Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hey Dude! Where am I supposed to store my stuff?

The real conflict on the streets of Los Angeles isn't between people trying to get somewhere, it's between people who think their right to store private property on the streets of LA supersedes the rights of others to safely get to their destination.

Witness the brouhaha on Topanga Canyon Boulevard over the bike lanes that have been engineered and funded, only to get the veto from the local LADOT Traffic Engineer because he would rather use the curb lane for traffic during rush hour and then for parking during the off-hours. This is referred to as "peak-hour parking" and it is one of the most common excuses used by the LADOT when they argue against implementing bike lanes or sharrows. Curbside parking takes precedence over humans on their way to a destination.

Sunset Blvd. is a very popular route for cyclists and the bike lanes are a hotly contested real estate all the way through Hollywood, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Silver Lake and on into DTLA. For all of the traffic encountered on a ride from the westside to the bestside, the real conflict occurs as cyclists dodge the doors that open from parked vehicles, or the valets who put their signs and cones in the bike lanes or the armored car outside the Bank of America or the Bands' vans outside the Echo or the too-wide Catering trucks or the too narrow parking lane or the 18 wheelers outside the Olive Motel or any of the many other surprises that occur because the curb lane is not for travel but for the storage of private property.

No developer can make it through the community engagement process without promising and over-promising parking not just for those who live or work or shop at the development but for those who will be impacted by the project and simply consider parking as the currency of land-use negotiations.

Dr. Donald Shoup of UCLA has risen from academic obscurity to rock star status as a result of his work studying the economic impact of free parking on a community. Always guaranteed to both entertain and inform, Dr. Shoup is also capable of inflaming the sensitivities of those who feel the very fabric of all they hold near and dear threatened as Dr. Shoup extols the evils of free parking. His best selling book "The High Cost of Free Parking" challenges the notion that our streets are designed for the storage of private property. He is also responsible for California's oft neglected and poorly enforced parking buyout law, a scheme that requires employers who provide employees with free parking to consider it a perk, a benefit that has a cash value. Once that value is determined, the employee has the right to elect to take cash instead of the parking space.

We live in a society that tolerates homeless people but criminalizes homeless cars. The County of Los Angeles has seven parking spaces for every registered car, all on the off chance that you might want to shop at the Montclair Plaza on Christmas Eve and, heaven forbid, there better be a convenient parking space there for you! This commitment to stimulating the asphalt industry has resulted in an urban heat island effect that has seen the temperature in areas such as LA's West Valley increase over time as the streets widen, as the parking lots increase in size and as the continuing development of auto-centric infrastructure perpetuates the "Pave paradise, put up a parking lot!" mantra that positions the storage of personal property as one of the basic rights of a civilized country.

As communities evaluate the allocation of public space and discuss the purpose of streets and the impact of parking on their neighborhood, the real opportunity for conflict typically arises when curbside parking is discussed. Events such as Park[ing] Day LA have become popular challenges to the status quo, causing people to reconsider the primacy of curbside parking. Park(ing) Day is an annual event celebrated around the world that involves people of all walks taking curbside parking space and turning them into parks for the day, all in an effort to stimulate discussion on everything from urban planning to the environment to community to public space allocation to the need to make streets more people friendly.

Through it all, small battles get fought, little accommodations are made, and the status quo gets tested. Sometimes it's simply a matter of reclaiming words such as the phrase "closed streets" which the LADOT uses when referring to the restriction of motor vehicles. Community activists now call a street with no motor vehicle traffic an "open street" because it has been freed, the neighborhood is no longer under seige. A "closed street" is one full of motor vehicles and void of humanity.

Sometimes the small shift is in allocation of space. We live in a city where taxis, FedEx and UPS, tour buses, morticians, catering trucks, delivery trucks, school buses, and other special purpose vehicles all get special curbside accommodations, after all, they're key to the smooth operation of our city! But when a local merchant suggests taking a curbside parking space and using it exclusively for the storage of bicycles, we discover the proverbial line that dares to be crossed.

Known as a Bike Corral and consisting of a traditional curbside parking space filled with bike parking racks and surrounded by bollards to protect the bikes, Bike Corrals are popular land use solutions in many large cities such as San Francisco and New York City. Here in Los Angeles, the proposal to install a single Bike Corral in Northeast LA resulted in a hearing at the City Council's Transportation Committee where the critical implications of this assault on all that LA holds near and dear (curbside parking for motor vehicles!) were dissected and reviewed by our City Council leadership and LADOT elite.

The battle isn't over, the "camel's nose" proposal to convert a curbside parking space into bike parking must still go through the City Council and then it must be studied, reviewed, analyzed, and reported on, perhaps resulting in a permit for permanent residency on York Avenue. That's right, a permit!

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