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April 16, 2009

It's All About Affordable Housing

Whether by car, by train or on a bike, the reason we must commute is that, most often, we don’t live where we work. So any discussion of our transportation problems must include an understanding of our housing crisis in this area.

A recent report showed that housing in lower Fairfield County is the most expensive in the nation. You need an income of $70,000 just to afford a two bedroom apartment in the Stamford – Norwalk corridor.

So, people who come to work here can only afford to live further afield. Their daily drives / rides contribute to our congestion. The solution? More affordable housing!

A recent conference sponsored by SWRPA held some startling examples in that poster-boy of affluence, Greenwich. This 67 square mile city of 61,000 has 5545 town employees… teachers, cops, firefighters and the like. However, 67% of those workers don’t live in Greenwich, but commute daily from Danbury, Bridgeport, Westchester and even Long Island.

They spend an average of 103 minutes per day just getting to and from work, paying more than $2000 a year for gas. Combined, they add 15,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, just by their commuting.

In a city where the median home price is $2 million, the average Greenwich city worker makes $65,000. And because these teachers, civil servants and such have to come so far, they have to be paid more. The average teacher in Greenwich earns $12,338 a year more than their counterparts elsewhere in the state. These higher wages cost city taxpayers almost $19 million a year. But their larger paychecks come at the cost of lost time and expense on the road.

The Greenwich schools spend $10,000 to $15,000 recruiting and training each new teacher. But after five years of commuting (75% of the 912 teachers don’t live in Greenwich), they burn out, leave and find jobs elsewhere. Between 1998 and 2007, 581 teachers left Greenwich for reasons other than retirement and 81% of them had less than eight years on the job.

EMS workers in Greenwich have it even worse, averaging 151 minutes (2 ½ hours!) commute time. Just how fresh and ready for life-saving work do you think you’d be with a commute like that?

Greenwich is not unique. All of the towns on “the Gold Coast” rely on importing personnel from far afield. Schools in Darien often announce “snow days” not because its roads are impassable, but because teachers can’t drive through the snows farther north from communities like Danbury where can afford to live.

And what about the people that bag your groceries, clean your home or pump your gas? Where do you think they live? Just drive the Boston Post Road some morning and you’ll see them waiting for the bus.

Fairfield County has its own “migrant workers”. We couldn’t live with out them, but apparently we don’t want to live with them. Just listen to the local debates about adding “affordable housing” in these affluent towns. Whether because of their nationality or economic status, the expressed aversion to “those people” living in “our” towns is clearly xenophobic if not racist.

So how do we solve our transportation problems? Well, one solution is clearly related to affordable housing. Allow folks to live closer to their jobs and they won’t have to be in that car in front of you on I-95 or the Merritt at rush hour.

April 05, 2009

Free Parking Isn't Free

Our obsession with automobiles is not only creating gridlock and ruining the quality of our air, but it’s eating up our real estate and sending land costs upward. Because, once we drive our cars off the crowded highways, we assume it’s our constitutional right to find “free parking”.

Trust me: whether at rail stations or stores, parking comes at a price paid in more than just dollars.

For decades, city planners and zoning regulations have shared with Detroit in a conspiracy to deliver on that dream. Consider the following:

According to the industry standard-setting Institute of Transportation Engineers, there are 266 kinds of businesses which should be zoned to require a minimum amount of parking. Quoting from the ITE “bible”, religious convents must have one parking space for every ten nuns in residence. Hello? The residents aren’t going anywhere! Why do they need parking? Couldn’t the convents find better use for their land?

Or consider hotels. Why are parking regulations based on requiring enough parking for the few nights each year when the hotel is sold out, rather that the majority of nights when occupancy is much less? Would we require a movie theater to require parking for an every-seat-filled blockbuster when its more typical offerings fill far fewer seats?

Just drive up the Boston Post Rd and see for yourself. Due to zoning regulations, many shopping malls devote 60% of their land to parking and only 40% to buildings. Imagine what that does to the costs of what they sell.

Desperate to attract folks back to their decaying downtowns, some cities are putting more land into parking than to all other land uses combined. A Buffalo NY City Council member commented a few years ago: “There will be lots of places to park. There just won’t be a whole lot to do there.”

Last week I drove through downtown New Britain observing empty stores and sidewalks next to a gigantic ten storey parking lot. They “built it”, but nobody came.

In fact, the cities that have done the best jobs of economic revitalization aren’t the ones that provided the most parking… they’re the ones that provided the least. The vitality of towns and cities requires people… walking the streets, going into shops and interacting… not scurrying from car to shop to car to home.

In his recent book “The High Cost of Free Parking”, UCLA’s Donald Shoup recounts the following tale of two cities:

Both San Francisco and Los Angeles opened new concert halls a few years back. The one in LA included a $10 million, six story parking garage for 2,100 cars. In San Francisco there was no parking built… saving the developers millions. After each concert, the LA crowd heads for their cars and drives away. But in San Francisco, patrons leave the hall, walk the streets and spend money in local restaurants, bars and bookstores. Guess which city has benefited most from its new arts center?

Why are Connecticut’s towns slaves to antiquated zoning mentalities that assume all humans come with four tires rather than two legs? Why do we waste precious land on often-empty parking spots instead of badly needed affordable housing?

Clearly, our transportation planners need to work much more closely with economic developers and sociologists to rethink what it is that we really need in our cities and towns.

We have become mindless slaves to car-obsessed planners for whom no vista is better than miles of open asphalt, be it highways or parking spaces.