Blame My Driving Habits on that Parking Spot

Being the true confessions of a solo driver in L.A.

Hear Krissy Clark’s companion radio feature from The California Report.

Craig Miller

Afternoon rush hour with a mostly-empty HOV lane

I’m a Bay Area native who has about evenly divided my adult life between San Francisco and Los Angeles. So, I have a schizophrenic relationship to driving. Which is to say, I have the same kind of relationship that California as a whole has to driving.

Here’s what I’ve learned during my intra-state sojourns: my transportation habits have very little to do with how environmentally conscious I am as a person, and have a lot to do with parking spots.

When I lived in San Francisco, my daily life was 90% car-free. I owned a car but aside from moving it on street sweeping days (or trying to remember to), I barely thought about the thing unless I was leaving for a weekend trip. My bike, my feet, the bus, BART and the transbay ferries were my chariots. Some of it had to do with the city’s human-scaled streets and efficient public transit. But mostly, it was just too damn time-consuming–or expensive–to find a parking spot most of the places I wanted to go. I couldn’t be bothered to drive.

When I moved to L.A., nothing about my core being changed (despite what my Bay Area friends feared), but now my daily life is about 90% car-full. I drive to work alone, where I park in the free parking space my company provides me. (Even though my partner works in the same office as I do, I confess we do not carpool.) I drive to the grocery store, where I park in the free parking space the shopping center provides me. I drive to my exercise class and, yes, park in the free lot out back. I drive pretty much everyplace except one: the airport. Parking costs too much at LAX, so I take the city shuttle.

My Jekyll & Hyde habits come as no surprise to UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking.  Ample, free parking works like a “fertility drug for cars,” he argues. “Driving becomes the natural way to get anywhere” in a place like Los Angeles. When he looks at a traffic jam in L.A., “I think, how many of these people are driving to a free parking space?” Count me as one of them.

It turns out my different lives in L.A. and San Francisco, and my different parking options, are no accident. They’re based on different approaches the places take to parking. According to a RAND study from 2007, in San Francisco there is “a deliberate effort by planners to reduce private vehicle use” which “limits the number of parking spaces that may be included in a new development.” In contrast, across most of L.A., developers are required to provide a certain number of parking spaces, “ensuring that parking will remain cheap and abundant and reinforcing auto-dependency.”

How cities deal with parking is one of those invisible choices that change the way we live. For those of us who use cars a lot, which now includes me, our habits are often described in psychological terms. Love affair. Dependence. Addiction. But that gives cars too much power, argues Harvey Molotch, a professor at NYU (who splits his time in Santa Barbara, so he, too gets a glimpse of life on both sides of the transportation spectrum). We’re not addicted to cars he says, “We’re addicted to going home.” It’s about the inertia of life, he says. Filling a tank with gas is interconnected “with all the other things we do in our lives… going to work, going to school, and all the rest.” And how much time, or money, it will cost to park influences those micro-decisions we make.

A few weeks ago, my partner’s car broke down, and we’ve been sharing mine ever since. We keep different work schedules, so sometimes one of us spends the day carless, and I’ve discovered the bus is actually a pretty convenient way to work (Despite LA’s reputation, the city has a pretty extensive public bus system). And though there are no bike lanes, it’s only 20-minute ride on my bicycle. These are discoveries I didn’t need to make until now–with all the free parking, I never needed to.

See and hear our entire series, Miles to Go, on the many challenges to reducing our transportation footprint.

  • Pete Ellis

    These are all great possibilities. Personally, I’d like to see incentives from the other side of the equation. Corporations should devise more aggressive plans for allowing employees to work more from home/home office locations. With “rush hour” being closely tied to business hours it would help if there were less (solo) drivers on the road if people were allowed to video/phone conference in.

    Additionally, with larger companies these days with multiple locations, employees are working in many time zones tying the network together. If I end up having to drive to work, only to spend a majority of my time on conference calls (yes, the number of useful meetings in today’s business environment is another topic altogether) then why wouldn’t I just stay at home and dial in?

    Coming from the Silicon Valley, the home of the Internet Superhighway, its ironic that we haven’t found creative solutions to our traffic jams. Thanks for the story.

    • Skyler Yost

      While many companies have been moving towards decentralizing activities and allowing their employees to work from home, there are a number of studies showing the importance of face to face interactions in innovation-driven industries. With that in mind, it is heartening to see the current trends of innovative companies shifting to urban cores which hold the potential to house employees much closer to their offices.

      As I see it, the two most important factors in decreasing commuting by car and reviving livable neighborhoods in which residents work near home will be repealing laws which require companies to provide parking while encouraging companies to sell the parking they already own (instituting land value taxes is extremely effective), and making vibrant city locations not just places for the hustling businessmen and the young, but good places to raise families (improved schools, safety, walkability/transit, and play spaces are essential).

      The rise of great inner-city schools (KIPP and other charters), “complete-streets”, and increased use of land value taxes in the region make me think the Northeast/Rustbelt will replace the Sunbelt as the urban growth story of the next few decades (unless Sunbelt cities catch on and drastically change their urban forms quickly).

  • http://planeturban.wordpress.com/ Elyana Javaheri

    I found this article very interesting and to the point! I have been talking about the same issue with lots of people lately. I recently moved from DC to LA to San Diego all within 4 months and I truly saw the difference that public transportation makes. As you mentioned, though LA doesn’t have the best reputation in traffic and transportation, it is truly amazing to see how well their public transportation system functions. Despite the size of this city, Caltrans and Metro have done a good job linking various neighborhoods to one another.

    I do think, however, that one of the main issues is that the companies mainly offer free parking -instead of free bus passes/public transportation passes-. I truly believe if the latter was more of an option for employees, they would at least give it a try and then decide, instead of being prejudice about this massive transportation system.