There is an article in today’s LA Times that talks about a move to reduce the parking requirements of various kinds of retail. This is very interesting and could begin to push people to reduce driving. In parallel, there are a few laws on the books in California that require denser development in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now denser development by itself will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and may in fact make things worse if everybody keeps driving to exactly what they do now (imagine…more destinations crammed into a smaller space means more cars on the same streets means more traffic means more emissions). But, if denser development is paired with reduced parking requirements, there is even more incentive to leave the car home for a trip or two (as there will be nowhere to park it when you get there).
The problem with the car is that it is pretty excellent. In order to get people to substitute some walking and biking for a car trip, the car choice will have to suck a lot more than it currently does. That can only be accomplished in a few ways: raise the cost or scarcity of parking, toll travel on the roads, raise the price of fuel, or reduce the supply of roadway. But making driving a little bit worse that it is now won’t cut it, because here in Southern California all other modes of travel are a lot worse.
I bicycle to work every day, except for the occasional day here or there, and I fully realize how limiting bicycling is. In a car I would think nothing of making a side trip to the store on the way home, or performing other household errands. But on a bike, even with an excellent Atlantis with racks and bags, running to the store will add 30 minutes of travel time, plus add extra weight that my legs have to propel. Cars are better, faster, and cheaper for commuting to work, but I prefer to get exercise (and basically I’m stubborn and have a high tolerance for pain).
For short trips near our house, the bike should be excellent. My kids go to school about a mile and a half from our house, and there are restaurants and shops well within a mile of us. But where I live (Costa Mesa, in Orange County, CA), the parking lots and streets are so heavily car-oriented that my kids are afraid to cross the two major streets that close off our subdivision.
For example, Google Maps informs me that just 1.6 miles from my house there is a super awesome coffee bar (Portola Coffee) right next to a gelato place and some of the best pastries in Orange County. The problem is that the 1.6 mile route requires cycling on Harbor Boulevard for most of the way. There is a handy bike path along a flood control channel that we can use, but then the trip becomes 3.1 miles! Double the distance on a bike is difficult, and a strong disincentive when compared to the fast, easy, cheap, and efficient automobile. Even bribery with ice cream or pastries won’t work more than once a month.
Reducing parking requirements is a good baby step towards reducing the relative superiority of the automobile. I’m pretty happy that is finally happening, but not much is going to change with respect to emissions and parking lot oriented development without a lot more parallel measures and a lot more citizen led initiatives. If people are happy in their cars, plain old traffic and difficult parking conditions here and there isn’t going to get them to walk or bike. I’m interested to see how OCTA, SCAG, and so on, will increase development density in the coming years.
(And I’d still like to do some bike touring closer to home than Amsterdam.)