Thursday, May 29, 2014

Should transit be free?

The idea of making public transit free of charge sometimes floats around on urbanist sites, as an ideal people dream of or as something they outright fight for. The reasoning is quite simple: if we want to incite people to take transit, then we need to make it as attractive as possible, including making it cheaper than using a car. After all, on this graph:
Supply and demand graph

Demand is highest when the price is zero, so if we want to maximize transit use, we should make it as cheap as possible, meaning, free.

Proponents also point out that most transit companies in North America are already mostly subsidized, with farebox revenues often making up only 20 to 30% of the company's spending, meaning that most of the revenues come from public money anyway, why not increase subsidies a bit and just make it free? You wouldn't only make transit more attractive, but you'd also speed up the process of boarding vehicles as people wouldn't have to stop and pay, they'd just get on as fast as they can.

There are a few cities in the world that have done so, but most of them are quite small. The biggest one to have done so is Tallin in Estonia, a city of around half a million people. However, transit is free only for residents and the suburban and commuter rail are not free, only slow local transit is.

So, is it all good then? I'm sorry, but I will dissent here, for a few reasons.

Subsidizing transport is subsidizing sprawl

I think I don't need to demonstrate at length why subsidizing car transport is a great incitement to sprawl. Essentially, housing affordability is dependent not only on the price of housing, but also on transport costs. So when you lower the price of transport, especially cars, which are very fast, you essentially make car-centric suburbs more affordable and cities less affordable.
Cost as share of median income, housing and transport, if both pay their way

Cost as share of median income, housing, transport and taxes, if transport is 50% subsidized
The big advantage of living in cities is less spending on transport, even as the price of housing increases. So when you subsidize transport, any transport, you eliminate the price advantage of city living, at least partially. Now, transit, especially bus transit, is much slower than cars, so transit "sprawl" is not as bad as car sprawl, and the developments built around transit are also not as bad, but it's still an incentive to live farther from central areas. An incentive paid for by the people living in urban areas, in effect a wealth transfer from the city to the suburb.

Subsidizing transport is economically inefficient, encouraging waste

I already said this, but it bears repeating: in a money-based economy, the price of goods and services is an information vehicle. A higher price tells consumers that the good in question takes more resources and is not as common as other competing goods, encouraging them to consider these alternative goods. When you subsidize transport, you hide the real cost of people's consuming decisions. Now, I'm not saying that subsidies are always wrong, sometimes hiding the cost is a good thing (especially for health care), and you can make certain arguments about why letting the market decide the prices is suboptimal in relation to social and political objectives.

In fact, subsidies and taxes are sometimes necessary to incorporate externalities into the cost of goods and services. For those not in the know, "externalities" are costs imposed by transactions between two parties on third parties that weren't involved in them. The easiest example is pollution, which affects everyone in the area whether they are responsible for generating it or not.

Still, there is also a principle here that we call in French: "l'utilisateur-payeur", the "user-payer". It's a principle put forward by ecologists but which makes a lot of sense, the idea is that the one who USES a limited resources should PAY for it directly, in proportion to how much of it he uses. The idea is that if people pay the full cost of what their decision to consume a limited resource costs society, then we discourage waste of that resources and are able to incite people to adopt more responsible, miserly ways.

For instance, take electricity. In many if not most places, it's a public good. Yet we do not simply charge people say 2 000$ for unlimited electricity use over the year. In fact, proposing something like that would draw only mockery. Why should people who are careful of their energy consumption pay just as much as the people who leave their Christmas decorations on until May and who keep their lights on in their house all year long? We know that this is insane. Yet subsidizing transport, including making transit free to use, is doing just that.

Reducing, even eliminating, marginal costs, means that we encourage people to abuse the resources at their disposition, resources that we all share together. For instance, let's say you have a grocery at 5-minute walking distance and you want to buy a bag of apples for 4$, but another grocery farther, at, say, a distance of 5 minutes in bus, is selling apples for 3$. If the transit ticket costs 2$, then there's no point really to going to the farther grocery, it's cheaper to buy apples at your local grocery. If the transit trip is free though, then you're better off going to the farther grocery.

Free transit in fact has been theorized at mainly cannibalizing walking and biking trips rather than car trips. Which is inefficient on every level, there is no mode of transport that is more efficient than walking or biking, so if you get people who would have walked to take the bus instead, you are being counter-productive.

I hear some say: "But buses would be running anyway, we're just maximizing their use". That is not correct. As ridership increases, the number of buses needed also increases. Sure, if the line is really under-used, an increase of ridership can be simply absorbed by an higher capacity utilization, but that's not true on well-used lines, or during peak periods where buses are frequently at or near capacity.

The same thing is true about subsidizing car trips, especially long-distance ones. You essentially reward people for driving longer distances and wasting fuel. Rewarding selfishness and punishing selflessness by making the selfless pay for the selfish is a terrible idea. Which is why I'm in favor of shifting road funding from yearly fees and taxes to revenue sources that make people pay for roads depending on how much they use them: highway tolls and gas taxes.

BTW, these two reasons are why I support distance-based fares on transit rather than flat fares and monthly passes.

Free transit means increased ridership increases costs, but not revenues

This is more a political issue. When you have a self-funded transit system, or even one with a high farebox ratio, trying to increase ridership is a clear and evident objective of the transit operator. As ridership increases, revenues from fares increase. So the agency can justify investments by pointing out that much of the investment is recouped through more fare revenues. It's a virtuous cycle:
Virtuous cycle of self-funded transit systems
On the other hand, when you have no revenue coming from riders at all, you don't have this virtuous cycle. Riders represent a cost but no revenue to the transit agency, when ridership increases, the transit agency must find a way to run more vehicles and increase the capacity of the network. Consequently, the agency will not see that it's in its interest to find ways to increase transit use. It will also make large investments in transit systems like BRTs, LRTs and subways much less likely to occur, as the higher ridership from them will add to the costs of running the system, which are added on top of the capital investment needed to make these investments.

The transit agency's willingness to invest will depend directly on the will of the local government funding it to spend money on it. The local government will vote a budget and give them a certain amount of money and tell them to maximize the use of that money. Now, good news, this way of doing things tends to be great at maximizing efficiency as the objective of the operator is to maximize services for a fixed amount of money. Bad news, it means that if the budget is spent, the operator will reduce service below what people require, leading to "congestion" of the transit system and very angry users.

Worse news, running a transit system is pretty expensive, and a well-used one that is subsidized at 100% would weigh very heavily on the local government's budget. Which means that if there is a recession or a lack of money because of falling tax revenues or the like, it will be very tempting to cut the transit subsidies, and maybe even hard not to. So services on which people rely may well be cut below the minimum capacity to satisfy current demand.

This actually occurs quite often in American transit agencies which have low farebox recovery ratios and depend mainly on subsidies from the city to keep their buses running.

So in my opinion, an agency that is able to fund itself mostly through fares is more likely to results in wise investments on its transit system. Whereas a free transit system may well just grind to a halt investments in transit to increase service quality and capacity.


The ideal is a self-funded transit agency, which is likely to seek transit investments on its own accord rather than investing only on the impulse from political pressure. Free transit  is really not an ideal, especially not for large cities, as it makes it hard to justify new investments and increased services. However, in small cities with poor transit networks that are already mostly subsidized, making transit free may make sense to attract at least some users to the system and get transit to get some popularity. Just be careful, once you make something free, making people pay for it runs into quite a lot of opposition.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to make urban housing more affordable part 4: build more rapid transit

One of the first posts I did on this blog (or rather that I translated over from French), was a post about the the importance of speed for mode selection. In that post, I indicated how people tend to have a certain threshold for how far they want to live from job, commercial and entertainment centers, and that this distance was measured not in kilometers or miles, but in minutes. For a city, often the greatest center is the downtown area, people prefer to live within a reasonable distance from it. However, the different modes of transport have different average speeds, walking is about 5 km/h, transit (regular buses or streetcars) is about 15 km/h and cars on regular surface streets go at about 30 km/h.

The result was this image:

A basic city with only surface streets
The point here was that if someone wants to live within walking distance from the downtown area, then they would want to live in the green zone, the area that is within acceptable walking distance from downtown. If people want to live within acceptable distance by transit, they would want to live in the orange zone (or the green zone). The red zone was the area that was appropriate only for cars, so lots of parking, wide roads, low density. Outside the red zone, the area is undesirable for everyone, so developments will concentrate in the three zones, and will tend to be appropriate for the zone they're in (as long as zoning isn't too stringent, which is a condition rarely fulfilled in North America).

This is an illustration of core principles of development, as far as I see it, "development follows transport" and "the main mode of transport shapes the form of development".

The green zone's development will be a dense urban area, the orange zone will be a bit less dense but still pretty urbanized (a streetcar suburb) and the red zone would be sprawl. Note that this is only the maximum density each zone can support. You could ostensibly build car-oriented developements in all three zones, and build streetcar suburbs in the green zone too. However, building dense urban neighborhoods in the red zone is a fool's errand.

Another thing I had said was that the price of a house is actually the sum of two prices:
  • The price of the building
  • The price of the land
OK, so why am I saying this? Because those areas have a direct influence on the price of the land. Think about it, the price of the land is also about supply and demand, if 25% of people want to live in an urban setting (the green area), but only 3% of the buildable area of a city is close enough to downtown to make walking viable as a mode of transport, then that means that you will run into a shortage of green land very quickly, which will drive land prices up very fast. You can compensate with higher density to some extent, but high land prices will still be a drag on housing affordability.

So this means in short that because walking is so slow, and transit is still much slower than cars, there will always be much more land available for car-oriented development, so land prices for car-dependent developments will always be much cheaper. On the other hand, land prices in dense urban areas will always be extremely high since there's so little of it to go around. You cannot build an urban area out in the exurbs, it doesn't work that way.

So what is the solution to this?

Rapid transit

Rapid transit helps to tie together walkable areas by providing a shortcut for pedestrians and transit users to get around the city much faster as rapid transit can reach speeds of 35-40 km/h or more. Here's what the basic city portrayed above looks like once we add two subway/train lines to it:

A city with two subway lines
These rapid transit lines have multiplied by much the amount of walkable, transit-friendly areas within a reasonable distance of the downtown area. And what does that mean? That means a much higher supply of land on which dense urban developments can be built thanks to greater proximity and access to the downtown area. This higher supply means that land prices can fall for these neighborhoods, making housing more affordable for urban areas.

However, though the urban neighborhoods are made cheaper, the zones around stations are made much more expensive than they were when they were "red", for cars only. Another factor to consider is that the rapid transit lines may make the downtown area even more attractive as it spreads and concentrates more things, which may make the downtown area more expensive than before, even as urban neighborhoods are available elsewhere and become cheaper.

So building rapid transit is a great way to relieve pressure on urban housing, so long as zoning is relaxed and the construction of urban areas is allowed rather than forbidden.

It works for sprawl too: highways and sprawl

Another thing I pointed out before was that cars also have their version of rapid transit in the form of highways/motorways/expressways (choose the term you prefer). These limited access roads allow cars to travel at speed of 100 km/h and above. Congestion can reduce those speeds, but only during peak hours. These roads act like shortcuts for car movements, just like rapid transit did for walking and local transit trips. The result is a spreading red zone, very, very far from the center, centered around interchanges.

A city with two highways crossing its downtown area
The sheer size of the red zone here is awesome, here is what it looks like compared to the two previous cities:
Size comparison between the basic city (lower-right), the rapid transit city (upper-right) and the highway city (left)

So highways help do the same thing for housing affordability in car-oriented neighborhoods that rapid transit does for urban housing affordability. Highways are thus a vital element of sprawling city to preserve housing affordability. A large city without highways but still car-oriented would also become more and more expensive over time as desirable land runs out.

I feel I must point out in all honesty that, yes, it does provide an explanation why the cities that have few or no highways near their downtown, like Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco, all are afflicted with expensive single-family housing in their suburbs. Which may be caused by the lack of high-speed roads to the city itself, which restricts the land that provides an opportunity for development.

It would mean that, yes, building an highway right through Vancouver's downtown to the suburbs could effectively make suburban single-family housing more affordable by bringing closer all the suburbs to the downtown area and making new land available for development as they would become close enough to Vancouver's downtown. No, I do not recommend it as urban highways have much worse side effects on a lot of things, like the vibrancy of the urban neighborhoods they cut in two, but I do acknowledge that it is quite possibly a way to bring house prices down.

Note also that another possibility to deal with the issue is polycentricity, essentially build new downtowns to create urban neighborhoods around them too. It is quite possible. Tokyo is the best example, it doesn't have just one downtown, but many downtowns, all existing around stations of the Yamanote line (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Ueno, Shinagawa). However, tying these downtowns together with rapid transit is almost a must.


When you have maxed out the available land in proximity to the downtown area for urban neighborhoods, it's time to build rapid transit links to make sure you make new lands viable for this type of development, otherwise you have a shortage of land which pushes land prices up, a price increase housing will have to absorb. Just make sure the zoning ALLOWS such development (or redevelopment) to occur. If you are in a green zone in which you can build walkable developments but zoning imposes "red"-style sprawl developments thanks to density caps through minimum lot sizes, height limits, parking minimum, etc... then it doesn't matter that the zone is ostensibly walkable, it is still "red" for legal reasons.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Parking management: a survey of the ways to balance supply and demand of parking

As mentioned previously, parking is a crucial factor of how a city looks and incorporating parking in a city while preserving density and a nice look is quite difficult. At least, it is when you need to provide huge amounts of parking.

But how do we decide the amount of parking available? The issue of parking management is a complicated and crucial one, at least as much as the issue of actual parking design (surface lots vs underground vs elevated, on-street vs off-street, etc...).

There are different approaches, all of which flow from this basic economic chart:

Supply and demand graph

Okay, so for those not familiar with it, this is a supply-demand graph, linking the quantity of a good (y-axis) versus the price of it (x-axis). The two lines represent supply (here, how much parking will be built and offered) and demand (how much parking will be used by people). As the price of parking increases, meaning the parking fees paid by users of it, people will be tempted to build more parking as it will be more profitable (so higher supply). However, as prices increase, people will also tend to use parking less because the cost will be an annoyance, so the demand curve goes down (less demand) as prices increase (to the right), while supply curve goes up (more supply) as prices increase (to the right).

The intersection of both lines is supposed to represent equilibrium, the price point at which there is just enough parking built as there is demand for it. Of course, it is a simplistic representation, demand fluctuates in time, wildly even, while supply is mostly static. Still, the graph will serve its purpose.

So there are three categories of approach to parking management:
  1. Supply management
  2. Demand management
  3. Market management

Supply management

Supply management comes naturally to urban planners who are used to manage the supply of, well, everything through zoning: supply of single-family houses, supply of apartments, supply of commercial lots, supply of industrial parks, etc... In most North American and European cities, municipal authorities are also involved in parking supply anyway, as they build streets wider than necessary to allow parking on it, or have simply taken existing street and sectioned parts of it off to parking, which is often free, at least in residential areas.

1- Minimum parking: the maximum demand is the minimum required

This is the approach in most of North America. Its rationale is that on-street parking isn't sufficient for all the parking demand that is expected, especially when it is free, and without off-street parking, there will be parking overspill: car drivers will double park, park on the sidewalk, park on lawns, etc... So you need off-street parking, but if off-street parking is priced while on-street parking isn't, the parking overspill on public roads will still be there as drivers park on the street to avoid paying parking fees. What they decide to do then is to have each developer provide enough off-street parking to make sure that on-street parking is not required. That way, they don't have to deal with the headache of having to find lots to convert to parking and they can dump the costs of building and managing the parking on the private landowner, who is forced to provide parking as a condition to getting a building permit.

But how much should be required?

The idea is to have enough parking so that even if the parking is free, you have an excess of it. So let's see the basic graph shown above and show what happens if you assume the price to be nil.
Supply and demand if parking is free
So in this case, the free parking results in a demand of Q parking spots, as the low price attracts many people to use it. However, normally the fact that there is no direct revenue to parking would mean people wouldn't build much of it. Building some often makes a bit of sense, for example, stores who depend on customers who come by car will offer some even if free because they get some revenues from the customers who use it. But they won't build much of it, just enough to deal with the basic demand, as spots that are used by only 10 people a month... or a year, make no financial sense. So, anyway, builders will offer "q" parking spots.

As Q is bigger than q, what we have is a shortage of off-street parking. This shortage means overspill, into the streets or in the parking lot next door, creating frictions between residents and landowners. So to avoid this, they reasoned:

"Let's simply mandate each landowner to build more parking than they would need in the worst possible case, that way their parking will always be sufficient for the demand they create."

This worst possible case is of course: free parking, if all or almost all people come there by car, in the single worst hour of the worst day of the year. So they went ahead, found some stores near highway interchanges, where land is cheap so that, even without being required to, the developers offered an insane amount of parking. Places where the only way to get there was a car. Then they went on Black Friday or just before Christmas, counted the cars at the maximum and then applied the maximum observed to all similar stores.

In effect, it modified the graph like this:
Supply and demand with a minimum requirement
So the minimum required is a greater number than "Q", the demand for parking if parking is free. There is in fact no equilibrium price in this situation as legal requirements mean that the supply line is always superior to the demand line. What this means is that such a high minimum requirement will necessarily lead to parking being free. Charging for parking will just drive people away and the costs of managing parking fees will make parking revenues not pay back what it costs landowners in lost customers.

So this is the current system in North America, in most of it anyway. It results in excessive amounts of parking everywhere, which is the point of it really. It makes sense if all you care about is car drivers and you don't care about all the negative effects excessive parking has on sprawl and on alternative modes of travel.

2- Direct management of parking supply by public authorities

This type of management is common in many cities that had downtowns dated before the car but that decided to adapt their cities for car travel. Even with on-street parking, there was insufficient parking to deal with the demand of a car-centric society. Meanwhile, as land prices were often expensive and current landowners had properties grandfathered in, there was little private endeavor to offer parking lots, even if they charged for it. It was easier for stores to just move to the suburbs, where they could satisfy minimum parking requirements at a fraction of the cost. So in order to try to save their downtown, some cities opted to build parking lots themselves, and then either offer them for free or charge a below-market price.

Essentially, cities use tax money to subsidize parking, either directly or through cost of opportunity (the city would make more money just selling the land to a developer and taxing the property than by running a parking lot on it). Often, the parking price is fixed by politicians and the price stays frozen for years upon years. If demand for parking at that price goes over supply, the city will move to build new parking lots.

Returning to the graph, it means a vertical supply line:
Subsidized public parking
Now, that is only one case, with direct management, you could have cities decide to have the parking authorities self-fund themselves, which still leads to more parking at a lower price than the market. Why? Because the public authorities would likely not profit from it, so the profitable parking lots would subsidize the unprofitable parking lots, whereas private parking providers would want every parking lot to be profitable. Also, if the public authorities demanded higher prices than private providers would for the same supply, then that means that private developers would build parking lots faster than the city and thus the city would never build any.
Self-funded public parking
If we look at the intersection of both supply and demand for these two cases, we get:

In both cases, the subsidized price (Ps) is lower than the market price (Pm), and the total quantity of the subsidized situation (Qs) is higher than the total quantity without public intervention (Qm).

One of the big advantages of this approach over the previous one is that it makes it easier to reduce supply if need be. For instance, if you build subways and/or dense residential areas and suddenly less people come by car, it is easier to repurpose parking lots by selling them to developers when these parking lots are located on their own lots rather than when they are part of each lot, which can be hard to split apart.

If you have this:
Commercial area with distributed public parking lots
And you realize that you don't need as many parking lots, you could sell one of them and allow its development into commercial buildings:
New buildings in orange replacing one lot
This is great because it allows new areas to be built at first with plenty of parking at first as there might not be a large pool of customers withing walking or biking distance. But as the area densifies and transit gets better, these parking lots may be removed one by one.

But if you have this:
Typical commercial area with each lot having its own parking
Removing excess parking is difficult as it's hard to build new stores on excess parking and you need the cooperation of the landowner, it may also mean the removal of old stores, for example:
New buildings in orange
And in this case, all the existing landowners may protest the risk of overspill from the new buildings with less parking than they were forced to build prior to this. Redistributing parking around would mean splitting up lots, so there are a lot more issues than in the previous case.

3- Maximum parking: limit car use by limiting parking

This exists but is quite rare, I know Ottawa has it near its Transitway stations and the Canadian federal government (located in Ottawa) also adopted a policy of offering very few parking sports to its employees, but beyond that, I don't know. This is a reversal of the usual. People realized that imposing minimum parking enticed more and more people to come by car as it hid the costs of parking by bundling it in store prices, in office rents and in house prices, people essentially subsidizing parking with their purchases or with lower wages. They also realized that if you limit the number of parking spots, then you limit the number of people who can come by car to a given destination.

This can easily create overspill if alternative modes of transport aren't present. So it requires good enforcement of legal bans on double parking, sidewalk parking and other parking restrictions. The idea is to push people to travel without cars, without caring about the exact means of doing it, leaving it to the parking lot owners of finding ways to limit demand for parking or by making parking such an annoyance that people decide to opt out of car use just to avoid having to find parking. It's not a direct cost in the form of payment of fees, but it's still a cost linked to parking.

In terms of the supply-demand graph, you get something like this:
Maximum parking rule
As the quantity is fixed by law, the result will be a higher price (whether in terms of fees or annoyance/time lost) for a smaller quantity of parking.

Now this system can work, but only in places where there are alternatives to cars. If you put in low maximum parking allowances on big box stores at highway interchanges, you'll just get regular parking overspill. Plus, it's politically very hard to achieve in most times, car drivers perceive it as an attack on their lifestyle... which is a bit true.

Demand management

Most of the time, we are in a logic of supply management. If parking is "lacking" because of increasing activities in an area, we react first and foremost by trying to add to the supply of parking. But as the graphs show, increasing supply isn't the only option, reducing demand is another. This can be done either by limiting parking time, charging prices for parking to put a price on it and therefore get people to reconsider other modes of transport, or by trying to limit parking thanks to a limited number of permits.

1- Time limits

This is a method used in commercial areas to avoid having people use limited commercial parking for long-term parking, for example people taking buses or subways and using a commercial parking as a park-and-ride or people visiting friends in the area and using the parking lot instead of hunting for a parking spot on the street. This method is a pretty "soft" one in that most people will not feel much concerned by it and it involves no additional costs on those who already respect the time limit.

That being said, I doubt this is really all that useful. Enforcement is the main issue. Unless one is willing to invest in cameras or in extensive record keeping of cars parking and leaving, it is quite hard to apply this limit, and quite easy to contest. I've never heard of any case of fines for staying too long, but it may well happen sometimes.

2- Parking fees

One of the most usual types of parking fees is the parking meter. Often seen by many drivers as just an "hidden tax" (in fact, free parking is an "hidden subsidy" and it's simply fair that they should pay for it), in many cases, the parking meters exist mainly to reduce the demand for parking by making people pay for the time they occupy a parking spot. It's like an incentive for people to go about their business quickly because the longer they take, the more money it costs them. Often, the cost is more symbolic than anything, like 1$ per hour or the like. But even a small fee can have a great effect on demand and allows for a much bigger turnover of parked cars, which is very useful for commercial areas with limited amount of parking.

Off-street parking lots generally have fees too when they are not attached to a business or office. When parking gets tight, raising fees is often an easier solution than building new parking lots.

Residential parking permits, despite the name, are not limited permits but just fees to allow overnight on-street parking in residential areas. They often operate on an unlimited basis, with the monthly or yearly fee the only thing keeping demand down. It's meant to discourage people from owning cars in certain neighborhoods by making them pay regularly for parking, and to avoid visitors from parking in residential areas, depriving residents of parking spots, which is a big issue if parking in the commercial area is metered.

3- Unbundling of residential off-street parking

This is a special type of parking fee I find important to point out. In most cases, parking spots are bundled in the price of housing, whether owned or rental. You want to live there? You must pay for the parking, regardless of whether you will use it or not. This actually provides an incentive to have a car, if you have to pay the thousands of dollars to have a parking spot, might as well use it. After all, your parking may cost you more than your car did, as parking can cost up to 50 000$ in some instances (underground garages), and it counts in your taxes.

If parking is unbundled from the cost of housing, people have a choice of whether they will buy it or not. This is most often seen in mid-rise and high-rise condo buildings as they often have a smaller number of parking spots in garages than units. So people who want to buy a condo but opt out of the parking can save tens of thousands of dollars, which can provide plenty of incentive to make do without a car. And once someone opts out of owning a car altogether on account of an expensive residential parking, it reduces the demand for parking everywhere else.

So reducing demand for residential parking is the most bang for your buck. Once you reduce it, you reduce car use everywhere else as less people will have cars. However, it is also more price insensitive, opting out of a car, especially in America, is a big decision, so even if parking is expensive, many people will bite the bullet and pay for it nonetheless, unless they live in a big city with great transit.

Unbundling of parking is harder in low-rise areas. It could take the form of small parking lots in which people could buy places and each place would be attributed to someone in particular. In single-family areas, as parking is often a simple driveway and lots are big enough already, parking is actually pretty cheap and unbundling it would be hard and not very effective.

4- Limited permits

Residential permits generally have a fixed price and an unlimited amount, but there is an alternative: permits that are limited in number but with changing prices. The idea would be to auction off a number of parking permits for a parking lot or for off-street parking. This number would be limited to the number of places there are actually available, with strict enforcement of the parking restriction to people without permit. Enforcement is easy because the permit holders themselves will likely call the police to have offending cars removed from "their" parking spots.

This would be particularly useful for offices that expand and that would normally be required to expand their parking spots as well. The office owner could be offered the alternative of having the parking minimum requirements waived in exchange for the emissions of parking permits for its employees, to limit how many of them may drive to work. This could even be used for all new constructions, with builders being allowed to build less parking than normally required with the condition of restricting access to the parking through a permit system. This may make it more politically palatable to reduce parking minimums.

5- Parking cash out

This is a reverse system used in California, where people who are provided with a parking spot by their employer can opt out of it and get a payment equal to the cost of the parking spot. The fact that it is a reward for not using parking instead of a punishment for using it makes it less likely to create political backlashes. However, it doesn't correct the issue of the escalation of subsidies to different transport modes, which is a bit like an arms race (government funds highways, offers them for free to cars, people switch to cars massively, causing congestion, so government increases subsidies to transit to reduce its cost and encourage people to take it to reduce congestion, car drivers whine about transit subsidies to justify opposing tolls and higher gas taxes, transit users point out under-taxed cars to defend their own subsidies and ask for more, etc, etc...). It would be much better if subsidies were cut, as they hide the real cost of transport and encourages sprawl and wasteful decisions.

Market management

In both supply and demand management, supply is in a way controlled by public authorities through regulations or interventions, meaning that the objective is either to vary supply to obtain a desired price, or to vary the price to obtain a certain demand. In the market management style, there is no given objective, both the amount of parking and its price can vary depending on how much parking people are willing to pay for.

1- Laissez-faire

This theoretically is the simplest thing to do, yet it is also the hardest. In essence, not do anything, let things sort themselves out. The issue here is that there is always a distortion of the market through the existence of parking on public ways, legal or illegal. Which means that private for-profit parking lots will face unfair competition from parking on the street. There are also free rider problems, for instance, as I said, it makes sense for stores to offer at least some free parking to attract customers, even without regulations to do so. But there is the free rider problem as people may try to use existing parking lots, vacant lots and even lawns as free parking.

So ironically, for this solution to be possible, you need intense enforcement of parking regulations to push people into the private lots provided for profit. Well, it is an irony that isn't one, free market policies in general always require government enforcement at one level or another to get people to play by the rules of the market.

What would laissez-faire look like? That's a good question. If I may haphazard a guess, it would yield much less parking at a higher price. Stores would still offer free parking, but most of them would offer much less of it, at least in urban areas. Big box developments could still exist and offer plenty of free parking, but only in places where land is cheap (near highways at the outskirts of inhabited areas for instance) so that providing parking is quite cheap. Parking in downtown areas would be rare and expensive, parking at offices would likely be quite limited, with parking actually provided by third parties who charge for it. The bundling of parking in housing could still occur.

2- Proof of parking system

I already talked about it in another article. This is the Japanese system wherein people need to provide a proof that they have an off-street parking spot in order to get license plates for their car, without which they don't have the right to use the public road. This is a market system because it forces people who want to buy cars to find a parking spot for their car without having one provided by government regulation. Since people are forced to find parking spots BEFORE they buy their cars, this makes sure that they can't simply buy a car then park it illegally anywhere like on vacant lots, yards, parks, etc... They're forced to have a parking spot and to pay for it anyway, why not use it?

So prospective car buyers have to go out on the market to find parking spots if their house or apartment doesn't have one, and there are private parking owners who gladly go to meet them on the market to lend them their parking spots. As these parking are distributed a bit everywhere, if demand for parking falls, so does the number of parking lots, if demand increases despite rising prices, then new parking lots may be built. There is only so much parking as people are willing to pay for. And the price of parking is much higher in densely built areas.

Now this system works only for residential parking. However, as I mentioned, residential parking is the crux of the issue. If people have no residential parking or find it too expensive, then they opt out of owning a car, which reduces demand for every other parking lot out there. So in a way, this system allows demand for parking lots everywhere to be reduced by having residential parking costs be explicitly shown to car drivers and having them pay for it directly instead of having it being subsidized through "bundling" in various costs everyone ends up paying for.


So this was just me enumerating the ways of dealing with parking supply and demand issues. Right now, most of North America is stuck in the "minimum parking" mindset where everything is about imposing more and more parking until there are no parking problems anymore, regardless of the other problems it may create. In a money-based economy, the price of goods is an important signal to guide people to wiser consuming choices, so I think it is essential for parking pricing to be part of the solution and not to keep insisting on providing free parking, no matter the cost.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Of the importance of density: empirical proof

One of the main aims of proponents of a better urbanism is increasing density. Unfortunately, it's also one of the things that scare people used to low-density developments and who associate density with cities: congestion, crime, etc... This perception is pretty ridiculous for people who live in most cities, but it's still there. Some people ask: "Why are you so obsessed with density?", others are less polite and say "Why do you want to force people to live cooped up like chicken in cages?".

The reality is that what people like me want to do is not increase density for density's sake, the main goals are about:
  • Creating more sustainable cities where there are economical and environmentally friendly ways to get around instead of just relying on private motorized vehicles
  • Create systems with richer public realms so as to favor the creation of communities through regular social interactions
  • Make cities where it's just plain better to live because of a vibrant culture and a lot of activities, economical and cultural
It just so happens that some density is required for this. Alternatives to cars largely don't go as fast as cars, rapid transit can beat them, but only with stops being widely spaced, so you need density around them. So for these alternatives to be viable, destinations need to be closer to residential areas. However, you can't build a supermarket every 1 kilometer, each supermarket, like any store, requires a certain pool of customers to be financially viable. For instance, if supermarkets require about 7 000 people to stay afloat and you have a city of 20 000 people, you can sustain only 3 supermarkets at once.

So you can approximate how many stores you can have in an area by looking at the population. Some proximity stores like corner stores need few people to sustain themselves, specialized stores need a very large pool of customers, so they will need to be concentrated at nodes of regional transport system, whether boulevards, highway interchanges or rapid transit stations, depending on what people use to get around.

Let's take this example of a suburb with a population of 20 000 people in a perfect circle. The density of residential areas is 3 000 people per square kilometer (7 500 per square mile), typical of Québec suburbs, with only 80% of the city area being residential areas, the rest being parks, commercial, industrial, etc... We'll suppose that density is spread equally around. This city can sustain 3 supermarkets. Even if all three were placed to maximize proximity, only 10% of the population would be within a 5-minute walking distance from one, and 40% within 10 minutes.
A 20 000-people suburb with three supermarkets, 5-minute walksheds drawn around each one

Increase density to a respectable but still middling 8 000 people per square kilometer (20 000 per square mile), and it already looks much better. As the population is the same, the number of supermarkets they can support is the same, 3, and 30% of people are within a 5-minute walk from the closest supermarket, and everyone would be within 10 minutes of walking from at least one:
A 20 000-people small city with 3 supermarkets
Now build a dense urban neighborhood of 15 000 people per square kilometer (38 000 per square mile) and nearly 60% of people are within the 5-minute walksheds of the nearest supermarket, and a lot of people are within 10-minute walking distance from the 3 supermarkets.
A dense urban neighborhood of 20 000 people with 3 supermarkets
Now, this is a simplification, in reality you can have greater densities around commercial areas and the walksheds may be smaller because of less walking-friendly street grids, but it illustrates the principle. As you build denser, more things can be within walking distance which helps walking, of course, but also transit as the greater density means increased ridership and thus higher frequency.

An example of how density increases active transport modes and transit, and reduces dependency on the car

OK, right now, it's a pretty basic article about a basic principle. A bit of a bore I wager. However, I have more to offer.

In Québec, we have so-called "origin-destination" studies which question thousands of people in major agglomeration about their trips, whether to work, to school, for leisure or else. These studies include where people start their trips (origins), where they end them (destinations), but also their motives and their mean of transport (mode).

The studies split up the metropolitan areas in a variety of small sectors, each one getting a page looking like this:
Example of an O-D sector and its info
This page offers all the info to establish the density of the area as they not only offer the population and the area, but they also show the street grid, which helped me approximate exactly how much of each area is inhabited and how much is not inhabited (absence of streets or very rare ones). Like in this example, around 50 or 60% of the area would be inhabited, the rest is a park.

By inputing this data in an Excel worksheet, I've been able to create graphs showing how mode share changes depending on population density of inhabited area in each sector. And the results are telling. But first, for people who may not know, some hints:

  • Québec's metropolis, 1,6 million people in the city itself, around twice that including suburbs
  • Has 4 subway lines that are very used and very frequent, and a complete bus system with many frequent lines in the city itself, which they call the "10 minutes max" lines.
  • Commuter rail lines in the suburbs, but that only operate in the peak periods for the most part, and with pretty low frequencies
  • Québec's national capital, around 500 000 people in the city, which has swallowed many suburbs over the years, 700 000 people including the suburbs that have not been merged.
  • No subway, no tramway, no rapid transit. Just a few lines of "metrobus" which are essentially frequent bus lines with stops spread a bit further apart.
  • A LOT of highways, very car-dependent suburbs, but a well-preserved dense inner city with European-inspired areas
Final note, "mode share" for those who don't know means what share of all trips are made in a specific mode. So a 10% transit mode share means that 10% of all trips are made in transit.

OK, so in the following graphs, the sectors from Montréal are in red, those from Québec are in blue. I looked at the trips of residents, meaning trips (excluding returns) that originate from the sectors, and not those that ended in them.

First, how does transit use change with residential density?
Transit mode share (y-axis) vs residential density (x-axis, people per square kilometer)
The relation is very clear here, transit mode share seems directly proportional to density in Montréal. The odd point that is way over the trend at around 5 000 people per square kilometer is actually the downtown sector, in which few people actually live because most of the space is commercial and offices. In Québec City, there is also a positive trend, but it seems to max out at about 12 to 15%. There are two factors that may influence this:
  1. The absence of subway or other rapid transit line with high frequencies, which makes transit slow and much less useful. The subway seems to help the transit share even in relatively low densities, as sectors in Montréal with around 6 000 people per square kilometer (15 000 per square mile) have transit use about 50% higher than similarly dense areas in Québec City. Which shows the limited use of buses in mixed traffic to drive up transit use.
  2. Montréal is a bigger city, so even in the dense core there may be times where people need to take transit to go a bit further, whereas all the attractions in the urban core of Québec City may be closer together and thus be closer to dense areas, not needing transit to get there.
 Now let's look at active transport, walking and biking:
Active transport mode share (y-axis) vs residential density (x-axis, people per square kilometer)
Interesting here how Québec City's trend is actually over Montréal's. Maybe due to the lack of good transit option, people in dense areas may walk more and take transit less than in Montréal. Alternatively, the poor performance of Montréal may be mainly about denser suburbs between 7 000 to 10 000 people per square kilometer which are not that walking friendly (I live in one, Lasalle, walking to stores isn't impossible but not really pleasant). Note that some high-density sectors in Montréal do match similarly dense sectors in Québec City for active transport mode share.

Anyways, let's look at the car mode share to finish:
Auto mode share (y-axis) vs residential density (x-axis, people per square kilometer)
In both areas, the trend line is clearly linear, which actually surprised me to see such a strong linear relationship between density and car mode share. I expected it to decline as density rose, yes, but to see such a strong effect was even a bit strange, it seems too perfect. Yet, that is the real result.

Anyway, Montréal is the winner here, in high-density sectors, its car mode share is up to 10 points less than in Québec City's high-density sectors. However, the car mode shares in the suburbs are very similar. Despite Québec City's sectors having higher active transport mode shares, the much higher transit use, largely due I think to the rapid transit lines in Montréal, means that Montréalers in dense areas use cars to get around even less than the people in Québec City's dense areas. But they are more alike than they are different.

And again, that red dot in its lonesome far below the trend is Montréal's downtown area, which has little population but sky-high density in everything else (jobs, stores, etc...).

Despite the trend being clear, sectors with identical densities can vary in car mode share by up to 15%, so density isn't everything, even if it's a very strong factor. I guess the other factors that may lead to differences include:
  • If sectors have a lot of mixed use rather than use separation which increases distances
  • If the area has highways cutting it in half and allowing fast car movements
  • If sectors have good or bad transit service (in the case of Montréal, do they have access to the subway or not)
  • If they have street grids that favor walking or street grids which makes walking more difficult
  • If the population in the area is richer or poorer
I may do something like that later on, but for now, I think I'm quite satisfied with the results, which clearly show how density is a very strong factor reducing car use and increasing the rate of walking, biking and transit use.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Parking and density: how minimum parking requirements cap density

 One of the major regulations present in most North American cities is the minimum parking requirement. I spoke about it a few times, like when I talked about the "door-to-door" versus "neighborhood-to-neighborhood" concept of motorized transport, but that was about commercial parking. I would like to point out how difficult it is to reconcile parking minimums with residential density.

Ways to increase density

First of all, how does one go about increasing density? There aren't a thousand ways of doing so, you can either:
  1. Increase the number of units per lot, by building a bigger, taller building and having many apartments.
  2. Decrease the width of lots.
  3. Decrease the depth of lots.
So, essentially you can play with three dimension, but often you are constrained by the existing street grid which dictates the depth of the lots. Like in this example:
Street grid imposing a certain lot depth
There are only 60 meters between the top and bottom street, so place for 2 lots both 30-meter deep, if you stick to the idea of having buildings facing the existing streets. So you lose option 3, the depth of lots is fixed.

If you are limited to single-family homes, then you lose option 1, because even if you build higher, you're still stuck with one unit per lot.

So if you want more density with single-family housing on existing street grids, you are limited to one way of doing it: reducing the width of lots. You could still get a pretty high density with rowhouses that are 5-meter (17 feet) wide. Overall, each lot would be 5-meter wide and 35-meter deep (30 m for the lot, plus 5 meters for half the street in front of the lot), so that would give around 50 dwelling units per hectare (20 per acre). With each house being 2-story high and 14-meter deep, each could offer around 120 square meters (1 300 square feet) of living space.

Rowhouses on the previous grid
Of course, you can do denser. You could build an alley between the lots and double density by building two other rows between the existing ones. You could also build higher multi-family buildings.You can pile things on and get many times that density. Except that in this case, I omitted one very important fact: recent housing must house not only humans, but also cars.

Housing and parking


In most cities, recent constructions need to offer 2 parking spaces for family-sized units. The traditional way of providing this parking is a driveway and garage, and the parking spaces are built side-by-side, because most families do not share cars equally, you often have "dad's car" and "mom's car", and people don't want to have to get a car out of the way just to access their own car.

How much space does a car need for a parking spot? Well, cars can go up to 2,1-meter wide (7 feet) and 5-meter long (17 feet), though most are about 1,9-meter wide and 4-meter long. Anyway, to provide enough space to park safely, you need a width of about 2,5 meters and a length of 6 meters.

So what happens if you suppose 2 parking spots per unit, in a driveway/garage with a fixed street grid like previously shown? Well, you have to have a 5-meter driveway in front of every house. Essentially, parking acts like single-family houses, the depth is determined (30 meters in the example), you can't build one atop another (too expensive), and the width of each parking space is minimum 2,5 meters. So each parking space takes in fact nearly 90 square meters:
Space occupied by two parking spaces in a driveway
Remember, this is PER UNIT. So each dwelling unit must have two parking spaces, which takes up about 90 square meters in total (around 1 000 square feet), for a total of 180 square meters. And to avoid having entire streets be unbroken driveways, you'll have maybe a 2-meter buffer between lots, so that's another 70 square meters lost. The result? The minimum space each unit occupies will be around 250 square meters, allowing for a maximum density of only 40 dwelling units per hectare, or 16 per acre.

What about on-street parking? It's even worse as they require more width:
Space occupied by two on-street parallel parking spaces
Here, each parking spaces takes no less than 210 square meters, for a total of 420 square meters. At least, you don't require buffers here, but anyways, each UNIT will require 420 square meters for parking, a maximum density of about 24 dwelling units per hectare, or 10 per acre.

Again, this is per unit, not per lot. So you can't even increase density by increasing the number of stories and building many units per lot, because then you will have to multiply the amount of parking spaces per lot too. So if you build a duplex, you'll be forced to provide 4 parking spaces, taking at least 450 square meters.

Example of this dynamic: Houston

Houston in Texas is a famous city for urbanists as it has notoriously lax zoning regulations, land uses are basically unregulated (at least not by the city itself). However, what is not lax is the minimum parking requirements, which are of 2 parking spaces minimum for residential units with 3 or more bedrooms.
Houston's residential parking ordnance
Currently, Houston is proceeding to the greatest densification of low-density residential areas in North America that I know of. They are converting a lot of older low-density houses to townhouses. But despite the freedom the lack of regulations allows developers, the density of their townhouses is pretty underwhelming... The problem is exactly what I pointed out about how parking limits density.
Houston townhouses

Houston townhouses 2

Houston townhouses: seen from the sky
First, okay, they look pretty bad. One huge garage door and a little side door for humans. But even though they're built very close, even though they have little to no courtyard, their density is around 35 to 40 units per hectare (14-16 per acre). That's decent mind you, but not all that great.

The big problem here is that as they need to provide 2 parking spots per house, they are about 7 meters wide at least, and the existing street grid determines lot depth. These townhouses are also pretty big, but even if they tried to make each housing unit smaller, they couldn't accommodate any more because the parking, not the the livable space, limits density.

They sometimes try to compensate when the lot is too deep by building new alleyways to reduce the depth of lots:
New alleyway to reduce lot depth
Same, seen from above
In this example, the creation of the alleyway/courtyard between the town houses allowed 24 units to be built instead of the 18 or 20 that could have been built otherwise. Of course, it means some houses are surrounded by houses on three sides. The density here is over 50 dwelling units per hectare (20 per acre).

Mitigating methods

One way to avoid this issue is to be able to have many rows of parking spaces, which can be done through side-loading garages and parking lots, which are more efficient in that aspect.

Here is an example from Lasalle in Québec, around where I currently reside:
Side-loading garage
Schematic representation of the previous

These blocs have 4 2-bedroom units and 1 1-bedroom unit in the basement. They have 4 parking spots in the garages under the building, 1 in the driveway and 2 on-street parking spots, for a total of 7. Each building is about 15 meters wide. If they had all this parking in one big driveway, the driveway would be 18-meter wide.

Here is another example, a more recent one, but in Lasalle also:
Recent condos in Lasalle
These two semi-detached blocs have 12 units and a density of around 70 dwelling units per hectare (32 per acre). They have about 18 parking spaces, but the side-loading parking spots save enough space to salvage a front yard and a backyard.
Schematic representation of parking spaces of the previous
Here is another example with townhouses and parking tucked under a backyard patio, leaving the front without parking and preserving yards. Contrast these townhouses with the Houston ones, which largely have the same density of 35 to 40 units per hectare.
Modern townhouses in Lasalle, back-loading garages with patios built over the access to the garages

The same townhouses in front: yards, trees and stairs
Schematic representation of the previous

Parking lots either adjacent to, behind or below buildings can also compensate for this. However, in general you will have to build a 6-meter wide alley between parking rows, which means that each parking spot will actually take 22,5 square meters, including part of the alley, maybe more. Including all the bits of lost space due to corners and access to the street, the parking lot may be 25 to 30 square meters per parking spot.

Low-rise condos with shared parking lot between them in Lévis near Québec City
Schematic representation of the previous
Here, the 12 dwelling units have no less than 34 parking spots. The density is around 50 dwelling units per hectare (20 per acre) while preserving a lot of green space.

Condos in Longueuil, a suburb of Montréal
Schematic representation of the previous
Here, the building has 14 units and 32 parking spots. This is a density of about 80 units per hectare, or 32 per acre.

High-rises may be able to have garages with many stories, but this is extremely expensive, with costs per stall between 30 000 and 50 000$ from what I have seen.

Two densities

The result of all of this is that there are two densities that matter: the density of dwelling units which is often used by urbanists to describe the desired density, and the density of parking places. When you implement parking minimums, you essentially cap the population density by parking density. For instance, if your parking "scheme" allows for only one parking spot per 100 square meters and you impose 2 parking spots per unit, then by definition, you allow a maximum density of just 50 dwelling units per hectare, regardless of anything else you do.

To solve that issue, there are only two choices:
  • Find a way to be able to build more parking spaces per area
  • Reduce the parking minimums so you don't require a high parking density
And that's the gist of it, the reason why recent constructions generally have such low density compared to old constructions, especially in car-dependent areas. Parking requirements impose an hard cap on density. It is extremely hard to find an affordable way to incorporate a lot of parking in a dense residential area in a manner that doesn't result in an ugly wasteland of parking lots and lines of parked cars everywhere you look. Before the car, they didn't have to worry about it and so made neighborhoods much denser.