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The lowdown on parking in Uptown

As Becks and I have written, we and other pedestrian advocates are opposed to the construction of a surface parking lot on Telegraph Avenue at 19th St, next to the Fox Theater. The one hundred or so spaces created by this ugly lot could be found by better using existing parking resources, including the several nearby parking structures, or by extending parking meter times. The issue is not parking in the abstract, but urban design and transportation planning. At the City Council committee hearing at which the members postponed approving the lot, Pat Kernighan observed that “Oakland is not Manhattan,” and that parking is needed for Oaklanders to come from all over the city to enjoy Uptown. I do not disagree, but because 90% of trips are not going to car-free, does that mean 90% of trips must be by car? Parking is more complicated than being for it or against it. Though surface parking next to the Fox is not acceptable not matter how dolled up in flowers, planning for parking can be a boon for bicyclists and pedestrians. 

The main argument against surface parking is that it is a pedestrian hazard, and its prominence may have some driving-inducing effects. Surface parking is a pedestrian hazard in three main ways: curb-cuts allow cars to cross the sidewalk, surface parking lots are often magnets for crime, and traffic swarming around the lot will make crossing the street more dangerous. Additionally, surface lots symbolize disinvestment, and a lot on Telegraph would entirely ruin the pedestrian experience of up-and-coming Uptown. All of these objections do not apply as well, or at all, to structured parking. Portland OR has a great deal of structured parking in its transit-oriented downtown, but it is appropriately located and designed. I would not necessarily oppose structured parking in the Uptown area, as it is more efficient use of valuable downtown land than surface parking, and can integrate retail or other uses.

Not planning, but parking

The Redevelopment Agency apparently agrees, though their appetite for structured parking is insatiable. In addition to the lot under contract with Forest City for which they want surface parking, the RDA controls three lots downtown, for all of which it is in preliminary talks to dispose and develop. The three lots are 21st and Telegraph, 20th and San Pablo, and 21st and Broadway. For all three the RDA envisions structured public parking as a major component of development. This has been arrived at by no analysis or even guesstimate of parking demand; the RDA justifies their call for surface parking on Telegraph by asserting that because there were hundreds of parking spaces where The Uptown Apartments now sit, and those spaces have been replaced by new development (including parking), therefore there is a “severe parking shortage” now. That is not planning, and certainly not becoming to an allegedly transit-first city. Before requiring all future development of Uptown Redevelopment lots to include public parking, Uptown’s demand for parking should be studied in the context of overall transportation patterns and existing parking resources. It is possible that parking demand may require an additional parking structure, and, as part of an informed look at Uptown circulation, this could be a benefit to pedestrians as well.

What induces parking demand is not parking itself, but artificially cheap parking. Imposing minimum parking requirements, subsidizing parking facilities, setting meter or public lot rates lower than market rates, and planning for an overly large number of parking spaces, are all government actions that weight transportation choices in favor of driving a car. But an appropriate amount of parking, at market rates and in response to market demand, does not necessarily encourage people to drive rather than take transit or other means, but allows commercial districts to meet actual parking demand and be more economically successful. The economic success of transit-oriented neighborhoods in an inherently green endeavor, even if most customers are not taking transit. Without artificially-cheap or overly-abundant parking, well-conceived alternative transportation can compete with driving, and punitive anti-car regulations are unnecessary.

Putting the car before the house

Just as lot parking is worse than structured parking from a pedestrian perspective, and the main problem with building Uptown structured parking lots is that it is not part of a transportation plan, the idea that parking is inherently problematic can lead to a misunderstanding of the relative harm of different kinds of parking. In January, there was a brief tussle in San Francisco over a 36-unit development receiving permission to exceed San Francisco’s maximum parking requirements. In this case, the developer wasn’t arguing only that there is demand for more than one space for every other unit, but also that building so little parking would make it infeasible to put it underground, and so preclude pedestrian-oriented streetfront retail. It was a tussle because progressive San Franciscans were aghast at the prospect of parking. But what SF’s bike-ped activists miss is that advocating for a 21st-century streetscape does not mean blindly opposing the construction of new parking.

While I do not drive, I don’t think that owning a car forces someone to live a lifestyle that is bad for the environment. One can take transit to work, walk to restaurants, bike the grocery store, and still have a car for the occasional trip out of town or to Ikea. In the case of the aforementioned housing development, its residents were effectively being asked to give up their cars in order to live near transit, a position that will not smooth the transition of cities to transit-dependence. And since it’s unrealistic to demand that residents of any particular new building not even own a car, using the planning process to artificially lower the construction of off-street parking will simply encourage dependency on curbside parking. It is not private parking, but curbside parking that poses the greatest opportunity and real costs on bicyclists and pedestrians, and on car drivers and mass transit as well.

A car-park off the street is worth two in the street

In-street parking is the most harmful kind of parking because its presence in the street necessarily takes away from other transportation options. While lot parking, and structured parking to a lesser degree, may be an inefficient use of land parcels, street parking uses the precious, and severely limited, public right-of-way. The linear (street width) space devoted to car parking on a major street necessarily takes away from sidewalk, bike lanes, or lanes for motorized traffic (including cars, taxis, buses, and light-rail). Street parking’s impact on bike lanes is increased by almost one-half by the “door zone,” the area of the public street occasionally occupied by open car doors, which pose a particular danger to cyclists. A well-built bike lane does not use this space and so has to push even further into the shared right-of-way.

Curbside car parking also imposes a congestion impact beyond the opportunity cost of using its space for moving traffic. The act of parallel parking slows circulation, and the potential convenience of curbside parking over off-street parking encourages unnecessary car driving, circling the block looking for a space. While parking structures, whether stand-alone or as part of mixed-use buildings, plan the locations of their entrances and exits based at least in part on optimal circulation, street parking is haphazardly littered across major streets, with parking absent only when it is a huge and obvious barrier to other forms of transportation. Even in areas with abundant off-street parking and severe traffic congestion (like College or Piedmont Avenues), the majority of the main street is lined with car parking.

Street parking’s impact on other forms of transportation that share the right-of-way is worse than the possible driving-inducing effects of structured parking. If some amount of parking is needed for commercial districts to thrive, careful planning should guide decisions to install transportation facilities. The Redevelopment Agency must study how much parking is actually needed in Uptown before deciding that every single one of its lots should have a large parking component, and a surface lot is simply too ugly to front Telegraph Avenue. But some new public parking is probably needed in Uptown, and it’s no environmental crime to own a car. If off-street structured parking is built, rather than adding to existing street parking, new parking can replace it.  Removing curbside parking as part of building off-street parking can create additional bicycle and pedestrian facilities: widened sidewalks and door zone-free bike lanes. And that’s how car parking can be good for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Posted in blogoaksphere, california, citycouncil, development, downtown, kernighan, oakland, san francisco, transportation.

11 Responses

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  1. Jessica says

    As a lazy driver, I’d love to see parking above or below some ground-level retail. I think the parking model at Whole Foods on Harrison is great. Lots of spots on the roof of a thriving business…

  2. dto510 says

    Integrating structured parking as part of a well-designed urban retail space is a good model, and does not harm the pedestrian experience (unless there’s so much parking it really is inducing more driving than otherwise would occur). A wild, wild rumor has a certain bidder on the 20th and San Pablo lot wanting to combine the parking structure with a bowling alley and pinball arcade.

  3. Steve Carney says

    What’s your alternate recommendation for an interim use on this site? A park, keep it vacant, temporary structures?

  4. Frankie D says

    What Oakland needs is a complete inventory of all available downtown parking, privately owned and public, on street and off street. In my opinion DTO is way overparked and there are currently ample parking options in Uptown. Many of the commerical lots are finally beginning to stay open after business hours. I think too many of the decision makers for Oakland are too CARcentric. I just read in today’s Montclarion that two Council members are considering eliminating car allowances to help balance the budget. “CAR ALLOWANCES”, that policy should have ended last century. I’m no anti car advocate, I own two and usually drive somewhere at least once a day but the burden of paying for them and parking them is predominatley on me and it should be. And when its to expensive to drive I have options like public transit, riding a bike and walking which I do whenever I can because its a quality of life issue. No we are not Manhattan but we’re also not Fremont, Concord or Barstow this city needs to aim higher.

  5. Becks says

    Thanks for the in depth post dto!

    Steve – you might want to check out my post the Uptown empty lot to read dozens of suggestions from readers of what to use the lot for, instead of a surface parking lot. I think some innovative ideas were proposed.

  6. Mark D. says

    I agree with the concept that the City should do a parking inventory of the dense commercial areas and incorporate parking needs into zoning and planning.

    I think of the Fruitvale BART when I think of poorly planned parking. There is a bunch of great retail space in the area, but BART built their parking garage so that BART users do not walk by any of the retail space to get to the parking. Don’t get me wrong, drivers still have to walk past a bunch of busses, so it is not like the parking is super-close.

    We have recently been using the car more to deal with a new baby, now almost 8 months old. I am blown away by how much free street parking there is in Oakland. I frequently find a free 2 hour space just a block or so from my wife’s uptown office. There are a ton of free parking spaces right next to Lake Merrit. I hope Oakland gets it together and starts making some money off of the parking. The new kiosks, that have eliminated so much bike parking, in another poor planning fiasco, will allow the city to charge different prices for parking at different times.

    Thanks for the great post on the nuances of parking. Maybe this would all get addressed by a transportation cammittee if we had one.

  7. dto510 says

    Mark D, thanks for sharing your perspective, and for pointing out how the issue of parking is nuanced. BART’s approach to parking is backwards (the East Bay is going to pay for parking but not the outer suburbs, according to the most recent budget proposal), but with a holistic view of transportation and urban design, there is potential for a win-win solution for pedestrians and parking.

    Steve, I honestly think that a vacant lot with a construction fence is more attractive than surface parking. A construction fence signifies potential; surface parking, disinvestment. But there are some more exciting ideas at

    Frankie – such a document exists, I helped make one when I was a researcher for a commercial real estate brokerage! I’ll try to dig it up, but honestly Redevelopment should already know.

  8. Mike in Oakland says

    Ad hoc discussion of parking lots isn’t very useful.

    Parking policy should be based on an overall city transportation plan which is linked to regional transportation planning. Some comments seem to recognize this.

    Unfortunately we have no substantive local or regional plans for increasing walking, biking and using public transit. Each transportation agency looks out for its own mostly reactionary economic interests. This means mostly creating more parking spaces which generate income.

    Oakland, like the rest of the Bay Area, is a perfect place for walking, bicycling and public transit. Gentle climate, supposedly progressive citizens. Yet we act just like we are living in Houston, Detroit or L.A.

    Wait a second, L.A. has actually been spending a lot of money on transit in recent years.

    We are very far behind in our thinking about urban planning and transportation. We’re still living in the 1950s.

  9. Quercki M. Singer says

    What Oakland needs is a complete inventory of all available downtown parking, privately owned and public, on street and off street.

    Oakland had a parking commission. I talked to someone who was on it, but I just searched the city website and can’t find it.

    I agree that we need to consider all forms of transportation in planning our city. Encouraging non-car transit is important, provided there are parking places for those that need to use cars. (I’ve given up going to SF where I won’t be able to find parking, unless it’s very convenient to the transbay bus or BART.)

  10. Joanna says

    I don’t know about a parking commission, but I was on the parking task force for Dellums and it was a sad experience. Nothing we did was taken into consideration. I had (or still have) hopes that since Ms. Lakryth-Thompson is no longer there that things might change, but parking revenue (including revenue from parking tickets) is seen as the gold at the end of the rainbow in this town. And while Mark above mentions that he wishes our City would make some money from parking, I’ll say that Oakland does make SERIOUS money off of parking. But the way they do it is odd. I agree that we could make more, but we need to do it in a better way.

    We have the highest dollar per hour parking meter costs – higher than SF – but yet we have lots of areas, such as around the lake, where parking is free. We have some of the highest parking fines across the country, and those are going up or have gone up since I did my research. I’m not particularly bothered by the high fines, but I do have some questions about our collection rates and how we collect. I tried to learn more, but no one was willing to share info. This was a few years ago now, so maybe things have changed.

    Also on the task force was someone from parking enforcement, and the info from her was very helpful. We don’t equally enforce all areas, and all zones. I saw one document that was for a particular zone of enforcement. It told the enforcement person what to enforce and what not to enforce. Huh? That made no sense to me. Seemed like it was special favors and not clear who gave out this document.

    Last night we went into SF for dinner in the Richmond district and parked in a surface lot. Irony! I saw how crappy it was for people trying to get into and out of the lot; how crappy it was for people trying to walk along the sidewalk there; and while I’m sure it’s great for the restaurants in that area, it seems a public garage with retail on the ground level might have been a better situation.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Rezoning downtown, for better and for worse | A Better Oakland linked to this post on April 15, 2009

    [...] this for 10 months, we would not now have to be fighting with the City to stop them from building a new surface parking lot on Telegraph [...]