Monday, July 18, 2011

Zoning and Transportation

A common criticism of zoning is its often-asinine parking requirements. Why, for example, should every new rowhome on an urban block have to have space for a vehicle--which in practice always means a garage? This emotional question is one which commonly initiates zoning reforms--yet, by the end of the process, community input from organizations who are continually worried about their neighborhoods' parking conditions--how hard it is to find a spot--will always ask for the re-inclusion of those exact same parking requirements, thereby frustrating the goals of transit activists, conservationists, New Urbanist planners, and others trying to shift the transportation mode share away from cars and more towards more sustainable modes, such as walking, biking, and mass transit.

To that end, the bonusing system of highest-density zones in many cities involves cutting parking requirements when alternative transportation access is included. This often comes in the forms of bike parking and/or access to local mass transit stations and concourses. In initial rezoning, these bonuses are structured such that they can potentially eliminate parking requirements altogether; yet after the community review process they come out so mangled they barely reduce parking, and hence promote alternative mode shares, at all.

Cap'n Transit today suggests a new approach: creation of zoning mirrors that either (a) eliminate parking or (b) promotes transit, by requiring a direct contribution to the local mass transit agency of roughly the amount it costs to add a garage. The full set of mirrors he suggests increases the number of possible zones, however, which would undermine another goal of zoning reform--reducing the number, and complexity, of zones to make the system more legible to both developers and community organizations.

When the use of mirrors is seen in light of this counter-demand, however, a new idea comes to mind: why not just rethink what we mean by parking requirements? For the provisioning of parking requirements is nothing more--and nothing less--than a policy meant to ensure transportation access to and from the site by the resident, patron, employee, whatever. It is thus intended to ensure economic access through the means of zoning. But the high autocentrism of the language--the way the requirements have been warped, either accidentally or deliberately--undercuts the aspiration behind providing this requirement in the first place. Parking requirements--instead of transportation access requirements--are an ossified remnant of the grand 1950s ideal that driving would be truly liberating.

The simpler way to offer what Cap'n Transit is suggesting is, thus, to simply offer a menu of different classes of transportation access instead of simply requiring parking. A developer could offer (a) parking to every unit or (b) a bike parking facility or (c) insurance of transit access via a grant to the local mass transportation agency to ensure a continuance of service, of roughly the per-unit cost of a garage or carport, or (d) a mix-and-match of the above options. Any options, by themselves, would be by right; mixing and matching would trigger a minor variance (to ensure that the percentages being allotted to each mode is in line with city mode-share desires). Transportation access requirements would then be built on the framework parking minimums offer, while superseding the detrimental effects, when scaled, those minimums create. It is also far simple to insert, and interpret, a transportation access table with different expectations and requirements pertaining to access of each mode at the beginning (or end) of the code, than it is to overstuff the code with reams of variant zones whose only purpose is to delineate different classes of transportation access.

1 comment:

  1. This proposed method sounds very similar in some respects to a "fee in lieu of parking" arrangement that's been adopted in many cities (including my own, in one commercial area). Businesses simply pay the city a fee for each required parking space they don't provide. It is not necessarily an ideal solution -- complaints about how the city spends that revenue are constant -- but seems to be an improvement over mandatory on-site parking, certainly as far as new development is concerned.