Bring on the predictable outrage, folks, but we’re about to do it … we’re about to say … There is WAY too much free parking available in Chicago. We should stop building more of it!
For all the hoopla over the (admittedly) terrible parking meter deal made by Mayor Daley and regardless of the sticker shock of downtown parking lots, we live in a city of neighborhoods lined by on-street parking and with chunks of largely un-used parking lot which may fill up for certain occasions but stands empty most of the time, heating up the city (paved area contributes to the Heat Island Effect) and looking about as beautiful as missing teeth in the urban fabric.
Despite possessing a healthy (though improvable) public transit system Chicago continues to stay stuck in car-centric thinking too much of the time. One clear example of this is the zoning codes mandate for minimum numbers of parking spaces to be provided for all new residential and commercial developments.
The current poster child for this foolish excess of parking is the proposed Mariano’s Supermarket slated for East Lakeview’s Broadway Avenue.
In addition to being wildly out of scale for the street (a bulky four story mass that looms over the buildings on both sides and across the street) the development will have a mid-building parking garage with 280 parking spaces … as required by Chicago zoning code. As Streetsblog points out, half the households in the surrounding neighborhood don’t have a car. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the proposed site at nearly any time of day will give a few of area residents walking home from the Trader Joe’s four blocks away with bags of groceries in hand. This is not a site that needs to encourage long distance grocery shopping with an over-abundance of parking spaces.
We’re not saying there should be no parking – or that the cars should just vanish from the streets – but there is no reason for a zoning code which treats urban areas, well served by public transit and with a healthy pedestrian culture as if they were ex-urban strip malls (there’s no reason for zoning strip malls either, for that matter). Just 10 blocks west of the Mariano’s site, on adjacent Wellington Ave is a Jewel Osco grocery with a huge surface parking lot that looks as if it was air lifted in from the suburbs. Some friends actually nicknamed the grocery store as such, “There’s no milk in the fridge; we’re going to The Suburbs!”
As convenient as the drivers of Chicago probably find the row of parking spaces closest to the store entrance, that surface parking lot sits empty most of the time, absorbing heat, repelling rain water and making the Ashland Wellington intersection something of an eyesore. Those parking spaces were required by the same Chicago zoning which is setting the rules for the proposed Mariano’s.
NB: WE’RE NOT DEMONIZING DRIVERS
It’s not our intention to demonize anyone who has and drives a car. Hell, most of us at moss are car owners – to be precise, we are two non-car owners and four who share one car between two partners. We live in a car centered society and it takes some serious swimming up stream to avoid needing one in your life.
This sea of cars in Chicago’s Grant Park in the 1930s is a perfect signifier: America’s driving culture was established long ago and our infrastructure has grown up around it with strong economic re-inforcements subsidizing automotive transportation and managing to live life without regular car use can involve serious swimming up stream unless you’re lucky enough to live in one of the few American cities with a good integrated public transit system.
Still, there are places where living without a car is possible and Chicago happens to be one of them. What’s more, Americans seem to be taking increased advantage of their non-car alternatives.
BUT AMERICANS ARE DRIVING LESS
In a New York Times article from last summer, “The End of Car Culture,” notes that the number of miles driven per American has dropped 9% from its peak and that according to University of Michigan professor Michael Sivak,”rates of car ownership per household and per person started to come down two to three years before the downturn.” So those numbers can’t solely be attributed to recession unemployment. There seems to be a cultural shift underway.
Check out the amazing NYTimes graphic which shows that even as older drivers hang onto their licenses longer than their parents did (thanks again, Baby Boomers) young people are less likely to have them. Between 1983 and 2010 the number of 18 year olds with drivers licenses dropped from 80% to 61%. For 30 to 34 year olds the drop was from 97% to 90%. Meanwhile Americans over 70 went from 55% holding licenses to 80%. For a more detailed report on that check out professor Sivak’s 2011 report on changes in age breakdown of drivers in 15 countries including the US.
The next few years as the economy (hopefully) continues to improve will show if these trends continue. Economic deprivation is not the only driver for switching from cars to alternative transit. According to U.S.PIRG’s report on “Transportation and the New Generation,” Americans aged 16 to 34 living in households of over $70,000 per year “increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent between 2001 and 2009.
SO WHY ARE WE STILL BUILDING TO ENCOURAGE DRIVING?
As much as any individual driver may, correctly, argue that their current lifestyle can’t be maintained without their personal car (pry it from my cold, dead hands, anyone) far fewer would probably argue that a car for every person on the planet is the best way to move forward into a healthy future. So, without wanting to inconvenience anyone too direly, we as a society need to be thinking about, encouraging, and moving toward more car-free solutions to modern life. And we can start by NOT building that Mariano’s parking garage on Broadway.
Do you agree? Are you furious at us for suggesting it? Let us know in the comments below!