There are turning moments in the urban paradigm whereby all that was “normal” before gets swept away and is replaced by a new version of “normal”. I think we are in the midst of a paradigm shift to a new normal with respect to parking and streets in central cities.
We saw this once in the 70’s when the anti-freeway mobilizers successfully beat down the Spadina Expressway in Toronto. This inspired decades of courage to residents of Canadian cities coast to coast to object to road building. It was only a partial victory of course. Freeways were renamed parkways, or arterials. The Hunt Club road is a freeway in many respects but name. Road widenings and intersection widenings galloped across the urban landscape with renewed vigor, wreaking a path of urban destruction that is apparent even to my mother.
Then came the tear down the freeway movements. New York and San Francisco successfully removed urban freeways and discovered the world did not come to an end. In fact, the city seemed rather better for it.
We see evidence today that urban car travel may have peaked. I noticed when fighting the Bronson widening, that traffic counts over the last decade were flat or even declining. That didn’t stop skeptics (like The Citizen or CFRA) from claiming we couldn’t fix Bronson. Yet funny enough, after the engineers crunched the numbers, gosh golly gee, Bronson between Gladstone and Laurier would work just fine with 3 lanes, we didn’t actually need 4. Mind, that didn’t make The Citizen editorials or talk radio rants. I provided the link earlier to the coming realization within the city traffic engineer circles that their traditional practices may be wrong*. This isn’t — yet — stopping the city from promoting the AVTC, widening Carling, and this summer, studying how to widen Albert west of the core.
When debating the Laurier separated bike lanes, the residents of QE Towers marshalled their forces to demand the city continue to provide free or cheap parking as it was “too expensive” for them to provide their own. A number of councillors and observers thought my presentation (pointing out that the condo parking garage sat vastly underutilized) was an important contributing argument to their defeat and raising public awareness.
In NYC, a huge urban parking garage designed to park commuters and stadium attendees sits empty and at risk of bankruptcy because … people prefer to walk or take the subway. There is now talk of how to demolish or repurpose parking structures that we have over-supplied in the past.**
And here from Vancouver, the wacky wet coast, comes a thoughtful review of the parking situation out there. The conclusions: traffic volume is dropping; people are switching to other modes (like walking); there are too many parking garages and lots. Notice that this isn’t the cycle riding pinkos speaking, its the City’s director of transportation discovering that his city-owned lots are in oversupply and that transit is responsible for freeing up parking lots for redevelopment: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/city/2011/03/12/new-life-unused-parking-lots. I wonder if The Citzen would care to reprint that?
This will surely come as a major surprise to the Bank Street and other BIA’s that are still married to thought that any customer who comes by car is more important than others. They have yet to discover that the most important customer is the repeat customer who makes the least demands on the infrastructure — and that is rarely the motorist. Their rear-guard actions will change though because they are ultimately market driven. The City though, is more dangerous, because it plays with other people’s money.
While individual battles and lost decisions are discouraging in the struggle for a better city, it is comforting to know that the trends are going the right way, at least in some other parts of the world. It makes it a bit easier to keep on fighting.
* confessions of a traffic engineer, http://westsideaction.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/design-exercise-i/