get his masters at USC in Urban Planning. He’s lived in East Hollywood, El Sereno as well as his longtime home in Mt. Washington. Has he ever experienced frustration in finding parking? “No, not really,” he says with a laugh, explaining that any situation he’s encounter he considered it “all data” and part of his research.
While getting his masters, Willson met Donald Shoup, chair of Urban Planning who later would write his 2005 landmark book “The High Cost of Free Parking.” The book outlined the negative repercussions of off-street parking requirements; Shoup also argues that free parking makes us more dependent on cars, adds to rapid urban sprawl and contributes to a host of economic problems.
Willson says his book takes the next step in Shoup’s ideas by offering practical pathways for city planners to update, modify and contemporize their own parking requirements.
So far, Willson has been getting good feedback on his book. He’s presented an overview to city planners here locally (Hawthorn and Westminster are moving forward) and he will make similar outreach to New York University and Seattle later this year. A webinar is also in the works.
Before the conversation ends, Willson discusses the future of paid parking in the form of the ubiquitous parking meter. Cities, he says, are seeing good use of meters these days thanks to a federal grant which allowed them to swap out coin-only for the ease of credit card. No more fumbling around for quarters. Swipe and go.
Technology won’t stop there, says Willson. He’s seen the future and in the works are meters that — via smartphones – can contact you when the meter is going to expire. In addition, you could then pay for addition time on the meter remotely with your smart phone thus extending your evening at your favorite restaurant or bar.
“It’s all about making parking easier for everyone,” he says. But, as he said earlier, it won’t be free.
Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock.