Kunstler: Parking Plans Are Based on “Faulty Assumptions”

If you’re the type of person who has been following the Yankee Stadium parking garage story, or the Hudson Yards zoning story or the story about the city block in Prospect Heights that’s being leveled and turned into a gigantic surface parking lot, you may enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s column this week. The author of The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, has lately noticed that many American towns "are obsessed to the point of mania with the issue of parking and more generally the management of cars, and much of their spending is directed to those ends." He writes:

Because I wrote a couple of books about the design of cities (and the shortcomings of suburbia), a lot of blather comes my way about what towns around the nation are planning for the future — and, off course, I hear plenty on the subject in my own town, Saratoga Springs, New York, which is a classic "main street" type town. I also happen to travel a lot and actually see what’s going on far from home. Almost everything I see and hear is inconsistent with what I think reality has in store for us.

Most American towns, including my own, are obsessed to the point of mania with the issue of parking and more generally the management of cars, and much of their spending is directed to those ends. Municipal leaders (and the public they serve) have no idea what kind of problems the nation faces with oil. Because life in the USA has worked a particular way all their lives, they assume that it will continue to operate that way. Not only will they be disappointed as happy motoring spirals into history, but they will create a lot mischief in the meantime in planning things based on faulty assumptions.

My own town, for instance, relies heavily on tourism, in particular tourism based on happy motoring. There is not the slightest apprehension among the people here, or our leaders in city hall, that automobile-based tourism may not be happening as soon as five years from now. All our political energy is being expended in fighting about what kind of parking structures we will build (with borrowed money) and where to put them, and how these things might incorporate some secondary uses, such as police offices. We have also been debating plans for the expansion of our modest convention center — in connection with added parking structures. It seems to me that one of the first things to go as the US economy contracts, along with its energy supply, will be activities like boat shows and optometrist’s conventions.

Now this town happens to be on a railroad line that connects New York City to Montreal. Before 1950, it was the main way that people came to this town. These days, we get one train a day in each direction. The trains are invariably late, and not just a little late, but hours late. The track bed is in miserable shape and, of course, Amtrak is a sort of soviet-style management organization. There is no awareness among the public here, or our leaders, that we would benefit from improving the passenger railroad service, and around the state of New York generally there is no conversation about fixing the railroads. (Governor Elliot Spitzer is preoccupied these days with arranging to give driver’s licenses to people who are in the country illegally.) We are going to pay a large penalty for these failures of attention….

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  • Batty

    Interesting article. He goes on further to talk about how trains can be used instead of planes between close cities – but trains are more expensive and take longer. Unless the gov’t heavily subsidizes people will just drive instead.

  • mike

    Batty – that’s kinda the point. Citizens and municipalities could be working to pressure the Federal government to start funding Amtrak (and other regional rail) at a healthy level.

  • Dan

    Batty- I think that’s you know, um, the point. You can build the kind of transportation and make it work and people will use it. If you subsidize cars(which are VERY HEAVILY subsidized) you get people driving cars. If you made train travel fast and convenient more people would take the train. People don’t drive more because there’s some existential benefit to being in your car, people drive because we have made a place where driving is easier and faster and more convenient. And we haven’t made that place by some kind of bizzare accident. We made it that way by subsidizing cars and not trains. We could do the reverse and get the reverse effect.

  • This weekend, I was on the train that Kunstler mentions. Up to Montreal on Saturday, back on Monday. I was surprised to find that both trains were completely sold out.

  • Spud Spudly

    Great site. He has some fabulous observations about the banking and finance industry further down the page that are really chilling.

  • I challenge the assertion that trains are necessarily slower than airplanes.

    Trains will take you from downtown to downtown, and there is no need to walk through a metal detector.

    The Acela express will get you to downtown Boston faster than an airplane would if you factor in waiting and travel to and from the airports. If Amtrak (or some other agency) were to somehow invest in comfy high-speed trains akin to bullet trains in Japan, then there would be no question about what would be faster to go up and down the east coast (or the west coast, where I am).

  • Jonathan

    I’ve been reading scare stories about global collapse for the last thirty years. If it’s not nuclear winter, it’s an epidemic of parking spaces. What’s new about what this guy says?

  • Dave H.

    Yeah, I’m a little suspicious about this too but for different reasons.

    Surprisingly, Kunstley has a lot of faith in the market: he thinks that whatever subsidies we give to automobile travel and sprawl-growth now will soon simply not be able to keep up with the price of oil. And therefore, the market will see to it that people don’t live in exurbia or travel around in cars any more (within the next five years, he predicts).

    The reason that driving and sprawl are unsustainable though is precisely because their many of their enormous costs are not internalized by the market. No one pays a fee for emitting greenhouse gases and that’s exactly the problem. Without government intervention to correct this market failure (read: a carbon tax, and probably a fairly steep one at that) people will continue to drive two hours to work every day in order to have a cheaper house. The reason that the price of oil is going up is not because supply has decreased, but because demand has. Without meaningful demand-side restrictions (taxes), greenhouse gas emissions will only increase, not decrese. So let’s not get complacent, shall we? Market failure is precisely what got us here and I see no reason to think the market will correct itself.

    (Admittedly, for the other reasons we don’t like driving: public health, accidents, urban vitality, habitat destruction etc. etc. the increase in foreign demand for oil does force people out of driving in the US and which does reduces these problems to some extent. Of course, we’re just passing them off to other parts of the world).

  • Jonathan

    Excellent point, Dave, about how oil prices rise due to increased demand, not diminished supply.

  • jack

    As Andrew says, the Acela train between DC and Boston is generally faster than airplanes when factoring in waiting times. However, Acela isn’t even a real high-speed train service; if we had high-speed rail similar to just about any other developed country on the planet, there would be a noticeable, serious savings in travel times between close (~300miles) distances.

    The main issue right now is funding; there is nobody, absolutely nobody who cares about the rail system. Everyone is determined to keep driving everywhere, even in NYC – hence this blog.

    His claims about “driving ending within 5 years” refers to peak oil: a theory regarding the imminent and irreversible decline of oil production in the face of ever-rising demand (such as in our auto industry). It sounds like crazy talk but most oil companies have accepted it as a fact of life now, even if they don’t admit to it publicly. I can’t possibly explain it in detail here; there’s more reading on it here: http://www.theoildrum.com/

  • I happen to believe that Kunstler is right about peak oil. But even if he’s wrong, the fact remains that suburbia is unsustainable without cheap oil, cheap parking,and the plethora of subsidies that the US can’t sustain.

  • Under 400 miles, fast trains are quicker than airplanes for inter-city travel. Seatac airport, currently building a $500-million third runway, has traffic that is 50% under 400 miles. For the price of the new runway, we could have had fast trains, which are 5 times as efficient in terms of passenger miles per gallon.

    Amtrak currently has three major problems- board members appointed by Bush to destroy Amtrak, legacy debt Amtrak assumed on formation in about 1970, and the fact that they share- actually, lease rails from the freight railroads. Passenger trains and freight trains need to be on separate tracks. Trackage needs to be engineered for passenger trains for them to work right at high speed, and, as matters stand, Amtrakers often have to wait on a siding for a freight train. Freight trains are usually much longer than passenger trains, like over a mile in modern railroading, which makes it hard to put them on a siding to let the Amtraker go through.

    Kunstler is all wet about Amtrak management, but his larger point is 100% correct.

  • rlb

    What Aaron D. points out, and the fact that it happens in many places, is the most shocking thing: that this ludicrously underfunded, poorly maintained, and fairly inconvenient system still manages to pack people into its trains. All over the country Amtrak is reporting record ridership despite the fact that it’s also reporting record delays.
    Fact is, people like to take trains.
    Another fact is, trains, no matter how crowded, have an extremely difficult time making money.
    Increase the subsidies on Amtrak to a tenth of road subsidies, and watch as the US train system returns (slowly) to the ‘envy of the world’ status it once had.

  • Dave H.

    Thanks for bring up peak-oil theory. That’s something I know far from very much about it and had indeed forgotten about when writing the above. Two things though: I think we have to be clear what we mean by ‘unsustainable.’ I think we all agree that suburbia, in its current form, is ‘unsustainable’ from an environmental perspective. Kunstler, though, is making a stronger claim – that is unsustainable from a market perspective. If, indeed, there is a large reduction in supply of oil, this may be true (this would have the same effect as demand-side restrictions like taxes). But I think it all depends on how large that reduction will be and how fast soon it will occur. I suppose you are simply supposing it will occur sooner than I have.

    Both the questions of how fast it would need to occur in order to make suburbia unsustainable on a market-basis and how soon it will actually occur are questions involving modeling far more complicated than anything than I could understand. There is one point such models probably fail to include: the political power of suburbanites, who, as prices rise, will almost certainly manage to get more government subsidies to have living in suburbia remain economically feasible for them. Note what a hot political issue gas prices are already.

    Maybe I am sounding pessimistic but it would seem to me that we have to try hard to eliminate subsidies to oil now and add a tax to reflect externalities not captured by the price because I just have trouble believing supply will dry up fast enough. I also think that political action is needed now to discourage oil use – both because the market will not fix things fast enough, if ever and because, as prices rise, there will be significant political pressure to increase subsidies of oil.

    Apparently, at least one presidential candidate agrees, although this always changes as soon as they are elected: http://www.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2007/10/10/uh-wow

  • Cap’n Transit

    I agree with Kunstler in general, but here’s what I have to say about Saratoga:

    http://capntransit.blogspot.com/2007/10/geography-of-saratoga.html

  • todd

    Dave H, (10/10 4:41 post)

    i agree with your point about the increase in demand which has lead to an increase in the price. What Kunstler argues is that within the next 5 years, we will hit the peak of oil production, ie production from then on will diminish therefore, coupled with the increase in demand, creating a perfect storm for the supply demand curve.

    Todd

  • todd

    Dave H ( 10/10 10:36p),

    There certainly are differing opinions of when peak oil will be….One interesting point that hasn’t gained much notorioty is that many of the oil exporting countries have been, in the recent past, exporting far less then they produced. For instance if Sauda Arabia’s oil production has been decreasing by 4%, their exports has been decreasing by 8% (for development reasons, political reasons, etc)

    I also think that you over estimate the political power of ex-urbanites…what’s happened in the recent past has been that those that can’t afford housing in the inner ring suburbs have been moving out for cheaper housing, thus driving their commute times through the roof..This fringe group will obviously be those that are first effected by the increase in costs…

  • Bill

    Andrew E and Cap’n Transit: below are my opinions of Amtrak stations’ locations relative to their downtowns. I listed only stations for cities/towns that I am reasonably familar with. My definition of a reasonable walking distance might differ from others’. It’s flexible too: I would consider a little over a mile on sidewalks more reasonable than a quarter mile just on dangerous highway shoulders.

    Does anyone know of an airport that has walkability to a core?

    Amtrak Stations and Whether or Not They Are a Reasonable Walking Distance from Downtown(s) of Their Named City/Town

    Washington, DC Yes
    Jacksonville, FL No
    Chicago, IL Yes
    New Orleans, LA Yes*
    Boston, MA Yes
    Jackson, MS Yes
    Newark, NJ Yes
    Trenton, NJ Yes†
    Albany/Rensselaer, NY No/Yes
    Hudson, NY Yes
    New York, NY Yes
    Philadelphia, PA Yes
    Rome, NY No
    Saratoga Springs, NY No
    Schenectady, NY Yes
    Ticonderoga, NY No
    Utica, NY Yes
    Alpine, TX Yes
    Fredericksburg, VA Yes
    Harpers Ferry, VA Yes‡
    Richmond (Main Street), VA Yes
    Williamsburg, VA Yes
    Seattle, WA Yes
    Niagara Falls, Ontario Yes§

    *Near a “downtown” (the central business district) but not near enough to the French Quarter.
    †Reasonably centrally located within the city, but not near enough to most of the state government offices.
    ‡In the tourist downtown, but not near enough to the “real” town (i.e., where most people live and carry on business), which is up a steep hill from the station.
    §In downtown, but far from the Falls.

  • Bill

    Sorry, Harpers Ferry is in West Virginia.

  • Eric Fischer

    It used to be possible to walk to Meigs Field in Chicago before it was closed, not that it was ever a major airport. I once walked to Midway Airport in Chicago, but only from a nearby neighborhood, not all the way from the loop.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Bill, I’ve walked to the Albuquerque Airport from UNM (not from Downtown), but it’s a schlep and I wouldn’t call it a reasonable walking distance. When my wife and I visited Richmond in 1999, the Main Street Station wasn’t open yet. We did walk to the suburban “Richmond” station on our way back, but more as a sightseeing exercise.

    Here are some additions to your Amtrak station list:

    Syracuse: No (but it used to be)
    Westport, NY: No
    Yonkers: Yes
    New Rochelle: Yes
    Amherst, MA: Yes
    Hartford: Yes
    New Haven: Yes*
    Rocky Mount, NC: Yes
    Wilson, NC: Yes
    Albuquerque: Yes
    Champaign, IL: Yes†

    * Walking distance of downtown New Haven, but not near enough to Yale
    † Walking distance of downtown Champaign, but not near enough to Urbana or to the University of Illinois

  • clipped

    I have a hard time with Kustler because his scare tactics are outdated. It’s clear from the essay and comments here that political will is key to control the amount of driving going on. Kustler got tired of this fact a long time ago, it seems, as his rhetoric is combative to the point of being frustratingly unclear and useless, save for day dreaming about riding horses around “main street” towns. I’d like to believe that he has a point somewhere – about peak oil, parking, trains or what have you – but from the sound of it, his town is no better off for all his words.

    Oh, and Portland, OR has a walkable train station, especially with the new MAX lines.

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