Saturday, December 27, 2008

What Chicago can't do

Chicago, striving to become a “green” city, has just made it very difficult to deliver green transportation options. By selling off -- I mean “leasing” – every single one of its 36,000 parking meters for some fast cash, Chicago can no longer do what other forward-thinking cities have done.

While it might be buried in the fine print of hundreds of pages of the lease contact, it would appear that for the next 75 years, the city cannot remove metered parking to:

• Create dedicated bus lanes (see New York City plans), or trolley lines (Charlotte NC).
• Allocate spaces for car sharing vehicles (see Washington DC and Boston) or bicycle parking (see Portland, Oregon, New York City plans, Paris)
• Create bike lanes (Paris, Portland, New York)
• Make pedestrian-only retail districts

Here is what the deal means for parkers (My comments are in italics):

• Quadrupling of meter costs in two-thirds of the city's meters over the next five years, from 25 cents/hour to $2/hour by 2013.

• Meter rates in the downtown Loop will rise from $3/hour to $6.50/hour over that same time period. Parking meters are generally underpriced across the country so I agree that these likely should be raised.

• Future rate increases (in years 5 through 75) will need to be approved by the city. It would seem that the city alderman needed to hide behind this lease, in order to get these first price increases done. What is the likelihood that they will be able to approve price increases in those later years when they aren’t shielded by the big bolus of cash upfront? nor get a piece of the increased revenue stream?

Here is how the city intends to spend the $1.16b it will receive in cash for the deal:

• $325m to balance the budget over the next 4 years ($50m 2009; $100m 2010)
• $324m for budget “stabilization” for budget gaps. These two added together mean that $649m of the money will be spent almost immediately, leaving the remaining 70 years of this lease without any benefit to the residents of Chicago.

• $400m will be put into a long-term account generating $20m in revenues annually, to “cover” the usual amount of revenues generated by the parking meters. Do we really believe that $20m/year will equal the expected annual revenue from parking meters 15 years from now? How about 30, 45, or 75 years from now?

• $100m in human infrastructure. Not clear what this is. Note that none of the money raised from this parking sale went toward improving transportation infrastructure in the city.

There are several things that really bother me about these deals:

1. Can’t we produce politicians or a public that can accept rises in parking rates without having to hide behind a privatization deal? In both cases there is an increase in fees, but in the privatization deals we lose flexibility over the asset and the management fee that goes to the private sector company, a much worse deal for citizens.

2. Assuming the city is desperate for an upfront lump of cash, isn’t it common for banks to loan money on the back of a guaranteed future revenue stream that is collateralized by an asset? Why the 75 year leases? It just doesn’t seem right to mortgage future generations for our quick fix today – politically easier yes, but not right.

3. And most egregious, is the loss of network control and flexibility over the asset. This parking deal has effectively locked up street use for the entire city of Chicago for the next 75 years! Forget about closing some streets to traffic (as has been done in cities the world over). Forget about changing the use of specific streets and traffic flows (just this last year New York city has changed city streets to accommodate bicycles, pedestrians, chairs and tables, dedicated bus lanes; in Washington DC they have changed some parking spaces into shared car parking; in Portland, Oregon, bicycle parking is substituted for some previously metered spaces). All of these options will be closed for the city of Chicago. And closed for 75 years.


Some quotes:

"I wish we had other options at our disposal to help balance this budget without entering this 75-year concession agreement with one of our most valuable public assets, but we're in the situation we're in, with not many options" Alderman Brendan Reilly told the Tribune.

Alderman Richard Mell described the deal as being a "once-in-a-lifetime shot to grab this pool of money.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Advice for Cities & Towns on Green Transport

I sometimes get asked for the quick hits that a local government can undertake that is within their jurisdiction. Here is what I send them:

1. Parking maximums for buildings (all kinds) rather than parking minimums. If the developer is ready to build without parking, their ear is closest to the market, let them do so. This will reduce the cost of housing by as much as 25%, increasing affordable housing within the city. Every parking space built is a magnet for a car, which will then be driving on city streets, increasing our congestion problems. Yes, I know all about residents desire to protect the existing free on-street parking for themselves. See number 2 below.

2. Make residential parking permit rates much higher, and consider monthly fees rather than annual ones. This will make more parking available for those residents that need to park, by getting off the road cars that are rarely used (this is why we need this to happen monthly, so there is incentive to get rid of your car quickly when you no longer use it often.) In northern climates, it is easy to see the enormous number of vehicles that are little used by walking down a street one week after a snowfall and seeing the number of cars that haven't moved in a week.

3. Charge residents for curb cuts just like on-street parking. Their individual curb cut is removing a space available for others on the street. Curb cuts shouldn't be free for residents or businesses.

4. Give a rebate to residents who don't own cars -- they cost the city less money! less demand for ploughing, road maintenance, police and traffic enforcement, reduced emissions, etc.

5. Do bicycle traffic education for every middle school student (and in driver's ed).

6. Offer $200 rebate to kids on their 16th birthday, good only toward a bike purchase (and registration with the local police).

7. Improve bike and pedestrian connections everywhere. Start with routes to school, around the public library, and convenience/food stores.

8. Paint bicycle lanes on as many oversized roads as you can simply by giving the minimum width to cars (usually 10 ft) and allocate remaining space to bikes. Stop your lines short of the intersections and just do the straight-aways. This lets you get 80% of the job done quickly and cheaply, without fiddling with the complex part.

9. Require that businesses that offer parking to employees to "register their commutes" so that there is a database for potential commute ridematching. You can't require agreeing to share a ride, but you can require registration.

10. Consider building municipal parking lots, and make parking in those lots cheaper for residents than on-street parking permits. [This makes parking less convenient, and people will be more likely to leave their house to bike, walk, or T for short errands rather than hop in their car.]

11. Remove on-street parking for every space created in municipal lots. Do better things with those spaces -- bus priority lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks.

12. Consider making play streets in some neighborhoods, by closing them to through traffic with wooden barriers (that are signed with relevant times) during afterschool hours. In New York City I saw this in practice with neighbors opening and closing the street.

13. Consider closing scenic roadways on Sundays when there is reduced traffic (and alternate routes) and making them accessible only to people and non-motorized vehicles.

Thirteen is purportedly an unlucky number. Please add your low cost ideas to the comments.


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