Archive for the ‘Pedestrians’ Category

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Parker Scorned

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

The Grand Lake Theater here in Oakland is well known for its political advocacy, from messages on the marquee calling for the prosecution of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to anti-war events featuring Barbara Lee and Sean Penn. Normally the issues the theater focuses on are national, at a safe remove from the day to day lives of local residents—heaven forbid you should make your liberal bay area customers feel uncomfortable about their own lifestyles, when it’s so much easier to reassure them that they are right-thinking and right-acting, unlike those nefarious folks in Washington.

The management of the Grand Lake have recently found a local issue that is worthy of their attention: increases in parking meter hours and fees. To the barricades, drivers!

Cause Celebre

Judging from media reports and the reactions of some residents of my neighborhood, the theater’s stance is squarely in the mainstream of local opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about how the increased meter hours, increased fees and increased enforcement are “inspiring a revolt.” CBS5 had a story a few days ago featuring indignant drivers and business owners on Grand Avenue, which concluded by saying that people plan to “storm the city council meeting next week.”

Even though I don’t own an automobile and think that most of our cities are far too car-centric, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of these drivers or merchants. Obviously I don’t want commerce to move away from local stores and neighborhoods and toward malls in the suburbs, and I can also understand how infuriating it is when a mismanaged government or institution (BART comes to mind) punishes the poor and middle class with increased fees in order to make up for shortfalls in its budget. (Increased fees of various kinds, whether they be parking meter fees in Oakland or tuition fees at state universities, are a predictable consequence of a dysfunctional government and a population which has been persuaded by pandering politicians that governments can somehow keep spending more and more money without raising taxes.)

As sympathetic as I might be, however, there are benefits to extended meter hours and increased fees that deserve to be spelled out. Anyone who has driven to (for example) Grand Lake or Chinatown for dinner after 6:00 when the parking used to be free has probably spent some time circling the block looking for a parking space. When people drive in circles looking for scarce open spots, the costs of parking have not disappeared, they have just been transferred elsewhere: instead of paying for a meter, one is paying in wasted time, and paying in agitation, and paying in extra gasoline use, and paying in toxic emissions, and paying in increased traffic volume as other cars circle looking for parking as well.

Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor who has become an unlikely guru among many urbanists, has spent years trying to persuade people that parking should cost more money, and that failure to apply market pricing to public parking has been terribly detrimental to our cities (his best-known work is titled The High Cost of Free Parking). His basic rule of thumb for curbside parking is that meters should cost the lowest possible price which will render about 15 percent of spaces vacant at any given time, and that the money earned from meters should be used in that same neighborhood for local improvements (streetscaping, sidewalk cleaning, security, whatever), so that local residents and business owners feel invested in the meters instead of oppressed by them.

Setting meter prices high enough so that there are always some vacancies eliminates the Yogi Berra problem (“nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”) and encourages more turnover, so that you have more shoppers making more visits to a particular street, instead of a smaller number of visitors occupying spaces for longer periods of time. And if higher meter costs encourage some people to walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving—well, so much the better. An alternative “solution” to parking shortages has always been to build more and more parking, but that has some unfortunate repercussions: it ruins public spaces with unsightly parking lots, and it just gives people an incentive to drive even more, which in turn increases the demand for parking even more, leading to the construction of yet more parking lots. Some people might think that more car traffic and more parking lots would be good for Oakland’s most walkable shopping districts in the long run, but I’m not one of them.

Shoup argues, based on real-world examples such as Old Town Pasadena, that while merchants and residents typically resist increased parking fees at first, they often become supporters after they get used to the change, because they see the benefits that can accrue from increased revenue and increased consumer turnover, especially when money is used directly for neighborhood improvements that make the area more welcoming to shoppers, such as nicer sidewalks, less grime, less crime, etc. San Francisco is experimenting with a demand-based pricing system in certain neighborhoods which causes prices to fluctuate dramatically from less than a buck an hour to over ten dollars an hour for the same parking spot, depending on when it is being used. (The gist of Shoup’s arguments are outlined well in this Streetfilms video and this Toronto Star article, and in many other articles and interviews linked to from his UCLA website.)

I’ve gone on at some length in the past about some of the unexpected benefits of getting out of one’s car (or losing it altogether) and biking and walking places instead. Yes, it often takes a bit longer, but there are quality of life benefits that far outweigh the drawbacks, as far as I’m concerned. (For an example of the stress and anxiety that can come from driving a car everywhere, see the gentleman featured in the CBS5 report I mentioned above—some people complain about how shrill and entitled we bicyclists are, and I won’t argue with that, but I’d say we can’t hold a candle to the average American driver when it comes to entitlement and righteous indignation. Even the CBS5 reporter, who seems generally sympathetic to their point of view, describes people as “ranting and raving.”) As I mentioned in my post about how much nicer it is to get around by bike instead of by car, it wasn’t until I was forced by circumstance (a totaled car and not enough money for a new one) to start riding a bike everywhere that I realized that I actually preferred it for most local trips. I think human beings are often remarkably bad at knowing what will actually bring them satisfaction.

Given how hard it is for people (all of us, not just automobile drivers) to imagine that a change in lifestyle might actually improve our lives, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who are outraged about having to pay more for parking in Oakland live within walking distance of the destinations that they currently drive to, and whether they might discover that spending 20 minutes strolling to the Grand Lake Theatre for a movie, or to Arizmendi for coffee and pastry, or to Walden Pond Books for a used paperback is actually a much more pleasurable experience than driving there and looking for parking (even free parking). I agree that it would be a shame if people start driving to malls in the suburbs instead of driving to Oakland neighborhoods for dinner or a movie, but if some significant number of people start walking and biking to those Oakland neighborhoods instead of driving because they don’t want to pay $2/hour for a meter, or because they fear getting a parking ticket from an overzealous parking enforcement officer, then I would consider that a feature, not a bug.

Riddle, Mystery, Enigma

Monday, July 13th, 2009

The photo in my last post is from a long walk I took with the dog the other day, a loop from my home east of Lake Merritt up to Berkeley and back (a bit over 10 miles altogether, according to the handy Gmap Pedometer). I had some errands to run along the way, but I also hoped to get some good pictures. As it turned out, I only took a handful of photos, and I’m not wild about any of them, but here is a sampling:


Fans of the crossword puzzle and the jumble in your local newspaper (if your city still has a local newspaper) might appreciate this sign, because the only way you can make sense of it is to figure out a missing word (Wadi or arroyo, 4 letters) and then unscramble another.

Car Peon

Two things you’ve probably noticed about time: it only goes one way, and what you’ll find in that particular direction is a big unknown. So this sign on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland must be an advertisement for the future:

This Way

Any, um, questions?

That is the Question


Eyes on the Skies

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I often walk my dog over to a neighborhood called Haddon Hill, which looms over Lake Merritt from the East. It’s a nice neighborhood, with a lot of pretty streets, well-kept properties, and a bit of local history (Henry J. Kaiser, for example, had a large home built for himself which still stands at the corner of Haddon and Hillgirt). It took me a while to notice that there’s another reason why the neighborhood is good for walking: there are no telephone poles or overhead wires. In an area of about 8 or 10 square blocks, all that infrastructure which often clutters our urban and suburban skies are submerged, except for the occasional streetlight. Here is a shot looking one direction from the “dividing line”:


And here is a photo shot from the same location facing the other way:

High Wire

The neighboring streets, which have wires criss-crossing them every few dozen feet, are still very nice, but once you notice the visual clutter, it starts to seem more offensive. A bit closer to my apartment, here’s a view toward the palm trees of 9th Avenue, which used to form an allee on John “Borax” Smith’s estate. It could be a nice view of a hillside and some trees, if it weren’t for all the obstructions:

A Good View Spoiled

I wonder whether anyone has ever studied possible correlations between visual pollution like that, and home values, or crime rates, or residents’ peace of mind. Remarkable research done by a group at the University of Illinois has shown that the presence of greenery in public housing projects is correlated with lower crime, stronger communities, and reduced stress. Could the same be true for all the poles and wires breaking up our views of the skies? When telephone poles were being erected around the country in 1880’s, some locals would cut them down. In 1889 The New York Times ran an article with the headline “War on Telephone Poles,” a title which was borrowed for a recent Harper’s article on the subject (unfortunately, I cannot read it since my subscription to Harper’s lapsed years ago). We laugh at those NIMBYs and luddites now, but were the late-nineteenth century technophobes onto something?

Of all the offensive things that have been done to the American landscape, urban telephone poles and the wires sprouting from them are surely among the least awful, but we’ve become so inured to the depredation of public space that we hardly even notice its features anymore. One of my commenters recently remarked about the dramatic contrast in Los Angeles between its impoverished public sphere and the sumptuous private spaces there. LA is worse than a lot of cities in that regard, but the disconnect exists all over, and blocking our sightlines with a tangle of wires probably doesn’t help.

Eye of the Beholder

Monday, February 9th, 2009

I just noticed this plaque last week, after having walked past it dozens, if not hundreds, of times:

Eye of the Beholder

I took another photo from the same spot, looking in a different direction:


The plaque was placed where Interstate 580 crosses over Grand Avenue, creating a dark, imposing overpass that separates Lake Merritt and Lakeside Park from the 1926 Grand Lake Theater. It might be quaint that people were so jazzed about urban highways in the 60’s, were it not for the fact that these freeways drew and quartered the cores of many American cities, cleaving neighborhoods in two and allowing drivers to bypass Oakland on their way to and from San Francisco without ever having to see a city street, never mind interact with any of its citizens or businesses.

“No Crime Here at All”

Monday, January 26th, 2009

An awful story this evening, related to my post about speeding cars and pedestrians on Park Boulevard the other day:

A pedestrian was struck and killed in a crosswalk at the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Santiago St. in San Francisco tonight.

The woman was walking westbound across Sunset when a man driving a Toyota Corolla south on Sunset struck her at about 6:15 p.m. The woman was taken to San Francisco General Hospital where she died. Her name was withheld, pending notification of her family.

The driver had no stoplight or stop sign and stopped after hitting the pedestrian, and police said the incident was just a tragic accident.

“It doesn’t look like he was speeding or under the influence or anything like that,” said Sgt. Renee Pagano. “There’s no crime here at all.”

“Just a tragic accident” Nice to know that a car can plow into a pedestrian in a crosswalk, and as long as the driver isn’t speeding or drunk, they are not breaking any laws according to the SFPD. (I actually knew that already, because these incidents happen all the time, always with the same result — you can even kill two young children on a sidewalk and as long as you didn’t intend to do it, you won’t be held responsible.)

My recommendation to people on foot or bicycle: Always assume that drivers won’t see you, and act accordingly.

Park Boulevard: the anatomy of a city street

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle had a “Chronicle Watch” feature the other day about one of those solar-powered displays that cities put up to let drivers know how fast they are going (the Chron’s “Journalism of Action” in action!). The display in question, which briefly wasn’t working because its solar battery was dead, happens to be a few blocks from me on Park Boulevard (where the marchers were protesting recently).

I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about Park Blvd, because I face its problems every time I cross over it, walk down it, or bike up it. In some ways, Park is a nice street: it curves gently up shallow valleys and ridgelines, from humble flatland beginnings at Kragen Auto Parts and Church’s Fried Chicken to a posher terminus in hillside Montclair. There are several parks alongside the street, and numerous shops, restaurants and cafes. You wouldn’t call it bustling in the way that some other Oakland neighborhoods such as Chinatown or Fruitvale are bustling, but compared to the strip malls of Fremont or Fairfield, it’s an urbanist’s dream.

And yet lower Park, from E. 18th Street to Interstate 580, is clearly not living up to its potential; cars drive at dangerous speeds past the occasional pedestrian who stands helplessly at a crosswalk, businesses routinely disappear for lack of customers, and some neighborhood residents avoid the sidewalks and parks because they don’t feel safe.

Earlier this week, I was eating lunch outside a bagel shop on Park Street in Alameda, and I was surprised to realize that Park Street has just as many lanes as Park Boulevard. The streets could hardly feel more different: Park Boulevard often feels like a speedway running through a semi-deserted neighborhood, whereas on Park Street, the sidewalks are thick with pedestrians popping in and out of thriving businesses, drivers obey the speed limits, and people can cross the street without putting their life at risk.

I’m not a city planner or a traffic engineer, but a few explanations for Park Boulevard’s deficiencies come to mind. (more…)