The Mobility Landscape Has Started To Abruptly Change In Santa Monica Because Of New State Laws Banning Parking Minimums In New Developments.
Parking Wars (part1)
The mobility landscape has started to abruptly change in Santa Monica because of new State laws banning parking minimums in new developments. Your City previously had already instituted parking maximums: you could not have over a specific number of cars per project. But now your city is not allowed to require even minimum on site parking requirements within specified distances to mass transit facilities (major bus stops and Metro stations). This prohibition of parking covers about 90% of your city. What this means is that sufficient parking will not be provided for new developments whether they be small accessory dwelling units in single family districts or massive 96 units projects in 14 story high rises (1007 Lincoln).
These laws were instituted with the illusion that reducing the cost of construction by providing less parking in a project will translate to lower rents for oppressed tenants. This is simply not the case. Developers will take the savings in construction cost, but not pass them on to tenants: why should they unless they are a non profit housing provider? The tenants are left to fend for themselves to find their own parking by paying more somewhere else or by hiking longer distances to get home. That long distance hiking means some other street will be overloaded and the overload then ripples for blocks around until it collides with the overload coming from another under parked building. Needless to say this is when the parking wars get ugly.
Dropping Parking Demand?
The proposed high rise at 1007 Lincoln has nominally 20 spaces (many of which are bogus and not truly accessible) while normally 141 spaces would be allowed (required). This deficient parking count will be the norm for the projects we will see in the build out of the 9000 units the State says we need to provide in the next 8 years. It’s an inconvenient truth that the tenants or condo owners that are and can pay market rate for the 80% of the units in these new buildings, are virtually all going to have cars which will need to be parked somewhere. Even if those cars are eventually (in a universe far far away) self driving, shared cars , or Uber/Lyfts they have to be parked somewhere. In the best of cases the parking load may be cut down say an optimistic 40% but not a magical 85%. These State laws are a delusional attempt to make the car disappear: if we don’t build it (parking spaces) they (the car) won’t come.
But the car won’t magically disappear for three interlocking reasons. First is that there are no effective public transportation options equal to the speed of the car. Whether your family is doing the weekly shopping, delivering a handicapped relative to a doctor’s appointment, or going to a job in the valley (1 1/2 hour oneway trip by bus) all of these simple tasks require a car if you are to get there and back in a timely manner. In our ultra busy lives there is no item (particularly when we are running late) that beats the convenience of the car in spite of our “normal” traffic congestion. For example in spite of the billions invested in the Expo line and in spite of the peak hour gridlock on the 10, it is still faster to drive to downtown LA and back the majority of the time. Another way of saying this is that in a 2019 study by LA Metro said they’re hoping to, at some time in the future, reach a level of convenience where public buses run at only 2 1/2 times the speed of the car. The operant word is “only”. Today having a car already brings 34 times more jobs within a half hour drive than by mass transit. Cars provide incredible convenience and time savings particularly for people (eg families) with intense time commitments. No other alternative even comes close. But why aren’t people willing to use a cargo bike, hire a taxi, or sit in an RTD bus for 3 hours a day?
Visibility, viruses and violence
The main disincentive to leaving the car is safety. While your City seems perfect for bicycles (it’s relatively flat, has good weather and is still relatively open for threading bike lanes through its streets) people do not ride bikes because they simply do not feel safe. They do not believe they will be seen by drivers in time to avoid an accident that’s inevitably serious or even fatal for the bike rider. Small child riders are particularly vulnerable being a small object of low visibility in increasingly congested urban areas. Hence parents drive their kids to school when they could easily take a bike to school. Micromobilty devices (scooters, electric bikes, motorcycles etc,) suffer from the same threat of low visibility but their speed (fast moving things attract our attention more than stationary objects), mandatory helmets, and larger size somewhat protects them, but collisions when they occur are equally or often more dangerous.
The next threat are viruses. From Covid we learned that packing people in crowded buses, planes or trains guarantees fast propagation of any airborne pandemic. Most mass transit systems have yet to recover ridership to pre pandemic levels and you can be sure that Covid like pandemics will periodically crush a mass transit system at irregular intervals. In other words Covid is not a one off (its still here) but probably a regular part of any mass transit system’s challenges. Again people who have the choice of driving a car feel safer during a pandemic than sitting next to coughing strangers.
Finally all travelers fear violence. Although Covid has killed about 300 Santa Monicans (0.3 % of our population), you can probably survive a virus if you are lucky, vaccinated, and have no risk factors, But violence can create instantaneous permanent damage and even death. It’s not just the terrifying nightmare of a lone women hiking in a dark alley from her lonely parking space to her distant apartment. Even in broad daylight, surrounded by people, violence regularly occurs. A few weeks ago, a male commuter had his head bashed in with a skateboard by a gang of eight juveniles. This happened at our metro station with 20 people passively standing by, no sheriffs in sight and at 11:15 in the morning. This rider had been taking the same route for three years. While two perpetrators were arrested by SMPD, they were issued citations and released. We all know similar vicious anecdotes, so this is not sensational fear mongering: it’s unfortunately just the world we live in. In spite of our hopes for the Metro line’s potential, it has been damaged by its current role as a temporary housing for homeless residents (every night 59 are discharged at the end of our Expo line.), by riders with mental illness and with anti social behavior and by out right criminality. It’s unclear if the Expo line (and bus lines) will recover from their damaged reputation for being unsafe.
So the automobile provides us visibility, insulates us from viruses and protects us like a suit of armor from the threat of violence. It’s not going to disappear until we solve problems of homelessness, pandemic response, and criminality. Paradoxically owning a car is one of the best predictors that you will get out of homelessness. So in a dangerous world, people who can afford it, are simply not giving up the protection a car delivers everyday. Very few people are willing to sacrifice their personal safety while society struggles to solve its historically intractable social problems. We know the car is killing us with pollution (less so if its electric with renewable power sources), with resource extraction, with time loss and with accidents, but those appear distant threats compared to our present every day safety concerns.
Finally the main reason we resist giving up our car is inertia. We are so conditioned to its omni presence. Detroit has fetishized the car for over a century. Our entire City is laid out on an automobile scale, not a pedestrian scale. The car signals wealth or power or hipness or whatever self image you want present to the world. It signals liberation when you first get your driver’s license and teenagers take low paying jobs just to have money to pay for their rolling bedroom. It symbolizes freedom to roam the country at will or when we simply need to “get out of Dodge”. We are conditioned that happiness is a full tank of gas and the news media loves to scare us whenever the cost of gas goes up. Capitalism quakes whenever Tesla or any manufacturer fails to meet its production or sales targets.
Convenience, safety, and inertia keep us attached to our cars. In other words we Angelenos are automobile addicts in the same way, but for different reasons, we are addicted to our cell phones and social media. But for every addiction there is a 12 step program. Tune in next week for Part 2 of this article for possible solutions to this addiction.
By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA
S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Planning Commissioner,, Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.
For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing