Toronto’s new zoning code

by Stephen Smith

Matt Yglesias points to an article about Toronto’s new zoning code. The story is short on details, although the lowering of parking minimums near transit and overall simplification of the code seem like appealing features to Market Urbanists. I did, however, find a blog post from last year about the proposed changes, which has a lot more details. Keep in mind that this is from last year and so it might not still be relevant, but if anyone’s interested in digging a little deeper into the new code, there’s a good place to start.

This part, though, is not very encouraging:

The new zoning also takes a more coherent approach to minimum parking provisions, requiring a lot less parking for condos/apartments or office buildings that are in the downtown core or on heavy transit lines. Many new projects don’t need the amount of parking required by zoning, and developers would be glad not to pay the extra cost to provide it. But the overall reduction in minimum parking requirements is disappointingly limited — the planner in charge of the project, Joe D’Abramo, estimated it at about 10% less compared to previous requirements.

There also seems to be a lot of New Urbanist-style regulation – for example, making it more difficult to build drive-thrus and driveways – that we don’t necessarily support. When you look at the revisions as a whole I doubt that there’s more urban-forcing than urban-allowing, but I do wish that they’d work harder on repealing things like parking minimums and density restrictions before trying mandate density. Even if the mandatory New Urbanist regulations are minor, they give ammo to people like Randal O’Toole and the Cato/Reason bunch to claim that urbanism is being forced down people’s throats rather than simply being allowed. New Urbanist planners might not have faith in the market to build densely if left to its own devices, but we do.

Parking round-up

by Stephen Smith

At the risk of beating the parking theme deader than the Ground Zero Mosque, here are some recent parking-related stories published around the world:

  • The NYC DOT’s Park Smart program has been called a success in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, and officials are considering making the program permanent and expanding it to more streets. Donald Shoup is quoted as saying that rates may still be too low, and the DOT has suggested raising the rate even further.
  • The Park Smart program also expanded to Manhattan’s Upper East Side in June, with rates ranging from $2.50 to $3.75/hour. As Streetsblog points out, though, this is still a steal compared to the $22/hour that one private garage charges, indicating that street parking is still massively underpriced.
  • Towns and cities across the UK (“at least 150 councils”) are raising the price of on-street parking and yearly parking passes in order to plug budget deficits. The Telegraph article makes no mention of any Shoupian benefits, and small businesses and “motoring organisations” are, predictably, opposing the moves. The Independent claims that many cities, including Bristol, York, and Leeds, are planning “to charge for parking at workplaces.”
  • Pittsburgh is considering a 50-year concession agreement for its on-street and garage parking assets, which would almost certainly involve raising rates, although “the city would retain the right to revise fees.” City-owned garages currently charge 25% less than private garages. As in the UK, this deal is mostly out of fiscal necessity. Here is an article comparing the proposal to Chicago’s parking concession, which we discussed in 2008.
  • Philadelphia apparently has about 400 illegal parking lots according to local news reports. The city’s Licenses & Inspections office, charged with regulating lots, apparently doesn’t have a single inspector looking for them. This wouldn’t normally bother us here at Market Urbanism, but I have a feeling that the city’s a bit more vigilant when it comes to buildings built without the requisite parking or setbacks.

Why does the Infrastructurist hate libertarians so much?

by Stephen Smith

Among urban planners, libertarianism gets a pretty bad rap. Melissa Lafsky at the Infrastructurist goes so far as to call libertarianism “an enemy of infrastructure,” and dismisses entirely the idea that private industry can build infrastructure with a single hyperlink – to a poorly-written article on New Zealand’s economy written over a decade ago that barely says a word about transportation, land use, or infrastructure. She goes on to criticize the Reason Foundation’s transportation writers (something we too have done), and with it, negates entirely libertarianism’s contributions to urbanism.

Here at Market Urbanism we’re used to these sorts of attacks from the left, and we work tirelessly to disassociate ourselves (well, mostly) from Reason’s brand of (sub)urbanist libertarianism. Normally I wouldn’t expend so much effort, but the Infrastructurist is a blog that I read daily and we’ve linked to them approvingly over the years, so I figured it merited a rebuttal.

To start, I would recommend that Melissa bone up on her history. At least in North America, every great intracity mass transit system was build by private enterprise, almost without exception. From subways to streetcars, private enterprise showed a willingness and eagerness to build and profit from rail-based transit. Sure, the systems weren’t totally private and unregulated (exclusive franchise monopolies were often granted by municipal governments, among other interventions), but the system was far more “private” than the current mostly-suburban road/automobile transportation system that Reason and many other self-identified libertarians champion.

While many progressives today like to blame the demise of rail-based transit on GM, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil (what I like to call the Who Framed Roger Rabbit theory of urbanist history), the truth is that progressives themselves were the ones who really did mass transit in. Through populist measures like the mandatory five-cent fare and costly pro-union regulations, planners hobbled the “traction magnates” with onerous regulations that were not applied to the nascent bus and jitney industries. This shift away from rail-based transit was accompanied by the rise in sprawl-promoting zoning and parking requirements. The Nation, which is now known to decry sprawl, was an adamant supporter of mandating it through zoning back in 1920, and was not above using coded racism to bolster its position.

Aside from her curious reading of urban history, Melissa Lafsky appears to have a very narrow picture of what constitutes the libertarian position on transportation and land use. Her description of the Reason Foundation’s take on urbanism is admittedly quite apt, but her assumption that Reason’s viewpoint is the only libertarian one couldn’t be farther from the truth. I can understand if she doesn’t read our blog, but surely she should have read her own blog’s favorable take on Tyler Cowen – one of the most prominent intellectual libertarians and owner of the most popular economics blog of all time – and his NYT column on America’s free parking glut. The debate has even spilled out of the libertarian and transit blogospheres and into Newsweek and Matt Yglesias’ blog, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Melissa’s post.

So feel free to call out the Reason Foundation for its whacky positions on urbanism – lord knows we’ve filled many pages doing it. But please don’t assume that libertarianism (or even Reason, whose magazine once called Jane Jacobs “one of the greatest libertarians of the last century”) is a monolithic entity without any redeeming urbanist qualities, and that this fact is so self-evident that you don’t need to seek out more than one organization’s opinion. Might we suggest adding our blog to your feed reader?

Shoupistas take Los Angeles

by Stephen Smith

Donald Shoup and his arguments about free and underpriced parking have been getting quite a bit of press recently, and it looks like Shoup’s hometown of Los Angeles has surpassed San Francisco (with its SFpark initiative) as the largest city in America to adopt some of his proposals:

The yearlong ExpressPark program, slated to begin next summer, will use not only new meters but also a network of wireless pavement sensors to keep track of parked vehicles in real time. The sensors will help transportation officials determine which meters are in use and which have expired. Eventually, roadside signs will guide motorists to empty spaces in municipal parking garages and lots.

The program — which involves only city-owned parking in a 4.5-square-mile area — will feature adjustable parking rates, or “dynamic pricing.” In other words, when parking demand increases, meter rates increase; when demand drops, rates drop.

“ExpressPark will allow Los Angeles to take the lead in testing new ways to manage curb parking,” said Donald C. Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning and a longtime proponent of pricing based on supply and demand. [...]

“What we’re striving for is pricing such that 85% of meters are occupied and 15% are open,” said Peer Ghent, senior management analyst with the meter operations division of the city’s Department of Transportation, or LADOT.

That 85/15 number is straight out of Shoup’s book, so it’s a good sign that they plan to hew relatively closely to his ideas, at least in regards to city-managed spots.

One thing that I do wonder is whether this will be paired with an attempt to cut back on LA’s parking minimums, which are surprisingly pervasive in America’s second-largest city. If not (and I don’t see any indication, either in the LA Times article or elsewhere, that comprehensive parking minimum reform in LA is on the table), and if there are many more private-but-mandated parking spaces than there are city-owned ones, the availability of privately-owned spaces could prevent these public spots from charging anywhere near the true market price for parking.

(HT: Planetizen)

Even Midtown Manhattan not immune to anti-density NIMBYism

by Stephen Smith

In general, I think of Manhattan below Central Park as perhaps the freest place in America in terms of land use restrictions. There are no minimum parking regulations, zoning variances are relatively easy to get, and FAR restrictions are relatively generous. Historical preservation designations sometimes limit redevelopment, but other than that, developers have a relatively free hand to…develop.

That is, unless you’re talking about building a tall skyscraper within 17 blocks of the Empire State Building:

The owners of the Empire State Building, Anthony E. and Peter L. Malkin, even want a 17-block no-go zone surrounding their 1,250-foot tall tower. This would prevent Vornado Realty Trust, which wants to erect the new building on Seventh Avenue, or any other developer, from putting up a similarly oversize building in the zone.

The City Planning Commission has already approved Vornado’s plan for a tower, called 15 Penn Plaza, opposite Pennsylvania Station. It would be 56 percent larger than what would ordinarily be allowed, in keeping with the city’s desire to promote high-density development close to transit hubs. But Community Board 5, whose district includes the area, did not approve. A committee at the board said the developer had not provided a rationale for such a large zoning bonus, especially since it did not have a tenant and might not build for years.

While we at Market Urbanism are generally not fans of tying density bonuses to private improvement of public infrastructure, we should note that part of the quid-pro-quo for the government allowing the building is that the developer make improvements to Penn Station “worth more than $100 million,” which would be lost if the project is not approved.

(HT: Infrastructurist)

Edit: I may have overstated the freeness of Manhattan’s land use situation – see the comments section for a more nuanced and enlightened discussion of the barriers to development in America’s densest neighborhoods.

Edit II: Reason has prevailed, and the project was approved.

Private Buses: Econtalk Takes A Second look at Santiago

Back a couple years ago, I noted an Econtalk podcast with Russell Roberts and Duke University Professor Mike Munger on the private bus system in Santiago, Chile.  This week’s episode starts with Munger’s update on the Santiago transportation system after visiting for three weeks and spending a lot of time traveling the city’s buses and transit.  This discussion comes at a perfect time to follow-up on Stephen Smith’s post on private busing in New York.

Munger and Roberts discussed the advantages and problems of the evolution of the system over the years.  In the case of the private system with over 3,000 competing private bus companies, accidents and injuries were common, and pollution was problematic.  However, the regulation and publicization of the buses led to unintended consequences that were probably far worse than the drawbacks of the private system.  Unfortunately, although the administration has apologized for the failures of the system, it would be politically impossible to revert to some of the beneficial aspects of the private system.

New empirical evidence that parking minimums encourage sprawl

by Stephen Smith

Although we at Market Urbanism are big fans of Donald Shoup’s work on parking minimums, we have to admit that rigorous econometric evidence that parking minimums mandate more parking than the market would otherwise supply has been a bit lacking. Randal O’Toole at The Antiplanner quite rightly asks to see empirical proof that parking minimums are binding. Tyler Cowen appears to have found this proof, in the form of paper posted online very recently which seeks to determine whether or not non-residential developers in Los Angeles County build more parking than they would in the absence of minimum parking mandates. Here’s the second half of the abstract, emphasis mine:

[To] our knowledge the existing literature does not test the effect of parking minimums on the amount of lot space devoted to parking beyond a few case studies. This paper tests the hypothesis that parking space requirements cause an oversupply of parking by examining the implicit marginal value of land allocated to parking spaces. This is an indirect test of the effects of parking requirements that is similar to Glaeser and Gyourko (2003). A simple theoretical model shows that the marginal value of additional parking to the sale price should be equal to the cost of land plus the cost of parking construction. We estimate the marginal values of parking and lot area with spatial methods using a large data set from the Los Angeles area non-residential property sales and find that for most of the property types the marginal value of parking is significantly below that of the parcel area. This evidence supports the contention that minimum parking requirements significantly increase the amount of parcel area devoted to parking.

The study ends up finding that at least half of all non-commercial properties have more parking than they would otherwise choose, and that the excess can oftentimes be quite large.

In the aforementioned link, Randal O’Toole suggested that Shoup’s residency in Los Angeles might be biasing his research, since the City of Los Angeles is quite dense indeed. This study, however, uses a large dataset with data points from all over the County of Los Angeles, home to almost 10 million people, or over a quarter of all Californians. (Many more live in other dense areas, like San Diego and the Bay Area.) And in fact certain parts of the paper focus solely on suburban areas, and claim to be undercounting some of the denser areas where the discrepancy between what the market would choose and what the law currently dictates would be even greater. One example of properties that were dropped from the study were properties for which the FAR, or floor area ratios, regulations were even more restrictive in terms of density than the parking minimums, making marginal analysis impossible. These properties tended to be downtown, where the parking minimums are most likely to be binding.

I’d be interested to see if this econometric evidence changes The Antiplanner’s mind about which pro-sprawl regulations are relevant constraints on density and which are not. I will admit that O’Toole has far more patience with numbers and equations than do I, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he caught something that I didn’t, but to the extent that I understand them, the authors’ methods appear sound to me. I’ve e-mailed Randal and asked him for his opinion, and if he responds, I’ll let you readers know either here or in a new post.

Must Read: The Demand Curve for Sprawl Slopes Downward

Sandy Ikeda’s latest article at FEE’s “The Freeman” is a great summary of the libertarian sprawl debate.

There has been a lot of Internet chatter lately about what libertarians ought to think about urban sprawl and its causes, including pieces by Kevin Carson, Austin Bramwell, Randal O’Toole, and Matthew Yglesias. The title of Ben Adler’s post basically sums it up: “If You Love the Free Market, You Should Hate Mandated Suburban Sprawl.”

Sandy includes a mention of the ongoing minimum parking debate. Sandy concludes that the more the government subsidizes items related to low-density development, the more low-density development we’ll get.

But the bottom line is that the law of demand still holds – other things equal, the cheaper you make something the more of it people will want to buy, and that includes low-density development. You’ll get more of that, too, if those direct and indirect subsidies make it cheaper for people to get it. Government intervention has done just that, and it’s hard to understand how you can argue, whether you’re a proponent or (especially) an opponent of Smart Growth, that the free market alone is responsible for the amount of sprawl that we actually have.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Smart Growth regulations are the place to begin. Instead, if you think sprawl is a bad thing, it would seem logical to first remove the vast array of interventions that over the decades have pushed it along.

On this, I would have thought all market urbanists could agree.

Well said!