Thursday, April 20, 2006

How much do we pay for parking?

If we compare land value to parking mandates, we can get an estimate of the cost that we spend for parking. has some nice data about home values, including assessment information. We can see how much land is valued by the assesors in Brooklyn and Sunnyvale.

942 Chehalis, Sunnyvale. bldg: 356,949 (1965 sqft) lot: 535,926 (7840 sqft)

Property cost per square foot: $68.36 (Though this assessment is a few years old, so it would be even higher today.)

210 Bergen St, Brooklyn NY 11217 261183: bldg 2052 sqft 49850: land 1800 sqft In Brooklyn, an assessed value is $27.69. Factoring in a recent sale price of 885,000, an adjusted land value comes out as $78.79 per square foot (if we assume difference factor is equally applied to land and building). So the land value in Sunnyvale is in the same range as that in Brooklyn.

Now on to what Sunnyvale requires.

From the Sunnyvale Parking Standards:

The parking requirement in a residential area is: “2 covered spaces per unit, plus 2 uncovered spaces on driveway (minimum dimensions 17 ft. x 20 ft.). “

“A two-car garage shall have a minimum area of at least four hundred square feet. “

Based on the above value, this parking costs at least $50,586 in land costs alone. Even if somebody does not own a single car they are required to provide space for the cars. I wonder what the reaction would be if somebody offered the city $50k to waive the parking requirement.

The problem with Prop 13

It limits property tax, allowing only very minimal increases while the property is owned. This poses a few problems:

  1. Schools get most of their funding from property taxes. This limits their available funding and encourages them to look for other sources of revenue. It is beneficial for the school districts to close neighborhood schools and rent them out to private schools. It is even more helpful if this encourages more people to attend the private school instead of the neighborhood school. Not only do they get rent from the private school, they have fewer children to educate in the public schools.

  2. Schools and communities get more revenue if prices rise and there is high turn over in the housing market. However, the constituency is made up of people that have lived there a long time and pay low taxes. These people are also more reluctant to encourage change. They are happy to see a limited supply. After all, excess demand drives up the value of their 'nest egg', while not incurring any costs.

  3. Because homeowners tend to stay in one place a long time, and demand a steady stream of services, cities have an incentive to discourage homes. Businesses are preferred because they demand fewer services. (Retail even provides sales tax revenue)

  4. Cities with large amounts of new construction can provide excellent services because the property tax rate is high. Thus, there end up being large clusters of homes in one location – usually where clusters of business are lacking.

  5. The people who have the most influence in municipal decision making are typically those that have lived there the longest. However, those that have lived there the longest typically pay the lowest property taxes. Thus, they are often using other people's money.

  6. Any shortfall in taxes must come from somewhere. Thus often ends up being from sales tax (which encourages big box regional retail as opposed to local stores), or from other state sources (which encourages the state to interfere and make mandates. These mandates often drive down quality and drive up costs of education, thus driving more to private school, and shuttering local neighborhood schools.)

  7. The 1% cap on assessed value limits variations in cities for tax purposes. However, special taxes have been added on top of the 1% to pay for other things. The 2% annual increase limit means that a homeowner's real tax rate will either go down or stay the same – if they stay in the same case. (An exemption allows those over age 55 to transfer their assessment to another house – but only in the same county. Thus there is some mobility, though it is limited by age and county.) Thus there is a strong incentive for homeowners to remain in the same house – even if the location, neighborhood, or house size is less than ideal. In theory this could provide for stability in neighborhoods. However, many residents are relative newcomers with little community affinity. Furthermore, the car-based culture encourages isolation and limited community contacts. The residents may also be attached to jobs outside of the community, further increasing congestion.

  8. New residents have a more limited selection of real estate. This can be especially vexing as industries change in communities. City A may be filled with people who worked for a company which has now moved to City B. Meanwhile, people that are working in City A may have to live in City B because of the limited real estate options.

Proposition 13 grew out of a tax revolt. Property values were increasing rapidly, and with taxes based on value, the property taxes were also increasing rapidly. Cities and schools had services to provide and they were attempting to provide them. Property values grew in part due to supply and demand. People wanted to live in certain areas (often those with good schools and close to work). However, there was limited availability. And the main reason for limited availability was the excessive space devoted to the car. The car devotion also drove up need for taxes. (The cities needed some source to pay for all those wide roads.) What if, instead of fighting taxes, the revolters simply fought for a reduction in the car subsidy?

An ironic twist is that the tax revolt was lead by the 'small' government crowd. However, since it attacked the symptoms (increasing taxes) instead of the source (poor planning that causes increasing property values), it has resulted in more government. Now there is a huge school bureaucracy enabled by the huge increase in state control over school funding. With housing more expensive, subsidized housing becomes more prominent. People must go through the government to be eligible for subsidized housing. Developers are encouraged to provide some below-market-rate housing. (which means that the 'market rate' housing is more expensive.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Solving the traffic congestion problem

I should probably stop being amazed at what comes as an excuse for 'reducing traffic congestion'. The problem is simple: Too many cars on the same roads at the same time cause trips to take longer and cause pollution. The 'solutions', however, are where the problems usually arise.

If the goal is to reduce pollution, having the highest emitting vehicles on the road for the least amount of time would seem like a good solution. So we should have express lanes for high polluters, while letting the low polluters sit in traffic for a while. However, the opposite is done. The low polluting hybrids can use carpool lanes, thus allowing them to move quickly. However, they would emit the least pollution if they were stuck in traffic. Meanwhile the high-polluting SUVs and trucks are sitting in the slow lane, spewing out a huge amount of pollution.

Ok - the desire of allowing hybrids to use the 'fast lanes' may not be to reduce the local pollution, but instead to encourage more people to drive 'less polluting' vehicles. However, if that is the case, why do the roads that have the carpool lanes often prohibit the least-polluting vehicles. Pedestrians and Bicycles pollute much less than even the most efficient cars, yet they are barred from the freeways. Meanwhile, high polluting cars are permitted. If the policy was to encourage the most efficient vehicles, why not flip it around and ban any car that is in the top 25% of emitters? Or perhaps even factor in passengers, and restrict it based on emissions per passenger.

Another factor is travel speed. This is the factor that tends to be most visible to people. If their commute takes longer, people get upset. Methods for reducing commute time include expanding and 'upgrading' roads and attempting to reduce the number of vehicles traveling at peak times. Expansion and upgrading of roads can be problematic for psychological reasons. As congestion increases gradually, people can gradually grow to expect the commute to take longer. They become acclimated to a longer commute, while at the same time, they lobby for improvements to reduce the congestion. The improvements get made, and the commute time is briefly shorter. However, they have already become acclimated to the longer commute, and are thus willing to travel an even greater distance because it can now be made in the same amount of time as previously. Soon congestion worsens and the cycle repeats.

Improvements also have their collateral damage. New lanes take up space. That space can no longer be used for other purposes, thus spreading out other development and increasing trip lengths. Furthermore, limited access freeways have limited access and limited crossing. As roads are upgraded, some trips to access them may be longer. Some users may be shut out of roads, and some shuttered cross streets may cut off access, or increase trip length. Car will generally add distance to their trip to access the freeways, while some non-car trips will be eliminated. Even small 'improvements' like adding sensors to intersections or giving long light-cycles to main streets will reduce access at cross streets. In addition to slowing these trips it can discourage what would be short non-car trips, and transform them to car trips.

This leaves the option of moving people out of their cars. It seems a carrot or stick approach could be used. The bridge tolls are a carrot approach. However, they have significant flaws. If you drive in a carpool during rush hour their is no toll. However, there is no incentive to carpool outside of rush hour. Thus, car pools our encouraged to travel during peak travel time. Furthermore, carpool lanes are only in effect during rush hour, thus a carpool that could easily travel outside of rush hour is encouraged to travel during rush hour for possibly faster travel time, and lower tolls. Similarly, drivers in carpools have an incentive to travel at 8:30 to use the carpool lane, rather than 9:00 when all lanes open up.

There are also attempts to encourage people to use public transportation. In New Jersey, they wanted to encourage transit as opposed to bicycles. The rationale being that the roads were too dangerous. Of course, most job areas in Jersey are suburban office parks, while the commute to New York and Philly are often made by people driving to park and ride lots. Thus, transit use is part of what is making the bike commute 'dangerous' in their eyes. Furthermore, the most viable transit use is to support out-of-state businesses. (Last year, I stayed at a hotel in Seacaucus, New Jersey. Though it was quite close to the Newark airport, the transit service to EWR was quite limited. On the other hand, there was frequent transit service to Manhattan, and it was easier to make the long transit haul from LGA than the short trip from EWR. The bus traveled from the New York bus station to a giant park and ride, and then on to the hotel area. Both the park and ride and hotel area were fairly isolated and surrounded by freeways, thus allowing very little easy non-vehicular access.)

Transit in Santa Clara county is also problematic. VTA has relatively high fares, especially for the level of service provided. (A base fare of $1.75 with no transfers available.) It also has an extremely low farebox recovery ratio (in the teens). The system is primarily low-frequency, slow suburban bus service, with some express bus and light rail service. A switch to transit will in most cases entail a slower commute, and put more restrictions on travel time. The trips may also be more expensive. (Even more so if the huge VTA subsidy is factored in.) In most cases, an individual commuter could save time and money by driving alone.

A core problem with transit is the sprawled out nature of development, and the low cost of driving. Furthermore, in spite of the huge cost of land, parking reigns supreme. Sunnyvale requires all houses to have four parking spaces (two indoor and two outdoor), yet it still is reluctant to do anything that would reduce on-street parking. (Bike lanes on Homestead are only part time in order to preserve parking.) A homeowner on The Dalles was prevented from expanding their home because of the increased inside parking requirement :
The rationale was that they could not grant a reduced setback of 14 feet for the property, even though the neighbors had no problems. Ironically, a few blocks away, a house freely exists with zero setback from the sidewalk. However, this must be ok because the actual 'front' of the house is not on that sidewalk. And Sunnyvale even requires remodeled homes to add to the car space ( However, in these ordinances there is no mention of the number of cars owned or used. They just want to reduce on-street parking. Why not just charge for on-street parking? That would probably do much more to reduce the cars parked curb-side. Or better yet, just make them no-parking zones. That would be a much cheaper way to reduce the on-street 'clutter', as well as allow for expansion of sidewalks and bike lanes.

Silicon Valley is 50% residential, 20% commercial/industrial, and 30% public (roads, parks, schools)
It would interesting the calculate the huge subsidy that is given to cars in the form of the parking requirements.

It's interesting to see the parking requirements that Sunnyvale has:
The few carrots - parking at businesses can be cut by 5% if bicycle parking and showers are available.

What if the city set all current minimums as maximum parking? And required 50% of it be devoted to bicycles? And required homeowners to buy 4 bikes instead of building 4 parking spaces? You would have a lot of people really angry at a change in the status quo. But, you would also do a lot to reduce the demand for car trips. However, other changes would need to be made. Zoning must be improved to put more people close to their work. (Office and retail space should be near residences.) Schools must be improved. (It's ironic that many of the Sunnyvale schools are leased out to private schools. The schools are bad, put children still need to be educated. So people pay taxes to the school district, and then pay tuition which also goes to the district in the form of rent. And they get nothing out of it. Meanwhile their neighbors have poor public schools that they must attend, where they spend most of the time testing instead of learning. What if the school district was required to reimburse tuition of any in-district in-former-zone student attending the private school? This could reduce the congestion around the school, and provide for better learning experiences.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Free valet parking at BART

BART is offering free valet parking at the Pleasant Hill station.
So at this station, the cost of BART to provide parking likely exceeds the cost that to provide a trip.
So, instead of paying $3.00 to park in Walnut creek, you can drive to Pleasant Hill, get free valet parking, and spend $2.80 to take part to Walnut creek.

Walnut Creek is considering raising their parking costs so the value may be even greater.

The problem with parking at transit stations is that it likely results in worse traffic conditions:
1) Instead of driving a short distance on local roads to get to the freeway to continue a trip, transit users, drive a longer distance on local roads to get to the transit station.
2) Parking space at the transit station consumers space that could be used by other uses (close-to-transit housing, retail, offices, etc.)
3) Congestion at the transit station also make it more inconvenient for non-drivers, increasing the likelihood that they will drive.
4) Increased drivers on local roads make conditions worse for pedestrians and bicyclists, thus increasing the likelihood that they will drive instead biking or walking, thus making traffic even worse.