Archive | Jane Jacobs

Pok Pok Parking & Yogi Berra’s Lament

Andy Ricker, the mastermind behind some of the best chicken wings you’ll ever taste, caused quite a stir this week when he opined that allowing development along SE Division Street without accordingly requiring creation of new parking was, “a really stupid idea.”

This is not an uncommon sentiment among people who own retail-based businesses in the city. In fact, a portion of my professional practice (albeit a small one) focuses on helping entrepreneurs find creative solutions to precisely this problem. Parking spaces equal customers, the thinking goes, and so an undersupply of available parking is tantamount to a hard cap on one’s potential customer base.

You can see how this line of thought misses the forest for the trees, however. When we start asking the hard questions around increasing parking supply—Where will we put this new parking? Who will pay the real costs of building and maintaining it? And what opportunity cost does it represent?—it becomes clear that what folks actually pine for isn’t a real neighborhood with ample parking—that’d be an unlivable mess—but the fairytale neighborhoods embodied by the latest installment of the SimCity game where all the parking you could ever want is both free and invisible.

In this fantasy, cars simply disappear altogether when not in use, so we are free to ignore the consequences in travelling predominantly in 15-foot by 7-foot metal boxes that sit idle 95% of the time. But in the real world, of course, we do not have abracadabra parking, so we must carefully consider the various trade-offs involved in decisions around increasing parking supply. Luckily, we’ve got any number of examples to look to for insights about how various parking decisions affect other aspects of urban life and vibrancy. The close-in neighborhoods of Portland, parking headaches and all, are home to far too many amazing eateries, breweries, and shops to count. If a lack of parking were such a restricting factor, wouldn’t we see more of these sorts of attractions springing to life in areas where parking supply is not at issue? Yet suburban strip malls continue to be dominated by Panda Expresses and Subways, while all the cool stuff springs up in parts of the city where it’s impossible to park. Why is that?

As usual, Donald Shoup summarizes the answer neatly [pdf], earning bonus points by quoting Jane Jacobs in the process. In describing the benefits of a long walk to parking (or indeed, of not driving at all), Shoup observes:

The presence of open shops and people on the street encourages other people to be out as well. People want to be on streets with other people, and they avoid streets that are empty, because empty streets are eerie and menacing. Although the absence of parking requirements does not guarantee a vibrant area, their presence certainly inhibits it. “The more downtown is broken up and interspersed with parking lots and garages,” Jane Jacobs argued in 1961, “the duller and deader it becomes … and there is nothing more repellent than a dead downtown.”

In other words, providing an abundant supply of parking is a detriment to precisely the sort of sidewalk life that inspires innovative businesses like Pok Pok, and attracts the customer bases that make them so successful. The demand for the parking that is not supplied likely would have never materialized in the first place if not for the very dearth of parking at issue.

It’s no surprise, then, that the business owners most loudly lamenting the lack of parking are some of the most successful ones that Portland has produced. The problem they perceive is the one that Yogi Berra once cited as the reason he no longer dined at St. Louis icon Rigazzi’s: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

We can and should look at better ways to manage the existing parking supply along the SE Division corridor and our other fast-growing neighborhoods. But threatening the character of a neighborhood so that one might solve Yogi Berra’s lament would be, if I may say so, a really stupid idea.

The American Conservative and the 50th anniversary of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

This year is the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Influential conservative magazine The American Conservative (a conservative political organ which hasn’t been given over to Tea Party reactionaryism) has an interesting article commemorating the occasion. Of particular interest to Portlanders, even if you disagree with every word of it, is this bit by TAC transportation expert William Lind:

The first three chapters of Jane Jacobs’s definitive book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are on sidewalks. Had she lived in a city other than New York and written thirty years earlier, her fourth chapter might have been on streetcars.

New York had streetcars, but unlike other American cities it also had (and has) a comprehensive transport system. Subways and streetcars have somewhat different urban functions, but New York City’s subways did ensure that, once the streetcars were gone, public transportation remained the choice for most New Yorkers.

Elsewhere, the ripping up of streetcar lines and their replacement with buses also ripped the urban fabric. Most people like riding streetcars, but almost no one likes riding a bus. The substitution of buses for electric streetcars drove most former streetcar riders to drive.

When people took the streetcar to town — and every American city or town with 5,000 or more people once had streetcars — they also spent a lot of time on Jane Jacobs’ all-important sidewalks. There, they performed multiple functions: eyes on the street, office worker, restaurant diner, shopper, theater-goer and more.

Once they drove into the city, their time on sidewalks dropped and with it shrank the number of roles they filled. They drove as close to their (usually single) destination as they could, parked, and walked only as far as necessary. When their business was done, their car drew them like a magnet and as soon as they could press the starter pedal they were gone. Stores, restaurants, and theaters moved to the suburbs where parking was easier. In time offices followed, and the city’s sidewalks emptied except for the occasional beggar or wino. My home city, Cleveland, lost its streetcars in 1953, and the downtown’s decline began. If Ohio had tumbleweeds, they would now blow down Euclid Avenue.

Cities such as Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin that have brought streetcars back have found the sidewalks come to life again. So have shops, theaters and restaurants. Streetcars are pedestrian facilitators, more so than subways. People walk, take the streetcar, then get off and walk some more.

Cities need streetcars. They are not a cure-all; if people do not feel safe on city sidewalks, nothing will move them to walk there. But if a city can restore order, streetcars are more likely to fill its sidewalks with people than anything else.

Lind repeats a point made by many others about streetcars: they are an extension of the sidewalk. Personally, I would like to think that busses can also play the same role (and in many cities, including Portland, they do). One point which must be made, and is made in Zef’s article on the trolleybus, and in this site about Portland’s old trolleybus system (thanks to Douglas K.) which was dismantled three years before Jacobs’ book was published, is that back when many legacy streetcar and trolleybus systems were converted to gas-powered bus; the busses of the time were noisy, foul-smelling things; far more so than modern diesels (let alone hybrids).

Often we here get wrapped up on regional transit solutions–light rail, commuter rail, express bus, and BRT–and treat the stopping patterns of local service as a liability. It is a liability when one must depend on local service for longer-distance routes; but it must be remembered that quality local service is an important assert for any urban area.