Remember my response yesterday to Randal O’Toole’s Cato article on parking, when I said that I could easily write a three-part series? Not a joke! (Though I might spare you and leave the trilogy unfinished. Maybe.)
Today, I’d like to take on O’Toole’s comments on California, which he argues is too dense and hostile to automobiles to say anything about the real America:
While New York City is very dense, its suburbs are not, so it is not the densest, or even the second or third densest, urban area in America. Instead, that title goes to Los Angeles, followed by San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose—the locations of most of Dr. Shoup’s other examples. Thanks to urban-growth boundaries that are now mandatory for California cities, whatever happens there is hardly representative of much of the rest of America.
He also said something similar in a comment he left on a Market Urbanism post last August about an empirical paper that found that a large portion of the parking in Los Angeles County (population: 10 million) was built because of minimum parking regulations:
I’ve said it before, but Los Angeles is hardly typical of the rest of the U.S. It is the densest urban area in the country (and not just the city is dense). Beyond that, my more important point is that developers build parking lots everywhere, not just where there are parking minimums.
My problem here is that O’Toole is using the literal definition of “density” – that is, average density. But this is just a shorthand for what really matters when you decide whether you need a car or not (and developers decide how much parking they need to build to maximize profits): walkability and access to mass transit. We often use “density” as shorthand for auto-orientedness, but it only really serves as a good metric over very small spaces. When you start looking at metro areas, though, its utility declines.
Paul Mees and Jarrett Walker have written about this to death, and it can get a little tricky to think about, but I think the best way to grasp it is with an example. Say you have two metro areas with the same population and same area, but with one where everyone’s concentrated in one city with only few people scattered around the suburbs, and another where everyone’s the same distance from each other. They’ll both have the same average density (population divided by area), but clearly one will be walkable and one will not be. Obviously this is a stylized example, but similar dynamics inevitably play out in the real world. California’s suburbs may be dense, but they’re still built in a very suburban style and are thus largely unwalkable. Much of this effect is achieved through separation of uses and the road network: Even if you live at Manhattan densities, you’re going to need 100% parking if the road network is all cul-de-sacs and limited-access highways with low connectivity and mixed uses are not allowed.
All of this is to say, Los Angeles’ high average density seems like a flimsy reason to disregard one of the few (two, by my count – the other looks at Queens) empirical studies on the effects of parking minimums. And while it’s true that California has urban growth boundaries that make it relatively unusual among American cities, it’s also true that the same anti-growth environmental forces also put in place some pretty anti-growth policies in the already built-up areas, so it’s not at all clear that the net effect is to make the place less car-oriented. I’ve never spent any appreciable time in the state, so maybe I’ve just been deceived by Hollywood and everyone I know and everything I’ve ever read, but I’d bet that it is indeed at least of average auto-orientedness for American metropolitan areas. If density in Los Angeles County is hobbled by parking minimums, then I see no reason to think that the same wouldn’t apply for similar parking minimums in metro areas throughout the rest of America.