Archive for February, 2011

Car Parking is a Fascinating Subject


Some years ago, when I was active in Ottawalk, I developed a position paper on car parking.  Essentially, it said that the parking of cars should not be provided as part of various land uses.  In this way, parking of a certain minimum quantity becomes a requirement.  If some of these spaces are not ever used, or some are used only a couple days a year, you have underutulized spaces, and this is part of sprawl.

Further, parking spaces that are ancillary for one building use (for visitors, owners, employees, customers) cannot be used to park cars that were driven by others not visiting the particular land use.  That means that underutilized spaces cannot be rented out to ‘neighbours.’

As this thinking grew, I found myself reading stuff on the subject, including the excellent — and groundbreaking — book by Prof. Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (2005) .

Most recently I have found the site and blog by Prof. Paul Barter, of the Univ. of Singapore.  His latest entry,, is provocative.  It recounts a blog in Spanish from Enrique Penalosa, well-known former mayor of Bogota, Columbia).

I wrote several paragraphs of comments, but lost them when I tried to post them.  It was an attempt to agree with most, with extra reasons, and to disagree with a couple:

Parking should not be ‘ancillary’ to other land uses, but be its own land use.  That means that parking lots and structures should be seen as a business that must pay its own way.

However, since no one likes to look at parking lots — even though that situation provides some of the security for those parking cars as naturally accrues to those parking on the street — such land uses should be either underground, with park space (‘people parking’) on top or it should be above ground, in surface lots or structures, with other users around the perimeters on all sides facing the public realm.

I disagreed that parking is a poor use of the street realm, unless it is converted to people space, for seating, walking, or street commerce (I am not in favour of segregated bike lanes).  Taking away parked cars to use the space for moving traffic is regressive.  It is just what happened in most cities since the 1950s, as there was a shortage of space for “traffic.”  It is important not to convert to people uses that cannot be supported by sufficient volumes of users.

Street parking actually provides an important function for pedestrians, buffering them from the moving traffic.  Further, for occupants of cars, parallel parking provides a ‘sanctuary’ (the sidewalk) along one side of the car, whereas nose-in parking, which predominates in off-street parking, eliminates that, leaving children and the elderly in danger when the adjacent parking space is being accessed by another driver with very imperfect visibility and anxiousness toward other moving vehicles.

Off-street parking suffers from other problems: 1) it is less fully utilized, as empty spaces are harder to see from the street and many parking spaces are reserved for particular individuals, and therefore not available to be shared; 2) they take more space, since the underutilized access lanes cannot also serve through traffic, as parallel parking on the street does, and it is harder to accommodate some spaces that are shorter or longer for different sized vehicles; and 3) pedestrian safety is compromised by the movements of vehicles across bordering sidewalks, usually at speeds far above the speed of walking by drivers more concerned with their own safety than that of the pedestrians.

By making parking a separate land use, there is not only a higher likelihood that parkers will pay a suitable amount for it — and thus parking will be added to their internal ledger-sheet of car costs, and it will not be ‘bundled’ with rents or prices of goods — and it will not be oversupplied.  As Shoup pointed out, if parking is free, there is no economic model in the world that can define a demand for it.   Demand is determed by price (and price also determines supply); but no price has to produce an indeterminate demand.

And in the case of parking for cars at the owners’ homes, the requirement that each home or apartment be provided with one, two, or three parking spots means that the housing becomes more expensive, and if car populations decline — as might happen if carbon- or road-pricing is introduced — we will have a lot of parking land that becomes surplus, but still causing sprawl by its continued presence.   And for low-priced housing, whose occupants often can’t afford cars, it become a factor making that housing unnecessarily more pricey.

I foresee a city of the future where all cars are owned by companies licensed by the city who provide them on a shared bases, both like rentals and carsharing (one user at a time using it) or shared occupancy like ride-sharing or shared taxis, which could grow to be an adjunct to transit for low-density areas, but on a relatively high-frequency basis.

Such an arrangement would not only greatly reduce the city’s car population (making road congestion relatively impossible), but would allow for integrated road/congestion pricing, and real-time charges for parking (which would, in my mind, be done via parallel parking alone, which is in the public (shared) domain.  It would also add a much higher accountability for drivers in terms of their behaviour on the streets.


Championing the ‘Transit Captives’


Yesterday I joined several other seniors to fight for our proposed reform of seniors transit fares.  It is tough to explain the point that seniors should pay less because we cost OC Transpo less, rather than the usual point that seniors need a break financially.

Seniors, as people who avoid rush-hour and whose limited incomes, failing senses, smaller households, and lower travel demand make car-ownership less practical, are at the core of what Transit planers call “transit captive,” those who don’t have a car to use and have little choice but to use transit.  (Younger ‘captives’ might have the choices of walking and cycling, but seniors who can walk to transit stops often can’t walk as far as younger people to displace transit trips).  Seniors avoid rush-hour transit service, although free to travel at any time, to ensure getting a choice seat and avoid the frantic crowd at those times, which often translates into “toe mashing” of those seated in what is now called “cooperative seating,” the centre-facing seats that are exempted from the first-come, first-served seating rule.

Facing us was Mayor Jim Watson, a man who religiously attends public events and prides himself on knowing the grassroots of the community, especially seniors.  He had championed a different senior-transit idea in his campaign — expanding the Ride-Free Wednesdays, a program that that we, the Ottawa Seniors Transportation Committee and the City’s own Seniors Advisory Committee, had campaigned for two years earlier to two additional partial weekdays.  We had seen the ride-free-Wednesday as nice, but wanted the next improvement to be half-price ticket and cash fares. Our two groups had successfully shepharded the half-fare through the Transit Commitee and Council the previous Fall. Mayor Jim Watson, though is a newcomer (returning to local politics after seven years in the provincial cabinet).

What happened yesterday must have been disconcerting to the mayor, as all five presenters who mentioned the seniors’ issue squarely supported our (and the previous council’s) plan — to cut seniors’ cash and ticket fares in half all the time but keep Ride-Free Wednesdays — while the committee had received a motion, obviously worked out in advance, to support the mayor’s approach of expanding ride-free Wednesdays to the period after noon on Mondays and Fridays.  The concession in the motion was that the expanded free hours would be only a one-year program, to be done in consultation with seniors and analyzed before it would be made permanent or any other changes made in it.

As it turned out, the staff did their job of providing numbers, but only the bottom-line relative costs.  They said our fare-halving proposal was going to cost $4 million on an annualized basis, vs. less than a third of that for the expanded ride-free proposal.

The first presenter was the chair of the SAC, and he clearly pointed out that Council had already made a decision the previous fall, and that staff’s response had been positive or at least muted at that time.  Now, five months later, staff’s cost estimates had climbed three-fold and the alternative from the mayor’s campaign was seen as far cheaper.   No response from staff (as delegations cannot directly address staff)  but the mayor was not shy about explaining the facts of political life to the audience: “the election” caused the political will to change, and the old Transit Committee chair was defeated.

The second presenter was the OSTC delegate, who referred to the committee’s research that showed that the ticket and cash fares paid by seniors was the highest in the country.  She also made the point that the half-fares proposal gave seniors more freedom of when to ride.  The mayor replied that free rides, as well as the monthly passes, gave them even more freedom of the financial kind.

The Mayor at this point showed his consternation at this second group lining up against his campaign-tested idea.  “Who do you represent,” he demanded.  She started to answer, but then deferred to me, sitting at a mike near her, “on deck.”  I explained that is was about 10 seniors in the urban and rural parts of the city, plus representatives of 10-12 agencies that service seniors and had a stake in improving transportation for their clients.  I also pointed out that we were part of the venerable Council on Aging of Ottawa.

I followed with the self-assigned task of putting it into a wider context.  Although I know that the die was cast in the pre-meeting negotiations over the wording of motions entered into the record before the delegations were heard, I forged ahead, knowing that at least I had submitted my comments in advance so the councillors could see them before the meeting started, but I knew I would have to ad lib, as they were too long to fit into my five-minute allotment, and I had rethought some points after hearing other points raised.  (It is sad that the four citizen members yet to be named in March or early April, were not a factor, made more significant since none of the councillors  represents the older urban suburban where most of the short-ride, off-peak users live.)

I started out referring to the route optimization process that staff were asking the commission to endorse with the  budget to save almost $18 million a year.  It includes the standard that at least 90 percent of users of peak-hour routes should live within a five-minute walk of the closest stop, compared with a ten-minute-walk of off-peak routes.  Staff ‘optimization’ plan takes the “at least” to mean “no more than”.   In other words, those seniors lucky enough to live close to their closest off-peak service may find it eliminated or rerouted to a street further away.

One councillor asked staff if their optimization changes would double walking distances for seniors, and they said no, even though two of their three examples given eight days earlier for route ‘optimization’ (where more than 90 percent were within a 10-minute walk) were doing just that (route 18 in Overbrook had its ‘kinks’ removed, and route 148 along Pleasant Park in Alta Vista would be elminated, sending users to either Smyth or Kilborn).  In any case, I was referring to the existing standard, not a new one.

I pointed out that OC Transpo’s website shows that the average ride distance is 10 kms an hour.  I suggested that off-peak trips were far shorter, probably around 5 kms, compared to what guessed was about 15 kms for the average peak-hour trip, since commutes are considerably longer than trips to shopping and for recreation, especially in the suburbs, where most “choice” transit riders live: owning both a car and an unlimited-use transit pass.

And yet fares were the same.  I added this injustice to the fact that peak routes offered both higher frequencies and higher average speeds (transitway’s lack of mixed traffic, faster speed limits, and longer distances between stops).  And finally, there was the fact that off-peak trips usually facilitate trips of shorter duration than a full workday, reducing the amount of effort travelers feel the trip is worth.  In sum, off-peak users, are expected to walk twice as far, to a route that run slower and with less frequency, to make trips that have less intrinsic value.  All this for the same cash fare (although a majority of peak users get a discount by using passes).  Not really a fair fare.

I pointed out that the vaunted seniors pass, priced at 40 percent of what the Adult pass costs, did not really constitute a fare reduction but only a recognition that seniors, when the pass was first created, travelled only 40 percent as often in a month and thus would not buy passes unless it was based on a break-even point close to the reality: 17 rides vs. 38 rides a month.  Even with that price adjustment, the passes still don’t overcome a problem that seniors have: our monthly demand for transit varies month-to-month in a non-predictable way — in contrast to what full-time workers have.  How many seniors have bought one for a month that turned out to involve little transit use?

I then tried to explain why the expanded free-rides plan would cost more than staff have predicted.  I suggested that seniors had exceptional flexibility as to when to ride, along with a good nose for savings, thanks to growing up during the Depression and war/post-war periods, and would simply ‘steer’ their use of the system to the 1/3 of the week the mayor’s proposal would make free.  Voila!  OC Transpo would not get any revenue from these people.  And a good number of habitual pass buyers, who would realize that their, soon-to-be $37 pass (a 13.8 % rice increase over two year since ride-free days started) would be devalued by 33% by the 2 1/3 days of free access a week.

I compared it with my compromise: a pure half-fare system — one that dropped the existing Ride-free Wednesdays, which I considered suffering from the same problems as the expansion to Mondays and Fridays — and suggested that OC Transpo would get more revenue without trying to manipulate  seniors times-of-travel — presumably to to fit the agency’s times of demand shortfall.  A senior could get half fares with the mayor’s plan by simply moving half of his or her trips to the free days.  But, once one has caught on to this manipulation, why stop there?

I concluded with the point that seniors have worked a lifetime to earn the freedom from rushing and having to follow schedules (except for taking pills and getting to medical appointments).  We naturally favour the freedom of the half-fare plan to the lack of freedom and contrivance of the having 1/3 of the week offer a ‘free ride.’  What other user group has to watch time of day, and day of week?  I don’t think very many seniors, who are also emphatically tax-payers, believe there is any such thing.  It’s very simple: our trips cost less to provide, so we should be charged less.  The per-trip fare system ignores wide variations in distance and time-of-day/week demand.

Maybe the mayor’s contacts with seniors at shopping malls and assisted-care residences brings him in contact with different seniors than us more ‘active’ seniors.  At the same time, I am willing to concede that we need to expand our membership base, if we want to be able to speak authotatively of the wide range of seniors’ travel needs separate from the mayor.  I for one, am a senior living 75 metres from a main street with stops for 7 bus routes and stores for most conveniences within easy walking distance for me.  Getting to hospitals and big-box stores is what I use the transit system for.  I may believe in aging at home, but I see a clear value in ensuring that that home has plenty of ‘location efficiency” (see www., specifically a score of 83 out of 100.


Suburbanites Running Transit


The scenario implied by the above title is one that I raised in an email with a local Citizen columnist, who raises the same point in his column today.  Ottawa Council recently named the eight councilors who will sit on the body that will make most of the decisions on how transit will run over the next four years.

For the first time in my memory, all Councillors making transit decisions are from suburban wards: Stittsville, Kanata South, Nepean east, Gloucester northwest, two from Orleans, and Barrhaven-Riverside.  The chair represents Hunt Club, the area just inside the Greenbelt in the south.  Although the two mostly-rural wards were not eligible for membership ( because their taxpayers aren’t asked to contribute to the 50% subsidy), the areas with most of the intensification sites, main streets, and pre-automobile neighbourhoods — wards 7, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and inner suburban wards 16 & 18 — are missing.   Apparently, since Council mainly uses councilors’  preferences in filling committee seats, the urban-ward councilors simply weren’t that interested.

The columnist, Randall Denley, said that was a problem.  It is a problem that has spurred my decision to offer my own name for consideration as one of the four citizen members (to be named by mid-March).

Even though previous Council committees had better urban-ward representation, transit has been designed for some decades, in my opinion, to primarily meet the suburban voters’ perceived needs.  Previous urban-ward councilors obviously did not see it that way, or weren’t successful ridding transit’s governance of that bias.

Part of the problem is reflected in the language those in the transit ‘biz’ uses.  They divide patrons into two classes: the “choice” are those who own cars and therefore have a choice of whether to drive their car or to ride on transit.   The others are deemed to be “captive,” without cars, and have no choice but to use transit.  Of course, only pressure for improvements from the former group needs to be listened to, as only they have an alternative to shift to.

Actually, in my mind, choice is greater for those who have gained ‘locational efficiency’ by living closer to the centre of the city or at least to the destinations they need to reach.  The central areas also have a better choice in modes: better walking and cycling infrastructure (and safety that comes from greater ‘street presence’), more transit routes over more of the day and week, access to car-sharing, and more available taxis (on most main streets, they can easily be ‘hailed,’ rather than summoned by phone, followed by a wait of indeterminate length).

The “choice” suburbanites, on the other hand, have no choice about owning a car, usually one per driver in the household.  Walking, cycling, carsharing, and taxis are also either non-existent or highly impractical.  And the choice of using transit is not that free.

Suburbanites tend to be willing to use only to commute to a job, and only when: a) the commute occurs in rush-hour when service is frequent, and b) parking at their job is charged for, and c) transit is fast and reliable.  These parameters leave out commuting to a job with odd hours or shift work, jobs located in business parks and activity centres with free parking, or a job that is too close to make the fares for fast service seem worthwhile.  Probably 95% of the suburbanites other trips will be done via driving a personal car.  That requires ownership of a personal car, which means that transit cannot charge more than what gas and parking costs the prospective patron, rather than the larger costs of ownership (insurance, depreciation, registration, and maintenance — let alone ownership chores and home-parking costs).

Urbanites, on the other hand, aim to avoid living far from their job and, if they use transit, it is usually a regular, all-day route, which is not fast.  They also use transit for some or most personal travel outside rush-hours.  If they reverse-commute (work in the suburbs), they find that transit service is bad, and use other modes, including ride-sharing.

The result is really two transit systems: rush-hour service that a) goes on smaller streets, reducing walking in low-density residential areas, and b) has no stops outside the community except at major employment centres and transit stations to other rush-hour routes.  These routes not only do not run at non-rush-hour times, but they travel in only the “peak direction,” running out-of-service between each service run and to and from the garage at the ends of each 2-3-hour shift.

The second system is for those who use transit more extensively over the clock and week.  These ‘milk runs’ in Ottawa (routes #1-18) run along main streets and converge in the centre of the city, specifically Rideau Street at Rideau Centre.  Their frequencies are between 12 and 30 minutes.  The 30-year-old transitway also carries the 80- & 90-series  routes that serve far-suburban arterials that radiate from the city centre, but reach them via a buses-only roads with stops/stations set farther apart, many of them built into suburban shopping malls (Billings Bridge, St. Laurent, Goucester Town Centre, College Square, Orleans Town Centre, Kanata Town Centre, Lincoln Fields, Bayshore, South Keys, and Barrhaven Town Centre) and a few employment centres.

Of those using the all-day/all-week services, they fall into two population groups:  a) youths, who have special routes for their commutes to high schools, but ride regular roues at night and weekends, and b) seniors and stay-at-home moms, who clearly favour traveling in mid-day on weekdays.

The fare structure reflects the division, too.   Those traveling occasional errands, will not have any use for anything except the basic fare, which is $2.50 in tickets, or $3.25 in cash (no change for a $5 bill is offered),  a whopping 75 cents premium for not buying tickets in advance.  Such users don’t need unlimited-use passes because they can’t predict with certainty that they will need at least 38 trips in the following month (the break-even number of trips that a monthly pass is equal to).  Only those commuting to jobs or school can predict that high a level of usage.

If one has children, it is good to know that youngsters up to age 4 pay nothing; those 5-11 pay half-fare, and those older pay full-fare, but have a range of unlimited-use passes at 80% discounts).  Seniors pay full fares, but can save if they expect at the first of a month, to need 17 or more fares, buying the seniors’ unlimited-use pass for a 60% discount.  But they also get to ride free on Wednesday, proposed to extend to Monday and Friday afternoons and evenings. This almost  makes transit free for seniors, who can have the flexibility to ride when they want.

The transit commuter will naturally choose passes, but there are three classes depending on the routes to be used, which reflect more the average speed of travel rather than distance.  There is also a one-day pass, which transforms into a family pass on weekends and holidays, a recognition that service on these days is infrequent and there are many empty seats to fill.  Finally, the transfer is one of the few devices that favour the off-peak, short-trip traveler: they allow unlimited boardings for a 90-minute period, long enough for those going short distances to complete both ends of a trip in one fare.

Poorer service outside rush hours seems to be a good way of keeping the service from appearing too appealing to those suburbanites who buy unlimited-use passes and might otherwise be tempted to use them for other trips.

In summary, urbanites need quite different transit service than suburbanites, thanks to their shorter trips, need to travel at any hour, and residential location close to shops and transit and the higher house and parking costs that characterize urban sectors.

The suburbanite, in contrast, is happy to have a car that he either leaves at home during his work hours to avoid parking costs, or drives on crowded suburban streets to a job with free parking; either way, he like transit (the second group believes that congestion is reduced by his neighbour’s use of it).  The latter wants fast service with  no road congestion or few stops along the way.  They see the premium for ‘location efficiency’ to be less than the cost of driving extra; the idea of not owning a car is not something they see location efficiency making possible, although car-sharing does just that for over 1,700 members (what is has grown to since starting in 2000.

For the proposed upgrade to ‘rapid transit,’ the light-rail plan, the suburbanites get their vision fulfilled — sort of.  They get speed and the comfort of rail service both classes agree on that comfort.  The suburbanites disappointment is that the $2.1 plan will be putting rail only a couple kilometres to the west (and only about half-way to Orleans in the east).  And the tunnels in downtown for three stations, while being close to dense development, will be a 100 feet underground, requiring long rides on escalators.  At least the routes #1-18 will stay on the surface for intra-downtown trips.

If urbanites were to have been allowed to design the next generation transit system, it would have been planned for main streets, like mayoral candidate Clive Doucet’s proposed Carling Avenue line to the west.  The seniors who travl so much along those streets, would love the ride: the smother acceleration and braking, and the sideway movements in and out of bus bays.

Of course, the new citizen commissioners will not form a majority (four of out 12 total), and thus will have a hard time steering the service ‘pendulum’ back to the middle, to a blend of urban and suburban priorities.   It will be up to a nominating committee of three councilor-commissioners to decide if there will be a least one such user on the commission.   It’s rather daunting to think it could be me.


Are Segregated Bike Lanes the Best Way to Improve Bike-ability?


Letter to the editor, Ottawa Citizen (published Saturday, February 5, 2011)

The Laurier Avenue West bike-lanes proposal has moved another step closer to reality, at a price tag of $1.3 million.  The redesign of the street to segregate cyclists from motorists is seen as the only way to attract more people to this environmentally-friendly and space-frugal mode of transportation.  But there is a much easier, faster, and cheaper, way.

The elephant in the room is speed limits.  Speed is what automobile drivers place ahead of other values, and what is the advantage that drives the automobile’s large share of trips in the city.  Vehicles than can travel 50 km/h can easily travel 25 km/h, but the reverse isn’t true.  Further, injury to the human body struck by a car at 50 km/h is four times as serious as that at 25 km/h.  Why do we allow such speeds on roads where walking and cycling are not only allowed but encouraged, where minor mistakes, by the drivers or the vulnerable outside the cars, can have such major, fatal effects?

Cyclists are fearful not only of being struck from behind, but of being “doored” by motorists exiting their cars, thanks to the legal requirement that they cycle in the space between the moving cars, trucks, and buses, and the parked vehicles and pedestrians.  Even that minor kind of segregation falls apart at intersections and driveways; and the ‘hard’ segregation of the proposal won’t change that fact.

A reduction in speed limits from 50 km/h to 30 km/h, the top operating speed of cyclists, will also bring other advantages that are lacking in the proposal: faster, cheaper initiation, since only speed-limit signs need to be changed.

Before you say such lane sharing won’t work, you only have to look at Rideau Street from Sussex to Cumberland, where cyclist are directed to the centre lanes where signs above and below on the pavement show their position in middle of the lane, not wedged between cars and the ever-present buses.  The east-bound lane on the Cummings Bridge a little further east, which is downhill, facilitates cyclists to match the existing speed limit, thus justifying the lack of a bike lane, which the other uphill direction has (although signs must be added to identify the downhill curb lane as a shared lane).

These “slow-ways” should not just be on minor residential street, but our main streets, which attract the highest volumes of cyclists and pedestrians, and the need for high-turnover street parking.  All these can co-exist, but the vehicle speeds have to be lowered.

This will not hurt road capacity, since it has long proved that higher speeds do not allow a road to carry any more cars.  In fact, if the lower speeds shift more people to walking and cycling, less space-intensive modes, it will actually increase capacity — in terms of people, rather than vehicles.

Cyclist don’t need barriers as much as they need slower vehicles and the ability to be part of “traffic,” rather than near the gutters.

Chris Bradshaw