how sim city greenwashes parking

 Here's a shot of an edge city from the new SimCity. Notice what's missing?

2 WATC close up
  (Source: BLDGBLOG)

From Geoff Manaugh's interview of the new SimCity's designer, Stone Librande:

Geoff Manaugh: While you were making those measurements of different real-world cities, did you discover any surprising patterns or spatial relationships?

Librande: Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots. 

Manaugh: You would be making SimParkingLot, rather than SimCity.

Librande: [laughs] Exactly. So what we do in the game is that we just imagine they are underground. We do have parking lots in the game, and we do try to scale them—so, if you have a little grocery store, we’ll put six or seven parking spots on the side, and, if you have a big convention center or a big pro stadium, they’ll have what seem like really big lots—but they’re nowhere near what a real grocery store or pro stadium would have. We had to do the best we could do and still make the game look attractive. 

In other words:  SimCity deliberately misleads players about parking because if they showed parking in its true dimensions, it might make dysfunctional land use patterns look (and act) dysfunctional.  

And we can't have that.  

Sim City contains other examples where the real math underlying how cities work is distorted to appeal to supposedly prevailing prejudices, but few are as egregious as this one.  Practically any working urban planner will tell you that managing parking, without a SimCity tooth fairy that builds it for free underground, is a dominant factor in urban form and perhaps the biggest single obstacle to denser and more sustainable forms of development.  Change that assumption, as SimCity does, and you're working in fairyland.

And it's refreshing to hear the designer confess that the distortion is intentional — a lie rather than a confusion.  

Game makers can say it's only a game, just as movies that glorify violence are only movies.  But like movies, seemingly realistic and immersive simulation games teach people to misunderstand how the world works in a way that makes them less effective in dealing with the world.  Of course, SimCity has been doing this  – with an explicitly anti-urban bias that belies its name — since the beginning.

the photo that explains almost everything (updated!)

You've seen photos like this. A large group of people, with images comparing the amount of precious urban space they take depending on the mode of transport they use.  This new one is by Australia's Cycling Promotion Fund.


This photo makes at least three important points, two of them probably not intended.  In this one image you can see that:

  • Bike racks on buses (and most other transit) can never be more than a niche market

The rack on the bus in pic #1 carries two bikes, which is great for those two people.  But if all the bikes in pic #2 try to get onto the bus in pic #1, we have a geometric impossibility.  Bike racks are already as large as they can be if the driver is still to be far enough forward to drive safely.  A non-folding bike inside a transit vehicle takes the space of several passengers, so could fairly be accommodated only at several times the fare.  In the ideal sustainable future, you will have to park your bike at the station, or return your rental bike, just as Europeans do.  If transit does accommodate your bike, you really should pay a fare premium that reflects the rough number of passenger spaces displaced, or the supply/demand ratio for 2-3 bike racks vs 20 people wanting to use them.

 Dreamers along these lines may well be right about many suburban areas, where demand is sparse and the land use pattern precludes efficient transit.  But when all the people in this picture want to travel, driverless cars may take less space than the cars shown here, but they will still take far more space than a bus would.  The scarcity of space per person is part of the very definition of a city, as distinct from suburbia or rural area, so the efficiency with which transport options use that space will always be the paramount issue.  

(Of course, this very thought experiment presumes that we will actually achieve, and culturally accept, driverless cars that require very little space between them, in which the prevention of ghastly accidents — especially with pedestrians and bikes who may appear with zero warning and minimal stopping distance — is achieved through the absolute infallibility of human-designed hardware and software.)

To make the same point more generally:

  • In cities, urban space is the ultimate currency.  

We spend too much time talking about what things cost in dollars and not enough about what they cost in space.  That, of course, is because urban space is perversely priced to encourage inefficient uses of it and discourage efficient ones.  If you're going to claim to be able to visualize how technology will change the world of 2040 — as the techno-futurists claim to do — you should also visualize what a political system ruled by people now under 40 would look like.  These people are much less emotionally attached to cars, care about environmental outcomes much more, and value urban space much more than their parents do.  Given that the revolution in urban pricing has already begun (see the London and Singapore congestion charges, and the San Francisco and Auckland dynamic parking systems), isn't it foolish to assume that today's assumptions about how we apportion urban space will still rule your techno-utopia?

UPDATE:  A reader points out one other key point, which is that

  • the photo understates the space requirements of bikes compared to the other two.  

Once you put these three systems in motion, the cars and bus will need more space in one dimension — forward and back.  However, in motion, the mass of bikes will expand in two dimensions, it will need to be both longer and wider for all the bikes to move safely.  This could have been rectified in the photo by consciously spacing the bikes to a distance where riders would feel comfortable at a brisk cycling speed that ensures not only stopping distance but also space for passing.  Masses of cyclists on a recreational ride may all agree to ride in tight formation at the same speed, but in daily life cycling infrastructure must accommodate the the fact that people in a cycling crowd will have different desires and intentions around speed, which affects lateral spacing and stopping distance.

the price is right: market-based parking comes to new zealand (guest post)

This guest post is by my friend and colleague Stuart Donovan, with whom I've worked on a range of excellent transit planning projects over the years.  Stuart is the head of the New Zealand office of MRCagney consultants, a credentialed engineer, and the manager of numerous successful transit and transport policy research projects around New Zealand and beyond.

Parking pricesFor me parking is like sex, money, and
religion – it’s one of those things you avoid bringing up in polite
conversation. The reason is that most cities have an over-supply of
under-priced parking, yet most inhabitants of those cities believe exactly the
opposite; that there is never enough parking.

Changing this belief is tough work. A large
part of it seems to reflect a common assumption that even as cities grow they will
be able to continue to provide similar levels of parking as they have had in
the past. Deeper analysis suggests this assumption is invalid.

It’s invalid because economic and geometric
realities prevent cities from expanding their parking at the same rate as they
grow. In terms of off-street parking, higher land values tend to squeeze out space-intensive
activities. In terms of on-street parking, limited kerb space and a range of
competing uses, such as bus stops, constrains the degree to which more on-street
parking can be provided.

For these two reasons, the supply of off-
and on-street parking will always struggle to keep pace with the rate that cities
grow. And of course combining constrained
with growing demand will
almost inexorably lead to higher prices.
This economic relationship is the main reason why larger cities tend to command
higher parking prices, other factors remaining equal.

During the 1950s many cities tried to subvert
this economic equation. They implemented regulations that required new developments
to provide large amounts of off-street parking. But minimum parking
requirements simply meant that the cost of parking was paid for by developers,
instead of users. The cost of parking was quite simply subsumed elsewhere in
the economy.

Minimum parking requirements had a number
of unintended impacts. Their primary impact was to create an over-supply of
parking and lower the direct cost of parking for drivers. In this way, minimum
parking requirements actually made a difficult problem even more challenging,
because – over several decades – they have reinforced people’s cultural
expectation for cheap parking.

Transport planners recognise that parking
is a key influence on the travel decisions that people make. Aside from access
to a vehicle, the price and availability of parking is probably the single most
important determinant of whether people choose to drive.

So people who are passionate advocates for more
efficient passenger transit, such as most readers of this blog, should also be
passionate about addressing our parking issues. It’s hard to avoid the fact
that abundant parking and efficient passenger transit are mutually exclusive

But what can we do to address parking issues?

The solution to off-street parking supply seems
quite clear: Cities should remove minimum parking requirements and allow developers
to determine how much off-street parking they need for their development. This will
usually be less than what minimum parking requirements currently stipulate.

Progress towards the removal of minimum
parking requirements has already occurred in a number of cities around the
world. My home city of Auckland, New Zealand (population circa 1.5 million)
removed minimum parking requirements in the city centre in 1996 and has not looked
back: More people now use passenger transit to access the city centre in peak
hour than use private vehicles.

Fewer cities have made progress, however, with
the way they manage on-street parking. Most still rely on time-limits (e.g. one
hour) overlaid with paid parking. The combination of time-limits and paid
parking creates an inconvenient situation, e.g. when your visit to the dentist
takes 2 hours instead of 45 minutes you may return to your car to find that in
addition to having holes where you wisdom teeth used to be your wallet has been
further emptied by a parking infringement.

Reforming on-street parking policies often become
bogged down in comments from residents and businesses about parking being “too
expensive.” And when confronted with such questions many parking reform
proposals die an unnatural death. But most discussions of cost focus only on
the hourly rate, rather than the cost of infringements. I would argue that the
latter needs to be included in discussions of cost, because it drastically
changes the nature of the conversation.

Until recently San Francisco was the only city
that had really forged ahead with major on-street parking reforms, under the
measured encouragement of Donald Shoup and aided by a federal transport
research grant. San Francisco’s approach to on-street parking reforms is brilliant
in its simplicity: They recognised that time-limits were a relatively inefficient
way of managing demand, especially in areas where pay parking also applied.

In most locations with pay parking, San
Francisco has sought to remove time-limits. In these areas they now rely almost
solely on prices to manage demand: If demand goes up then hourly rates also go
up, and vice versa. If you’re interested you can (and should!) read more about
San Francisco’s trail-blazing approach to on-street parking policy on the SFpark website. The most interesting result is
that revenue from meters went up, but revenue from infringements went down.

So San Francisco had effectively
substituted meter revenue for infringement revenue; and while many people hate
paying for parking, in my experience they have an even deeper hatred towards
parking tickets, primarily because it makes them feel “unlucky”. Until recently
SFpark was a lone super nova in an otherwise cold and dark parking universe.

Until yesterday when my home city of
Auckland, New Zealand announced
that it was applying to join San Francisco’s elite parking club. Auckland has followed
a similar line to San Francisco, by removing all time-limits from on-street
car-parks the city centre and instead relying on prices to manage demand. They
point to the following advantages of this approach:

  • Easier to understand – so long as you’re
    paid up you’re good to go. No need to search for a car-park that allows you to
    park for as long as you need.
  • Simpler to enforce – parking wardens
    only have to check that the ticket is valid, which greatly expedites the enforcement
  • Reduced street clutter – a consistent
    approach to on-street parking means that only a few “Pay and display” signs are
    required, rather than a forest of confusing restrictions.

One of Auckland’s interesting tweaks is the
implementation of a free 15 minute grace period, which is intended to replace the
need for so many dedicated taxi and loading zones (drop off/pick up).
Basically, with this grace period every space in the city becomes a potential
drop off / pick up space, so long as you don’t park for longer than 15 minutes,
which results in more efficient utilisation.

Overall, Auckland expects that the changes
will be broadly revenue neutral. But this hides a very significant shift in
where revenue comes from. Whereas in the current situation a large proportion
of revenue is derived from those unlucky people visiting the dentist (i.e.
through infringements), in the future revenue from parking infringements is
expect to decline, whereas meter revenue increases.

One of the less obvious benefits of the
approach taken by Auckland and San Francisco, however, is that they’ve set out an
agreed policy process for setting parking prices. That is, they have developed
a transparent formula through which parking prices are adjusted in response to
demand. This greatly reduces opportunities for public/political interference in
the setting of parking prices.

It’s now not so easy for individual residents
or businesses to demand lower prices on their particular street, because the prices
are determined by the policy. While people can seek to change the policy itself
(indeed that is their democratic right) in doing so they are at least required to
engage with broader questions such as: How
would this impact parking across the entire city centre?

The most telling sign of the broad-based
stakeholder support for Auckland’s proposed changes is the comes from the Chief
Executive of Heart of the City (business association) Alex Swney, who said:

“For many years parking has been seen as a major
reason not to come into the city. We see today’s announcement as a significant
change in approach to parking in the city.  It recognises the ‘moving
feast’ of parking demands of our businesses and their customers. It’s a major
step forward and we are sure we will be looking back in a year and see
significant improvement as a result.”

As one of the people that contributed to the
development of this policy I’m quite biased in its favour. I can’t help but
sense that this represents a big step in the direction of more transparent and
sustainable on-street parking policy in Auckland.

As someone who regularly visits cities overseas
it also makes me ask: Which city will be next?

Further Cause for Canadian Triumphalism

Yesterday I posted some data we were playing with, suggesting that Canadian cities have consistently higher transit ridership than similar US ones.  Commenter Matt pointed me to his own charts on the subject, which are based on Paul Mees’s database.  One of Matt’s charts makes use of citywide average density, a stat to which I’m allergic for reasons explained here and here.  But here’s the other one.   Continue Reading →

New Blog to Watch: Paul Barter on Parking

IMG_0179[1]Paul Barter, an Australian transport expert based at the National University of Singapore, has a new blog project, Reinventing Parking.  From his Introductory message:

A key aim of this blog is to help inform the parking policy choices
confronting decision-makers and communities. I have my own views of
course and I will not be shy to share them. However, I mostly want to
help you to clarify your own thinking on parking policy. I want to help
you understand the implications of the various parking policy choices,
so you can choose your own, with ‘eyes wide open’.  If you have very
firm ideas on parking policy, this site may shake them up a little
Continue Reading →

Congestion Pricing: The View From Canada

Canada’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy just published a paper by my colleague Stuart Donovan on the case for road pricing.  The gist:

Accurate transport pricing not only reduces congestion, it also generates additional revenue to fund investment in additional capacity when and where it is justified by demand. Most importantly, accurate transport pricing is mode-neutral in that it neither discriminates against nor favours any transport mode, although it does favour high-value vehicles, such as buses and emergency vehicles. Accurate transport pricing also allows people the freedom to manage their travel needs in the way that best suits them. Some workplaces, for example, may allow their employees to work flexible hours in order to reduce their transport costs.

PDF here.

Guest Post: Samuel Scheib on Parking, the Field of Nightmares

Samuel Scheib is the senior planner at StarMetro (Tallahassee, Florida) and the editor of Trip Planner Magazine: the art and science
of transit
.  He holds a master’s degree in planning from Florida State University, as a Transit Fellow. 

Parking was one of the earliest problems associated with the widespread automobile ownership that began in the 1910s and 1920s; having a place to leave cars—the terminal capacity—is as important to the transportation system as the carriageway that moves them.  By the 1930s, urban streets were filled with cars that were driving in circles searching for curb parking.  The accepted solution to this congestion problem was off-street parking.
Soon, cities around the United States had enshrined off-street parking requirements in their zoning laws.  According to Donald Shoup (The High
Cost of Free Parking
) a 1946 survey found that only 17% of the cities in the study had zoned parking requirements; just five years later that percentage was 76.  Today free, unlimited parking is the expectation for most drivers:  parking is free for 99% of all automobile trips in the U.S. Continue Reading →