Let's start with looking at where Santa Monica is currently with parking. There is often a chorus of sentiment expressed in local papers that we need more parking, and that the Downtown area must have more and cheaper parking to stay competitive with other business districts around L.A.. As you can see in the photo above, which does not mark the thousands of spaces of on-street parking, Santa Monica already uses a substantial quantity of some of the most valuable real estate in the L.A. region for no other purpose than places to stuff and stack automobiles.
Not enough car parking, and too much traffic are probably the most common complaints you'll hear associated with Santa Monica. I think the not enough car parking complaint is quite debatable, as I believe our existing parking is inefficiently utilized, which can make parking appear in shorter supply than it really is. Something Santa Monica is starting to acknowledge. Traffic being bad, terrible at times, is quite real however, and directly related to the parking situation. People tend to only drive someplace if they can put their car there, if you expand parking, and keep prices artificially low through subsidy, traffic is induced. As I'll also explain in more detail in the second part to this discussion of parking, under valuing street parking also induces the cruising for a space phenomenon. In one study conducted by Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, 20% of traffic in Downtown Los Angeles was made up of drivers cruising for a parking space. In many cases off-street parking was available, but drivers opted to drive around in search of a bargain, a symptom of pricing street parking far below it's worth and demand for it's surrounding area.
So how does all this pertain to cyclists? Generating business is the justification for such enormous expenses to support automobile use, but as all of us riding bikes, walking or taking transit know, spending money does not have to be associated with driving cars. Most mornings Velo Club LaGrange is out in force riding multi-thousand dollar bikes through Santa Monica, likely purchased in Santa Monica at Helen's, and then finish their ride with buying coffee. Hundreds of cyclists take advantage of the Santa Monica farmer's market bike valet every weekend. There are paths to economic activity and growth, without having to grow the automobile fleet, and the associated asphalt and concrete for the cars to sit on.
We are often told there is not enough resources for cycling improvements, and things as simple as bike racks are in short supply in much of Santa Monica. Cycling improvements are largely neglected, with many afraid to leave the beach path, and those who aren't are often afraid to park their bike for fear of rampant bike theft. Where bike racks are unavailable people will try attaching to all kinds of weird objects, some secure, some not so much. Police and security personnel sometimes threaten cyclists with warnings or confiscation for bikes parked to secure objects that are not officially bike parking, yet adequate bike parking is lacking from most places in the city.
Not enough resources is certainly not the case. The remodeling of parking garages in downtown Santa Monica, which will add an additional 712 car spaces, plus postponed plans for completely new garages, has a 180 million dollar budget. Practically bullet proof fully secure bike lockers, such as those found at some Metro stations in L.A., cost about $800-1000 per unit. In other words for 180 million dollars we could buy around 200,000 bike lockers, more than double our entire population in Santa Monica. Not that we need 200,000 bike lockers, but hey maybe a few in scattered about for commuters and people making extended stays might be nice. How about some simple U-Wave racks at all major places of business. Whole Foods may have a green image, but their Santa Monica location has a highly costly subterranean parking garage for cars, and zero bike racks. Doesn't seem so green to me.
(Before and after on-street parking by OPCC center. The bike racks were well used when I first saw them during the week. When I came back with camera on weekend they were empty at the time.)
Another interesting twist in this whole parking issue for Santa Monica, is a recent discovery I made walking along a seldom traveled stretch of Olympic west of Lincoln, and just North of the 10 freeway and ramp to 4th St. There is a brand new shiny on-street bike rack, like some magical transplant from Portland, the city that made such parking famous. Besides being shiny you can tell it is at least fairly recent as it is not visible when Google Street View rolled by. At first glance I was really confused why such amazing bike parking was in such a secluded place, when Portland and other cities that did pilot on-street bike parking programs all chose vibrant centers of business and foot traffic, and advertised what they were doing.
Then I realized it was to serve the OPCC homeless shelter, and all the bikes and people I saw milling about were there for services. When I see the bike parking situation in most parts of Santa Monica, and then look at this, if it were not for the bike valet program, it might seem Santa Monica were trying to suggest bicycling and safe bike parking are things only homeless people and beach tourists were interested in. I would not deny that homeless people should have someplace to park their bike, but it does seem odd to me that the homeless be given the best bike parking in the city, while bike parking efforts elsewhere are drowned out by the sound of heel dragging.
We must never accept that lack of support for cycling is about lack of funding, it is a lack of political will to truly support cycling as a mode of transportation. The costs for supporting and growing cycling are but a tiny fraction of the costs associated with automobile travel. Some will argue, like a few people I encountered at the 20th and Cloverfield meeting, that our smaller numbers justify us getting the breadcrumbs of city resources. However as we have seen in cities like Boulder, Portland, Davis, New York, real commitments to cycling improvements grow ridership numbers. These investments eventually save the cities money as bicycling mode share increases reduce costs associated with car trips. In spite of the growth in numbers, these cities have experienced reductions in total bicycle involved collisions. There becomes a tipping point where the road culture it self changes with enough people riding bikes, and I think Santa Monica has the potential to get there, but is not quite there yet.
Hope is not lost, as Santa Monica has been shifting it's thinking about parking lately. The bike valet parking program at the farmers market, and many big city events, has been the most significant thing the city has done to support cycling in years. Two brand new parking garages were slated in the $180 million dollar plan, that would have cost $50,000 per new space, have been put on hold due to recommendations from new consultants to the city. The city has been actively pursing bringing car sharing service back to Santa Monica, programs which are associated with reduced car parking demand. Parking rates which have not moved in a decade are finally being discussed.
The pending 20 year LUCE (land use and circulation elements) plan includes some important changes to how land is used, and includes a number of improvements to bike parking. However there are still lingering attachments to the idea that we need more car parking in parts of LUCE and in the public discourse. There are also some easy things that can be done right now, and the waiting for LUCE to get anything done has been going on for years now. Hopefully our upcoming meetings with City Staff will give us the opportunity to get some of these issues addressed. In some cases the city may already be working on solutions, but timeliness may be unclear and priorities out of sync. Hopefully continued communication will lead to a more mutually beneficial relationship between cyclists and City Hall.
Change is controversial, especially things like raising parking meter rates, and it will be important for us to change the hearts and minds of the public, and rethink common myths and notions about parking. City Hall is starting to nudge in the right direction, but with enough support, maybe we could push the nudging along a little faster. The enthusiasm for future discussion with cyclists from Assistant City Jennifer Phillips is hopeful sign.
In Part 2, I'll go into more detail about the parking economics theories of Donald Shoup, who I got to hear in person at the LA Street Summit, and highlight the most important points from his lecture. Understanding parking may not be the sexiest of topics, but I think is a vital component of changing the transportation landscape. Copenhagen didn't transform from a mostly automotive city to be a land of 30%+ trips by bike, even in snowy months, just by making bike lanes and paths. Over the course of their multi-decade plans that began in the 70's, they repriced parking in tandem with increases to cycling infrastructure and transit to change the economic incentives of transportation. Some of the most popular cafes with outdoor seating of Copenhagen today were 20 years ago a parking lot. Parking policy matters, and in many ways dictates the way our cities take shape.