CC image from Joe Philipson
Following up on the previous post…
Matt Yglesias links to Michael Manville’s paper, also highlighting the dual areas of inflexibility with zoning parking requirements: that the requirement is fixed at a level above market demand, and that the parking must be provided on site. On top of the rules themselves, the additional process required to earn flexibility from the requirements adds substantial time and cost to any applicant seeking flexibility.
Matt highlights a piece from Aaron Wiener in the City Paper’s Housing Complex column that demonstrates the real-world impact of these requirements, not just for real estate developers but also for entrepreneurs looking to open a business in an under-served neighborhood:
It’s a challenge that’s playing out across the city, with some developers opting to apply for exemptions from the parking minimums, which are usually granted, while others are discouraged from undertaking projects. But it’s a particularly acute problem in Anacostia, where retail is sorely needed and the market is still sufficiently unproven that developers are reluctant to take risks on ventures that could lose money. A requirement to build parking or apply for a variance adds an extra expense that can scare would-be retailers away—particularly when there’s not even space on site for parking, a common scenario in the historic neighborhood.
The documented example of the former H St Playhouse (looking to move to Anacostia) is a contrast to the flexibility in LA, where the adaptive reuse ordinance allows for developers to provide parking off-site. In Anacostia, the theater has control of the required spaces, but those spaces are not located on the exact same property. One could argue that the law mandating parking is misguided, but even when a business seeks to address the spirit of that law, it gets stuck on the letter of the law.
Some flexibility from the rules can be granted, but that requires a great deal of additional costly process for the applicant. So much real estate development simply follows the path of least resistance, meaning that cities should ensure that the path of least resistance leads to the city’s desired outcomes. More from Wiener:
“The city gave $200,000 in a grant to renovate [the Playhouse space],” saysDuane Gautier, CEO of the nonprofit ARCH Development Corporation, referring to funding last summer from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; ARCH also provided a $50,000 interest-free loan to the Playhouse. “So basically one part of the city government is hurting the other part of the city government who wants this done quickly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
A change like LA’s ARO is a strong step in that direction. Similarly, DC’s pending zoning code re-write is also a step in the right direction. The process spelled out by law matters a great deal and has tremendous impacts on the outcome (the kind of ‘seriatim decision making’ highlighted by David Schleicher).
I’m also reminded of another good DC parking article from previous Housing Complex writer Lydia DePillis one year ago, containing many anecdotes from developers with underutilized parking and/or experiences where the parking requirements forced them to reduce a development in size or abandon it completely.
Downtown Los Angeles. CC image from Nadia Kovacs.
The paper of the day, from Michael Manville: “Parking requirements as a barrier to housing development: regulation and reform in Los Angeles”
Abstract: Using a partial deregulation of residential parking in downtown Los Angeles, I examine the impact of minimum parking requirements on housing development. I find that when parking requirements are removed, developers provide more housing and less parking, and also that developers provide different types of housing: housing in older buildings, in previously disinvested areas, and housing marketed toward non-drivers. This latter category of housing tends to sell for less than housing with parking spaces. The research also highlights the importance of removing not just quantity mandates but locational mandates as well. Developers in dense inner cities are often willing to provide parking, but ordinances that require parking to be on the same site as housing can be prohibitively expensive.
Background: Los Angeles had a lot of underutilized office buildings that were not competitive in the office market any longer. The city passed an adaptive reuse ordinance to encourage the re-use of these buildings by offering flexibility on zoning requirements, including use and parking.
The paper shows how developers for these conversions, given flexibility from the code by right, to build less parking than would otherwise be required (new construction in the area is still subject to the parking requirements of the code). But, unlike the cases in Portland, all of the developers still provided some parking – this is Los Angeles after all (and yet another case for letting the market prevail based on local and regional conditions).
The second key area of flexibility is in parking location – developers wishing to re-use properties downtown could provide parking for tenants off-site, often allowing for shared use parking in under-utilized office garages nearby. Traditional requirements not only arbitrarily set the level of parking to be built, but also demand it be provided on site, even if off-site options may be more feasible and cost-effective.
In terms of the housing stock, this code flexibility allowed developers more flexibility in their target market. Those targeting the higher end provided more parking, but the lack of a hard requirement allows devleopers flexibility in which markets they target. Parking has a great market value, of course, so the units built with fewer or no parking spaces would rent for a lower price, allowing the market to create a wider range of products.
The end result is more housing, a wider range of housing price points, a smaller supply of off-street parking spaces, and re-use of under-utilized buildings.
While this paper focuses on LA’s adaptive re-use ordinance, the same pricinples apply to zoning and parking requirements in general.
Park sign. CC image from Pixel Jones.
We don’t manage our limited parking resources very well. However, that leaves us lots of room to improve our policies.
A recent Freakonomics podcast entitled ‘Parking is Hell’ provides a nice entry-level synopsis of the challenges involved in using market forces to better manage this valuable resource. The podcast features interviews with parking scholars, including Don Shoup. They address the fallacy of the idea of ‘free’ parking, the idea of using price to better allocate this resource, and the practical challenges to better management of on-street parking (such as the abuse of handicapped parking placards, as well as the rampant illegality in parking practice).
Despite the cold, hard logic behind the idea of performance parking, it’s not an easy political sell. Similar experiences with de-congestion road pricing in Stockholm show reluctance at first, and then broad support for the program once the benefits can be demonstrated, and revenues directed towards locally-controlled improvements. Still, no one likes the idea of someone proposing an increase to your daily costs in exchange for uncertain benefits.
That risk-aversion applies to parking, too – and perhaps explains a great deal of the reluctance to embrace a whole host of parking reforms, both for on-street parking management, but also for zoning code off-street parking requirements. The evidence for the ineffectiveness of these requirements in managing on-street parking is huge; the unintended consequences are large.
Zoning requirements won’t manage on-street parking for you. Consider this case from Boston, where air quality regulations capped the total supply of off-street parking garages, but the city fails to manage on-street parking effectively:
The steep costs at our garages mean that only the well-off and the truly desperate ever wind up parking in them. The rest of us find ourselves in a never-ending chase for metered street parking, which is an absolute steal. Because the price is absurdly low for such a rare commodity—there are around 8,000 metered spaces in Boston—drivers are willing to circle the block for as long as it takes to find an opening, like vultures in search of prey. The $10-an-hour difference between a garage and a metered spot in Boston gives “drivers a license to hunt,” says Mark Chase, a local parking consultant,“but it’s not a guarantee of a parking place.” The result, naturally, is congestion. Studies from around the country have shown that as much as 34 percent of all traffic in downtown areas involves drivers just looking for parking spaces.
Meanwhile, Boston has set aside a ton of spaces for resident-only parking in neighborhoods, and it charges nothing for the permits to use them. And what happens when it doesn’t cost anything to keep cars parked on the street? They stay there. Today more than 311,000 vehicles are registered in Boston, and more than 87,000 of them have residential parking permits. Each of those cars takes up around 160 square feet—the size of a street spot—of prime city real estate.“You have some of the most valuable land on earth, and you’re giving it away for free to cars,” says Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking. “It’s preposterous.”
Enter a new development proposal, aiming to build car-free, promising not to rent to car owners and therefore not make Boston’s off-street parking problem even worse:
Paul Berkeley, president of the Allston Civic Association, said residents support Mariscal’s plan for an airy, green building, but said the no-car idea would not fly.
“It’s well-intentioned and it could be successful, but people felt that in that location there was too much of a risk of people having cars and just putting them in front of houses nearby,” he said.
So, they tried to reconfigure the development with 35 spaces for the 44 units. Even that is not enough to satisfy the zoning code, as the article notes that the current code requires an absurd two spaces per housing unit. Patrick Doyle notes that the real problem here is not with community skepticism about all the new residents being car-free, but with the absurdly low price for on-street parking. Such ignorance of the basics of supply and demand is not a recipe for good management.
Consider the opportunity costs. It’s not as if requiring parking only hits a developer in his/her pocketbook (though it does). Parking takes up a lot of space, and the geometric requirements for cars to circulate into a garage and have appropriate turning radii to get in and out often do not match up with the geometry of small urban lots ripe for infill development. In Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger writes about the same Boston development:
His proposal also highlights the hidden reality – true in cities everywhere – that our modern buildings largely take their first architectural cues from cars.
“When you remove the car component as the main design challenge,” Mariscal says, “your way of thinking about design is completely different. The possibilities that open for a more environmentally friendly and human design – they are endless.”
Furthermore, the kinds of older neighborhoods we love in our cities usually pre-date zoning requirements for parking. Their very existence is non-conforming. When you suddenly add a very different geometry to design around as a legal requirement (the car and associated parking), you fundamentally change the shape and design of the kind of buildings you build and of the city that will result.
Do your requirements actually make sense? It seems like a basic question to ask. However, lots of requirements exist because they were the default when a code was written, often without much in-depth consideration or any easy mechanism to regularly re-evaluate them.
Consider New Haven, CT. The City asked some out-of-town developers what it would take to make New Haven an attractive place for them to do business. In the vein of a dating game show, the city wanted to know what a developer’s ‘turn offs’ might be:
Demands for lots of parking ranked high on the turn-off list.
“You asked what is an automatic turn-off. … Market research shows [the amount of parking] needed is X. We flip open the zoning code and we find out the requirement in the zoning code is two times that,” replied Patrick Lee, co-founder of a Boston firm called Trinity Financial. “It is a lightning rod … Oftentimes we often just say, ‘That one is too, too hard.’ … When the zoning catches up with the market or gets close to it, we’ll come on back and have the conversation [about building]. Even if you’re doing surface parking, it eats up so much land it ends up being a cost-driver in your pro forma.”
This raises the question: why even require parking at all if the market is a) willing to forgo it, or b) willing to build it? Eliminate that problem, and you don’t have to worry about forcing your zoning to “catch up” to the market. At the very least, some mandatory periodic review of the requirements (in the same vein as the zoning budget idea, but for a specific provision of the code) would help ensure the requirements in place make sense.
None of this changes the need for rational management of on-street parking. Zoning requirements cannot do that for you.
Mush on my windowsill.
I’m sitting in DC, looking out a window at a mushy, mostly liquid ‘snow’ storm named after an obscure federal budgetary procedure. There’s a joke in there somewhere about failing to meet the hype. But instead, I’ll offer some links to articles of interest over the past few weeks.
Regulatory challenges. Slate blogger Matt Yglesias is buying a new house, and instead of selling his old condo, he plans on renting it out and turning it into an income property. He documents the bureaucratic red tape encountered in the process to make this business legal, highlighting the absurdity that drives people nuts about government bureaucracy – the fact that none of the hoops you must jump through seem to actually matter to the regulatory issue at hand:
The striking thing about all this isn’t so much that it was annoying—which it was—but that it had basically nothing to do with what the main purpose of landlord regulation should be—making sure I’m not luring tenants into some kind of unsafe situation. The part where the unit gets inspected to see if it’s up to code is a separate step. I was instructed to await a scheduling call that ought to take place sometime in the next 10 business days.
Yglesias notes that DC fares poorly on many metrics of regulatory efficiency and friendliness to entrepreneurs. Granted, those rankings all ought to be taken with a grain of salt, as they often fail to measure what really matters and instead focus on indicators not directly linked to entrepreneurship (there is also the matter of state-by-state rankings lumping in a city-state like DC into their metric – not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison).
The real issue, as Yglesias touches on in a later blog post, isn’t whether regulations are good or bad, but whether the regulations we have are effective and if they cover the right topics:
The way I would put this is that the American economy is simultaneously overregulated and underregulated. It is much too difficult to get business and occupational licenses; there are excessive restrictions on the wholesaling and retailing of alcoholic beverages; exclusionary zoning codes cripple the economy; and I’m sure there are more problems than I’m even aware of.
At the same time, it continues to be the case that even if you ignore climate change, there are huge problematic environmental externalities involved in the energy production and industrial sectors of the economy. And you shouldn’t ignore climate change! We are much too lax about what firms are allowed to dump into the air. On the financial side, too, it’s become clear that there are really big problems with bank supervision. The existence of bad rent-seeking rules around who’s allowed to cut hair is not a good justification for the absence of rules around banks’ ability to issue no-doc liar’s loans. The fact that it’s too much of a pain in the ass to get a building permit is not a good justification for making it easier to poison children’s brains with mercury. Now obviously all these rules are incredibly annoying. I am really glad, personally, that I don’t need to take any time or effort to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s new mercury emissions rules. But at the same time, it ought to be a pain in the ass to put extra mercury into the air. We don’t want too much mercury! We don’t want too much bank leverage!
The more ideological stance (regulation is bad!) might be easier to communicate; it might resonate with the public based on their experience at the local DMV. It’s a complicated reality, and our regulations not only need to reflect that, but also likely need periodic review and revision.
Regarding a common issue in the urban context, Matt writes:
“This city has too many restaurants to choose from” is not a real public policy problem—it’s only a problem for incumbent restaurateurs who don’t want to face competition.
This reflects some of the tension on liquor license moratoria in DC (see the discussion about IMBY DC). The contrasting position is that restaurants do indeed create some negative externalities that need to be addressed. The challenge for public policy is then in addressing the negatives without falling into the trap of mis-stating the problem.
Regulatory reform. Assuming we correctly state the problem, then what do we do to change things? DC is forming a task force to look at these issues. In some googling of related articles, I ran across an old op-ed from Helder Gil about a potential direction for regulatory reform, radical simplification:
One solution is the radical simplification of existing business laws and regulations. “Radical simplification” is the wholesale rethinking of a law’s original intent, its current actual effect and whether those two points still intersect in a way that advances public policy.
Let’s dump the word “zoning,” as in zoning ordinances that govern how land is developed and how buildings often are designed. Land-use regulation is still needed, but zoning increasingly has become a conceptually inappropriate term, an obsolete characterization of how we plan and shape growth.
I would go farther than Lewis and suggest that the terminology is not the only problem; the content of the regulations is also problematic. Lewis goes on to list numerous shortcomings of the existing regulatory framework – perhaps inadvertently making the case for radical simplification?
Beware non-governmental regulation. To be clear, these challenges are not solely governmental. The burden often falls on the government in protecting the public purpose, but governments are not the only entities with the common good in mind. Consider the home-owners association.
Last month, the Washington Post reported on an epic legal battle between a Fairfax County HOA and a member over a very minor size violation for a political sign. HOA representatives on a power trip sought to impose penalties for violating rules that were not expressly granted to the HOA in the association’s bylaws. The HOA lost the case, the resulting legal fees bankrupted the association, forcing it to pursue the sale of a privately-owned park area.
These kinds of battles are common – and often invoke words like ‘tyranny’. They highlight both challenges of regulation and also of governance. Clearly, the content of some regulations are an issue, but so is the process for changing or even just reviewing those regulations.
Perhaps HOAs are not strictly necessary for a grouping of semi-detached homes (as is the case in the Fairfax County example), but some level of common-area administration is necessary in multi-unit buildings, no matter how you slice it. The need for HOAs also raises the question about the role of home-ownership in multi-unit buildings and the regulatory environment that enables it (see Stephen Smith asking “why do condos even exist?” at Market Urbanism) – which, after all, is a relatively young and untested legal field.
CC image from STREETART PHOTAGRAPHIE
Aaron Renn has a provacative post, asking if “urbanism is the new trickle-down economics.” He writes:
Have urbanists used this as a call to arms to put all of their energy into helping those left behind in the knowledge/creative class economy? No. Instead, urban advocates have gone the other direction, locking onto this in a reductionist way to develop a set of policies I call “Starbucks urbanism.” That is, the focus is on an exclusively high end, sanitized version of city life that caters to the needs of the elite with the claim that this will somehow “revitalize” the city if they are attracted there.
First, who are these urbanists? And why are they acting as one ideologically coherent bloc?
What does the word ‘urbanist’ mean, anyway? Merriam-Webster simply calls it ”a specialist in urban planning,” but I would broaden the term to simply be people who are interested in cities. Given the diversity of opinions within that population, Renn’s broad brush misses the mark.
Then there’s the ideology. There’s an irony in Renn criticizing the role of urbanism-as-trickle-down and the reductionisim of urban policy, mirroring trickle-down’s reductionism of economic policy. Renn takes no care to distinguish the diversity of opinions on all things urban, instead lumping all urbanists under this label. He doesn’t lump all economists together as if were in favor of trickle-down policies.
This isn’t the the only example; there are plenty of cases where New Urbanism is falsely equated with urbanism (as in – an interest in cities) – and even more that innaccurately describe what New Urbanism is (the N and U are capitalized for a reason). San Francisco’s SPUR publishes a magazine entitled The Urbanist. There is also the distinction on the market orientation of urbanists (‘demand-side urbanists’ - as phrased by David Schliecher and Witold Rybczynski) and a whole host of other factions with interests in the city.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a truth to Renn’s point about ‘Starbucks urbanism’, but the broad brush weakens the argument. Any way you slice it, urbanists are a pretty diverse group. Often argumentative, too.
Manhattan. CC image from sakeeb.
Breaking news! Last week, the New York Times reported that it is expensive to live in Manhattan. The Times frames the question through the lens of the middle class, asking what the definition means in the context of they city’s densest borough.
In a city like New York, where everything is superlative, who exactly is middle class? What kind of salary are we talking about? Where does a middle-class person live? And could the relentless rise in real estate prices push the middle class to extinction?
There’s lots of discussion in the article about incomes in New York, as well as the high cost of living – particularly for housing. The article notes that the New York, urban context makes the traditional symbols of the American Dream (e.g. home ownership) less applicable, and most of the text is spent searching for some other indicator of middle-class-ness. Matt Yglesias notes that such a search for a single metric isn’t always useful. Likewise, it’s not as if this is a new topic in New York, or even for the Times.
There’s lots of discussion about housing costs and the demand for living in a place like Manhattan, but not a single word about housing supply. I understand the author is looking to explore the perception of what constitutes the middle class, but a word about the supply of housing is warranted. Even a short mention of the constraints to supply would be a worthwhile addition to these kinds of articles.
David Schleicher’s twitter response asked that same question, and provided a link to Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks’ work on regulatory constraints to housing supply in New York. From the paper’s abstract:
Home building is a highly competitive industry with almost no natural barriers to entry, yet prices in Manhattan currently appear to be more than twice their supply costs. We argue that land use restrictions are the natural explanation of this gap. We also present evidence consistent with our hypothesis that regulation is constraining the supply of housing so that increased demand leads to much higher prices, not many more units, in a number of other high price housing markets across the country.
As noted, Manhattan certainly isn’t the only place with these kinds of constraints. Another recent article focuses on San Francisco, this one from tech writer Farhad Manjoo. Manjoo makes the case that San Francisco needs to grow in the face of tremendous demand for urban living. More importantly, he argues that opponents to growth, those who fear how growth might change the things they love about San Francisco, need to get over themselves.
Don’t look good fortune in the mouth. Yes, growth will bring some problems. But they’re not nearly as bad as the problems you’ll find in decline (ask Detroit). Instead of complaining or blocking growth, San Francisco’s old-guard would do better to propose ways to ease the city’s transition into its digital future. This doesn’t mean opposing newcomers. It means recognizing a new reality, that San Francisco needs to become much larger and more accommodating place than it is. And it means adopting polices that will make that reality a pretty good one.
In particular, for San Francisco, adopting that reality means one thing above all: It needs to build more buildings.
As an example of the fear of change, Manjoo links to this article by David Talbot, blaming the influx of tech workers to the city for forcing things to change – forcing the city to battle for its own soul.
One point that Talbot ignores is that obstructing the physical change in the city (e.g. blocking development) will not save the idealized city he loves. In fact, it might even accelerate the process of gentrification. Some level of change is inevitable. Fighting any kind of change to the physical environment might even accelerate changes to the city’s socioeconomic environment.
While the overall thrust of Manjoo’s policiy is correct, it’s not hard to see why many fear for the loss of San Francisco’s soul. Manjoo laments that the city has not built more densely, and implies that old Victorian houses are the culprit: “this city is defined by, and reveres, its famous Victorian houses” he writes. ”Those houses are very pretty. They’re also very inefficient. Collectively, they take up a lot of space, but don’t house very many people.”
The truth is that San Francisco could add a great deal of new housing supply without touching those houses that are worthy of preservation. Consider this thought experiment from Keep Houston Houston for transit improvements and upzoning in the Sunset District:
All of this in one neighborhood, and without straying from the basic SF vernacular architecture of low/mid-rise, wood-framed buildings. Apply this same rubric to the rest of the city, allow towers in a few places, you could easily accommodate 200,000 more people.
Likewise, Stephen Smith makes the case for dramatic upzoning in large parts of Brooklyn, but not on the borough’s brownstone blocks:
In some neighborhoods, this sort of conservative zoning makes sense. The tree-lined blocks of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, for example, thick with brownstones and pre-war apartment houses, are urban treasures worth preserving.
But northern Brooklyn is not brownstone Brooklyn.
We’ve seen the same thing in DC (and seen the impacts of zoning). And we’ve also seen anecdotes of what adding new supply can do to downmarket properties, thanks to the process of filtering.
Each of these strategies at least hold the promise of keeping the market rate housing prices within reach for the middle class. Obviously, the dynamics of these markets are quite complex, and the nature of neighborhood change is not well-understood (not in a way we can forecast, anyway) and the housing market for a given metro area is larger than any one jurisdiction, but the macro signs are quite clear. Given the constraints to supply in the Zoned Zone, removing these regulatory constraints on the market’s ability to add supply seems like an obvious prerequisite to a change in policy.
To Charles Marohn’s concerns about density, and those that fear for San Francisco’s soul: will this new development ensure a quality place? No, probably not. But allowing this kind of growth is a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition.
San Francisco. CC image from C1ssou
A few days ago, Charles Marohn posted “It’s so much more than density” on his Strong Towns blog. In it, Charles pushes back against the idea that density is good, arguing that the reality of great places is more complex. Marohn’s conclusion is spot on, but throughout his post he creates several strawmen arguments, some of which rubbed me the wrong way:
Equating planners with zoners: Charles styles this as “
planners zoners.” In this world, all planners love zoning, and love the available tools that zoning offers. In my professional experience, this is rarely the case.
I’m not sure why
planners zoners are generally so keen on density, but they are, to the point where it often comes across as an obsession. I have a theory. I think a lot of planners zoners yearn to be spatial planners. They go to school to build great places. They get out into the real world and are given this ridiculously blunt instrument — zoning — and are frustrated that they can’t wield it to create Paris. Few stop to ask what zoning regulations were used to create Paris (hint: there weren’t any). Density, especially when given as a bonus for attainment of certain performance objectives, is the closest thing a modern planner zoner gets to their professional roots. We all suffer the consequences.
Perhaps it’s the personalization of this that bugs me, because the analysis of the systems is spot-on. Zoning is a blunt instrument at best, but many of my fellow planners (not merely zoners) do indeed ask about Paris. They understand the limitations of zoning. They are also constrained within the system. They make use of the tools available.
The most realisitic path to change is from within, usually via a zoning re-write like currently underway in DC, or recently completed in Philadelphia. Wholesale repeal of zoning codes seems unrealistic. Even Houston, without Euclidian use zoning still bears many of zoning’s ills through other regulations, such as parking requirements. Change in the regulatory environment is likely to be incremental.
Still, these professionals must contend with pressures on them from various stakeholders. In Philly, the city council is trying to un-do many of the recent changes. In DC, many of the bad practices Marohn decries (using the mindset of zoning as incentive rather than allowance) are urged by residents, not by planners.
Location matters: Regarding the desirability of density, there needs to be a distinction between using bonus density as an incentive and merely allowing greater density and letting the market supply it organically. Part of this confusion might stem from your frame of reference. During the rise of the housing bubble, Paul Krugman made note of America’s two distinct housing markets:
When it comes to housing, however, the United States is really two countries, Flatland and the Zoned Zone.
In Flatland, which occupies the middle of the country, it’s easy to build houses. When the demand for houses rises, Flatland metropolitan areas, which don’t really have traditional downtowns, just sprawl some more. As a result, housing prices are basically determined by the cost of construction. In Flatland, a housing bubble can’t even get started.
But in the Zoned Zone, which lies along the coasts, a combination of high population density and land-use restrictions – hence “zoned” – makes it hard to build new houses. So when people become willing to spend more on houses, say because of a fall in mortgage rates, some houses get built, but the prices of existing houses also go up.
For those of us in the Zoned Zone, simply allowing for more growth (and density) will produce different results than a similar regulatort adjustment in Flatland. Anecdotes of these constraints in expensive cities abound: consider recent articles from Brooklyn and San Francisco, among others.
Marohn notes that density does not cause productivity in places; density is a byproduct of productive (and valuable) places:
A strong town — a productive place — is generally of a higher density than an unproductive place. That financial productivity, however, is not caused by the density. There is a correlation — as productivity goes up, so does density — but one does not cause the other.
Leaving aside the question of correlation vs. causation, nothing in Marohn’s post takes the context of the place and pent-up market demand into account. Two planners talking about the desirability of density could use the same argument, but the location of the planner (Flatland or the Zoned Zone) dramatically changes the impact of that argument. In Flatland, where supply is not constrained, density not supported by the market must be shaped via some sort of regulation. However, urbanists advocating for density in the Zoned Zone are often just asking to remove the constraints that make density illegal.
With that in mind, attacking planners for pushing density without considering their context and market conditions (and the nature of the intervention) can confuse the issue. There’s no doubt that incentives can backfire – zoning is a blunt tool, after all. But that’s not always the motivation when arguing in favor of more density.
Perceptions of density often miss the mark: Marohn also cites the example of urban renewal as a failure of the fetishizing of density. I’m not sure that this narrative holds up to the history, however – at least as it applies to the density of urban renewal projects. As I’ve written before, perceptions of density are often well off from the reality.
This isn’t to endorse either the process or product of urban renewal, but the goals of those projects were often aimed at reducing density and overcrowding.
Beware unintendend consequences: As I noted at the top of this post, I don’t disagree with Marohn’s conclusion at all:
Ultimately, the notion that we can solve the problems that we face in our cities by simply increasing the density requirement in our zoning codes is not just naive, it is dead wrong. Density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one. Building a Strong Towns is a complex undertaking, one that defies a professional silo or a simple solution.
More on Marohn’s follow-up, Density Redux, to follow…
This week, Greater Greater Washington highlighted WMATA’s latest iteration of their new bus map (as post on the first iteration is here), which opts for a diagrammatic representation of the bus network, highlighting frequent, all-day bus services over infrequent and irregulat coverage bus routes.
The new map is a huge improvement of the old one. Digging through the archives, I found this post, with a screencap of roughly the same part of the city – just for the purposes of comparison.
The inspiration for posting about the shortcomings of the WMATA map back in 2010 came after reading Jarrett Walker’s blog. Walker emphasizes the value of frequency, and the importance of highlighting frequent services in an operator’s communications, such as maps. WMATA’s old maps made no such distinctions – in fact, the map highlighted rather useless distinctions, such as whether or not a bus crossed state lines.
The timing of Metro’s release of the new map was fortuitous. Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in Walker’s two-day transit network design course. The exercises in the course force participants to deal with the trade-offs between conflicting goals, limited budgets, constrained geography, and the fundamental geometry of efficient transit service.
(Jarrett has posted reviews of the DC course here – I would definitely recommend the course both for those working on transit/transportation, as well as anyone interested in how cities function)
Old Avis ad in Australia - CC image from Bidgee
Last week’s big transportation news: Avis purchased Zipcar for a cool $500 million. Reaction to the sale is all over the map, with some analysts praising the move and some hating it.
On the ‘pro’ side of the ledger – Felix Salmon:
The acquisition solves a number of problems with the Zipcar model. For one thing, it gives Zipcar easy access to the one thing it needs more than anything else: money. The car-rental business is at heart a financing business: you need to be able to finance the acquisition of new cars, efficiently dispose of them once they get too old and too used, and generally make profits by juggling enormous cashflows both coming in and going out. When you’re a small and risky company like Zipcar, that kind of fleet and cash management is much harder than when you’re a giant like Avis Budget.
The other big problem that Zipcar had was that it couldn’t meet demand at weekends: the company’s slogan is “wheels when you want them”, but in practice the cars tended to be sold out at precisely the times that members really wanted them. By merging with Avis, Zipcar gets to offer its members Avis cars when dedicated Zipcars are unavailable
On the ‘con’ side, pretty much anyone who hates the standard car-renting process – Sarah Lacy:
That’s how much I loathe Avis. As far as I’m concerned they only “try harder” to piss me off. And thanks to a tightly controlled oligopoly, the rest of the rental car world isn’t much better. There’s little innovation or even need to innovate, when a few players control the entire market.
People hate renting cars – myself included. The process stinks all around. Pricing is anything but transparent or simple; even with a reservation you must wait in line; employees are constantly pushing insurance packages of dubious value; you constantly feel like you’re about to get nickel and dimed for a small scratch or a gas tank that’s not quite full – the entire process feels kinda sleazy.
With that in mind, it’s easy to understand the angst of some users (see the concerns voiced in Ben Kabak’s post). From the ‘man on the street’ in this Dealbook summary of the sale: “Please don’t let them screw it up.”
So far, Zipcar is looking to reassure folks they won’t lose that innovative spirit, with the CEO expecting Zipcar to remain a standalone subsidiary, also while announcing plans to offer memberships to the service without the annual fee.
For me, however, Zipcar use is way down. My personal membership expired several years ago. I maintain an account so I can be a member of my employer’s business membership (and will use that service for business trips that require a car), but my personal use is almost non-existent. Conversely, I’ve been using Car2go‘s point-to-point carsharing far more frequently in DC (and I’m not the only one).
Car2go’s service isn’t an exact analogue for Zipcar, however. If you think of carsharing services as a spectrum, between traditional car rentals on one hand (longer terms, frequently used during travel) and short trips within the city on the other (as Car2go’s trips have more in common with taxi rides for DC users than car rentals), there is room for a whole host of products and services, each tailored for a different segment of the travel market.
The spectrum of car-based transport would look something like this:
- Car ownership
- Traditional car rental (home space; by the day)
- Zipcar-type car-sharing (home space; by the hour)
- Car2go-type car-sharing (point-to-point; by the minute)
- For-hire service (taxi, sedan services, etc; by the minute/mile)
Note: there are lots of other models out there, including ones where car owners can offer up their personal vehicle for rentals when they are not using it – sort of an Airbnb for cars.
Zipcar’s current model (where every car rental must begin and end at the same ‘home’ parking space) is more similar to the traditional rental car model, just dispersed to locations around the city, and with the details of the rental handled online and with standardized pricing. Lydia DePillis notes this might not be the cutting edge in carsharing services anymore, but offering a wide variety of useful vehicle types (including the Zipvan) is valuable.
The next evolution for a service like Zipcar would be to offer point-to-point car sharing (rumors hint that Zipcar is interested in this market as well). Fears of Avis turning Zipcar into something more Avis-like are valid, but the opposite could be just as valuable – airport car rentals with the ease of a Zipcar online reservation. Others are working on this very concept as I type.
Even without tailoring a business model to this market, there’s opportunity for disrupting the standard airport-car-rental-while-traveling model. On a recent trip from DC to San Diego, I found myself stuck at my downtown hotel, wanting to get to the beach without the burden of a large taxi fare – an Car2go’s all-electric San Diego fleet (and a membership that works across the country) was there to serve.
No need to deal with the hassle of renting car – my hotel had a free shuttle from the airport. On trips like this (where the beach trip is the only one I wanted a car for), why bother? Perhaps this is a place where a company like Avis can learn from car-sharing.