I keep hearing about how Angelenos are giving up their cars in favor of other means of travel. But really it looks like traffic all over the city is steadily getting worse. In spite of the fact that our public transit is slowly improving. In spite of the fact that we have more bike lanes than ever. In spite of all the hype about ride-sharing services. To me it looks like there are more people driving in LA than ever before.
Part of the reason for this is that there are more people in LA than ever before. The City’s population is around 3.9 million, with more arriving every day. But let’s face it, most Angelenos are not ready to give up their cars just yet. There are many reasons for this. For the vast majority of Angelenos I’ve spoken to, taking public transit still means at least doubling your commute time.* And citizens looking for affordable housing are having to look farther and farther away from the City’s center, making public transit more time consuming. Practical reasons aside, though, a lot of people who live in LA just love their cars. They love the freedom of going wherever they want whenever they want. They love being able to shut out the world around them. They love having a set of wheels that makes a statement about who they are or how big their bank account is. And so they’re willing to spend a large part of their paycheck to have a car, even if most of the time their car is sitting idle.
Think about it. Even if you spend two hours commuting each way every day, that means your car is parked in a lot or on the street for twenty hours a day. Seems kind of wasteful, doesn’t it? And speaking of wasteful, look at the enormous amounts of space we set aside for parking. Shopping malls, stadiums, beaches and other destinations often provide massive lots just so people can park their cars. For parking structures, the average cost per space in the US is about $15,000, though it can go much higher. This means that parking alone can increase the price tag for development by hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And in the case of residential development, this cost is passed along to the renter or buyer.
Of course, most people don’t think about this, which is why there’s a school of thought that says developers ought to stop bundling the price of parking with the price of a residential unit. In other words, you’d pay for your new condo by itself, with no parking, and then decide if you wanted to purchase a parking space to go with it. This sounds logical. With this approach, buyers have to think about the cost of parking their car, and the idea is that some of them will dump their car to save money.
But not everybody’s buying it. In LA these days, developers are encouraged by city planners to pitch projects with reduced parking in the hope that this will encourage use of public transit. I’ve been to a number of meetings where project reps try to sell this idea to local residents, and local residents are always against it. Why? Because they believe that a lot of buyers will forego the parking space to save money, and just leave their car on the street, making it even harder for the locals who already struggle to find parking. Advocates of transit oriented density (TOD) argue in favor of projects with reduced parking, saying that parking cost and availability influence transit ridership, but there’s no conclusive evidence. There are many things that affect transit usage, and no one has proven that this is a major factor.
Parking is a huge problem in LA, and even though I don’t own a car, I sympathize with people who sometimes have to circle their block repeatedly to find a space. Transit advocates will say they should dump their vehicle and buy an MTA pass, but that’s not feasible for everybody. Some people have jobs that require a car. And those who work night shifts or graveyard shifts, say restaurant workers or security guards, may not be willing to ride public transit late at night. Having spent many hours standing on desolate street corners in the small hours, I can understand their reluctance. The number of busses that run after midnight is limited, and they only run once an hour. The subways shut down around one.
There are some encouraging signs. A number of people have chosen to give up their wheels and ride public transit instead. Car sharing services like Zipcar are becoming more popular. Apparently a lot of kids in their teens are willing to wait on a driver’s license because they’re happy socializing over their smartphones.
But we’ve still got a long way to go. For all the benefits cars offer, they suck up way too much of our resources. And in a city as crowded as LA, one of our most important resources is space. How many thousands of acres have we paved with asphalt just so we can have a place to leave our cars?
There’s got to be a better way.
* Some readers have taken issue with this statement. See comments below for details.