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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Update on the Audubon Society/Statehouse Parking

Some of you may have read Eco RI's coverage of the Audubon Society's letter asking that the Statehouse lawn not be the site of new surface parking. I replied to the letter with a small but at the same time very important complaint, which was that the main alternative offered by Audubon appeared to be to double down on the policy of park-ifying everything in Providence by building garages instead of surface lots.

On the 9th, I received this in reply:

Dear Mr. Kennedy: 
Thank you for your work to reduce the impacts of transportation and for your economic analysis of parking. Audubon Society has worked for public policy to entice more state employees from their individual autos to public transit. We understand that public transit is not always possible for people working at or visiting the state offices around the capitol. Our position on parking factors in the environmental, aesthetic, public and individual costs of parking at the state capitol area. [My italics] 
Best wishes in your continued efforts to rationalize transportation policy. 
Eugenia Marks

Definitely polite words, and I appreciate the cordiality, but... A careful reading leaves a person without a clear idea of exactly what the position at Audubon is on the issue of the state paying for parking structures, but I think it's fair to say that reading between the lines gives the impression that they do support the state or city paying for parking, and are sidestepping the issue with some kind of passive voice construction (I mean, technically the operative verb "factors" is active and the word "our" does take some direct ownership over the position, but for the most part it's six-to-a-half-dozen. Decisions were made.)

That said, I really wanted to give Audubon another chance to clarify their position, because maybe 

I appreciate your prompt response but don't feel that it answered my question. Does the Audubon Society endorse a policy of the state paying for parking garages in part or full in order to reduce surface parking in the city? I'd like to nail down exactly what the position is. In the letter on Eco RI, the specifics of who would pay for parking garages was left in the air, and I think this is a central question.


So far it's been radio silence for four days.

I really hope it doesn't seem like I'm beating up on Audubon, because I appreciate their efforts on this issue. It takes a lot of effort to step up as an organization and oppose Lincoln Chafee, because in some ways he's been a very good governor on certain ecological issues, and Audubon isn't exactly a 350.org type of direct action activist group. But the distinction of whether the state/city or private groups pay for parking garages is a very important one.

The best metaphor I can apply to this is the recent debate over beach front flooding due to climate change along Rhode Island's shores. The changed flooding maps have created a lot of financial hardships for owners of buildings along the waterfront, because the insurance rates for those buildings go through the roof. But what changing those insurance maps entails is making the owners of those buildings responsible for the buildings' care if a storm hits. This might sound regressive on face value--aren't we "all in this together"?--but people who tend to own beachfront property also tend to be wealthy, or at least above the median income. If they can't afford to upkeep an unnecessary luxury like owning a beach house, then they shouldn't. 

Car ownership is not exactly a luxury. People of lots of incomes drive. But the lowest fifth of Americans drive very little or not at all. Essentially anything you do to make car ownership cheaper rewards those who have the thousands of dollars a year to put into buying and maintaining a car, and gives nothing to those who can't do that. What's more, it also amplifies the need for a car, because that subsidy to car ownership sends all sorts of ripples through the economy for housing development, where jobs go, etc., which almost guarantee the result that driving should seem an "everyman" activity.

Returning to the beachfront metaphor: One of the realistic (but expensive) solutions to flooding along coastal waterfronts is to build buildings on pilings above the ground. But if Audubon came along and said that the solution to upper income people who own beach houses having to pay more for insurance would be for RI & Providence Plantations to start a free buildings-on-stilts program, we'd all laugh. We understand that this is a solution to the symptom of flooding, but we don't think the government should pay for beach house owners to retrofit their houses. It'd be crazy.

Offering money for garage parking, which is extremely expensive and will only ever be enjoyed by people who have the income to own cars, makes poorer people suffer by taking state money away from more legitimate public realms (if you're liberal, maybe those public realms are education or healthcare, but a conservative could also argue that a tax cut for businesses might be better than a Soviet-style diktat that there be enough parking at all times in all places for the Politburo's price of zero). It may solve the immediate symptom of their being surface parking everywhere, but it increases the subsidy to drivers while building nothing in the Capital district that will actually produce tax (or private, for that matter) revenue.

In San Francisco, where Donald Shoup first set his glance to the study of parking supply, the distinguished professor found that even though the BART trains had a $5 per square foot development tax to support trains from new construction, that S.F.'s zoning requiring off street parking had undone the subsidy, to the point that if he assumed that only one of the four parking spots required for a 1200 square foot building was above and beyond what the market would have provided without a zoning requirement, the subsidy to driving offered by that one spot was nearly five times as great as that to BART. Rhode Island, of course, is far behind most of its peer states (states with significant population density to support transit). So the effect is even worse here.

Plus, I just think the Audubon Society should have the cojones to say that when the map of Providence's downtown looks like this, that there's already enough parking. It's time to take some out, not add more.

One step forward and five steps back is no place good to go.

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