Car Culture

Bell Bottoms, 8-Track Players, Parking Minimums…

Posted on Jul 7, 2015

Bell Bottoms, 8-Track Players, Parking Minimums…

Zoning is a funny thing. It’s the invisible hand that sculpts our cities. It’s the rulebook that governs private development—dictating what and where and how things are built. All too often, it’s the arrogant czar who proclaims “Nyet!” when a developer wants to build a place for people and pedestrians. Simply put, zoning has the power to make or break a place. But the topic is so boring, nobody wants to think about it.

Yet zoning—that dry, humorless, sleep-inducing code—is essential to the health of a city and the people who call it home.

If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t walk to the places you need to go, why parking lots have become the dominant architectural feature of our cities, or why there isn’t a coffee shop or a bakery in your neighborhood—congratulations! You’ve just discovered zoning!

Hopefully, Change Is on the Way

Tulsa is currently performing a comprehensive update of its zoning code for the first time since 1970. Like bell-bottom pants, pet rocks, and 8-track tape players, our zoning code should have been shelved decades ago. Instead it’s been dutifully chugging along: prioritizing automobile travel over every other option, punishing pedestrians and transit users, and turning our city into a giant parking lot.

Hopefully, change is on the way.

If you’re happy with the status quo, let’s see if a quick example can change your mind.

Take a look at the Office Depot at the corner of 15th and Lewis, which was built in 2004 on the site of an old grocery store.

In the current zoning code, this is considered “Shopping Goods and Services,” and the super-scientific-sounding code calls for 1 parking space per 225 square feet of building. Since the Office Depot building occupies 22,264 square feet, our zoning code (perhaps imagining a desperate run on staplers and toner cartridges) requires 99 parking spaces.

Here’s what that looks like:

Office Depot 1

Although the building appears to front Lewis Avenue, it actually “faces” 15th Street (with a deep setback and parking in front). The front parking lot (to the right of the building) provides for 57 spaces, while the rear parking lot (shown to the left) contains 38. (Presumably, the developer received a variance to provide 95 spaces, instead of the 99 dictated by the zoning code.)

Important note: No one in the history of parking has ever actually parked behind this store.

In the proposed update to the zoning code, this location in the historic Gillette neighborhood would be considered “urban” and would receive a reduction in the amount of required parking. The proposed zoning code would require 1 space / 300 SF of building, equaling 74 required parking spaces.

The amount of land that could have been saved by the proposed new code is shown in red below.

Office Depot 2a

Had the proposed zoning been in place years ago, it could have prevented the demolition of a historic home without impacting the success of the store.

Bad Zoning Costs Money

Why do you care? Because each 7,275 SF lot that was converted to surface parking for this store currently generates about $1,587 in property taxes. Compare this to the remaining homes along Lewis Avenue which generate, on average, $2,626 in property taxes per lot.

By NOT destroying one home for parking that nobody will ever use, Tulsans would have received 65% more in property taxes from that land than they do today.

That’s money that could have been funding public schools, community college, vo-tech, libraries… basically making the city a better place to live.

Or you could have a bunch of asphalt that nobody uses.

Excess parking also adds to the cost of retail space because developers must purchase more land than they actually need. Those costs are folded into the price of commercial leases, which are passed on to you, the consumer. Whether you drive to the store or not, you pay for the “free” parking with every purchase.

It’s Time for a Change

Here’s a better idea. What if we simply eliminated parking minimums from the zoning code? What if we let private land owners determine how many parking spaces were needed for any given development?

This wouldn’t eliminate parking, it would simply give developers the right to decide for themselves how much parking they really need.

(Telling an office supply store how much parking to provide is like telling them how much paper to stock on their shelves. It’s not a job that city planners are qualified to perform.)

Plus, in the age of Amazon Prime and online shopping, excessive parking requirements create a competitive disadvantage for brick and mortar stores. Every parking space adds to the cost of overhead. Meanwhile—in an ironic twist—the need for off-street parking is probably already decreasing due to the increase in online sales.

Without arbitrary parking minimums, the property owner would be incentivized to make the best use of the land. They might determine that 38 parking spaces are more than adequate for their parking needs—especially since the development is directly adjacent to a transit stop in a traditional, walkable neighborhood. (Bonus points if you noticed the bus stopped at the corner of 15th and Lewis in the pictures above.)

A wise developer would encourage transit use, cycling and walking because conserving land—wasting less land on unnecessary parking—means lower costs and/or more space available for buildings that actually generate income.

Small Changes Make a Big Difference

So, what’s an easy way to encourage walking, biking and transit for little or no cost? It’s pretty simple, really.

Bring the front of the building up to the street, making it convenient and safe for pedestrians to access the front door from the sidewalk. Plant trees along the sidewalk to make walking more pleasant and dignified. Create some window displays for people to look at as they walk by. Suddenly, you’re sending a new message: “This is a place for people!”

What would that look like?  Just imagine…

Office Depot 3

By eliminating parking minimums and bringing the building up to the corner where it belongs, we just preserved FOUR historic homes (increasing the tax base by 65% on each lot), while maintaining an ample supply of off-street parking for the store. There’s even space for a generous landscaping buffer between the parking lot and the residential uses. We’ve also increased the visibility of the commercial building by locating it at the corner of a busy intersection.

All of this can be achieved while making the city a better place for people.

It can be done through zoning.

Which maybe isn’t so boring after all.

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America’s Love Affair with Our …Dishwashers?

Posted on Apr 28, 2015

America’s Love Affair with Our …Dishwashers?

“Americans love their cars!” We hear it so often, we don’t even pause to think how false that statement is.

I own a car. I also own a refrigerator. And a lawn mower. I appreciate all three for what they’re worth. But love? Not so much.

(Funny that no one ever talks about “American’s love affair with their dishwashers.” Substitute any other appliance and it starts to sound kinky. Try it at a party; then watch as people suddenly take a keen interest in the guacamole tray on the other side of the room.)

We don’t love our cars; we love convenience and independence. We love the freedom to move when and where we please. And we want to get there quickly and efficiently. This is an important distinction.

We don’t drive because we love our cars, we drive because—for the past 60 years or so–an entrenched system of financial incentives and public policy has ensured our dependence on the automobile.

First, cities adopted zoning codes that “separated uses.”  This means that–for the first time–residential and commercial spaces could no longer co-exist.  Modern zoning prevented people from living above a store, and walking across the street to work.  Next, because everyone had to drive to every destination, we began prioritizing parking lots over people.  Finally, lenders encouraged suburban “greenfield” development, making it easier to build sprawl than to reinvest in older areas of the city.

The result?  We have created cities that are so spread out, we must travel great distances to fulfill our most basic needs. Whether we love or hate our cars, most of us need one just to get through the day.

Meanwhile, generations of inadequate funding have left our transit system operating on scraps. While we have invested billions in extending, widening and repaving streets for cars, we have failed to make comparable investments for transit, walking and biking.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when our underfunded transit system fails to deliver fast and efficient service. Imagine what our streets would look like if we hadn’t continually invested in them for the past 70 years!

It’s time for a change.

It’s time we stopped equating America, freedom and independence with the automobile. (It’s a tired old trope that fails to consider the very real burden that cars place on individuals, communities and the environment.) It’s time we started an honest conversation about transportation and the needs of people. And it’s time we started designing our cities, streets and neighborhoods for people, not parking. Only then can we make transit, walking and biking into viable options that will reduce auto-dependency moving forward.

The next time you hear someone talking about how much Americans love their automobiles, you can be ready with a retort: “America should be a place for people, not a place for people to park their cars.”

– Sarah Kobos

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Posted on Apr 6, 2015


Give this a try. Ask someone what’s most important in life. Then listen to their response.

Most likely, they will talk about the people they love. They will mention their spouses, their kids, their parents, their friends and their neighbors. Many will focus on their role as providers or caretakers. They may talk about their jobs, their faith, or their health. Or, you’ll learn about their passion for art, or gardening, or the local sports team. Others will talk about community: their favorite charities, the problems they want to solve, or the people who have made a difference in their lives.

You can quickly see a trend. Our priorities tend to center around family, community, connection, health, purpose, and joy.

With that thought in mind, take a fresh look at the city you call home.

Unless you’re lucky enough to live in a historic neighborhood or a traditional downtown, you’ll quickly see a disconnect between our values and the way we build our cities and towns.

That’s because–for the past 60 years or so–we have failed to design our environment for the people we love. We have failed to prioritize family, community, connection, health, purpose and joy. Instead, we have focused almost entirely on the movement and storage of cars.
Don’t believe me? Look around. What are the defining characteristics of the city you call home?

Wide streets, giant parking lots, enormous signs, and huge buildings dominate the typical suburban landscape. They dwarf us.

Future archaeologists will scratch their heads in wonder, puzzling over what strange species called this place home. The greatest scientific minds will excavate our cities and determine that the average human was 17 feet long, 6 feet wide, 5 feet tall, and traveled at speeds between 45 and 80 MPH. They will conjecture about the strange religious customs that required us to segregate our activities–preventing us from working or shopping in the vicinity where we lived or raised our young. They will marvel at our ability to construct concrete edifices, but wonder about the geo-political threats that must have caused us to disperse so widely across our territory.

What else could explain this ridiculous thing we’ve created?

We have dedicated millions of acres of land to asphalt. In doing so, we’ve created places where it’s not safe, much less desirable, to walk. Instead of bringing people together, we have created barriers. Sadly, we have created places where you need a car to cross the street.

We seem to care more about cars than ourselves. We have robbed ourselves of the pleasure of physical activity. (Would you rather drive to the gym, or walk to dinner?) Meanwhile, we have engineered an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease by making it impossible to get from place to place on foot.

In doing so, we have robbed our children and our elders of their ability to live independently. Instead of enjoying a purposeful, connected life, those who can’t drive become prisoners in their own homes. Unable to work, socialize or shop without driving, many become isolated and disengaged from their communities.

Meanwhile, the ever-increasing cost of maintaining roads and providing police and fire services to far-flung areas depletes municipal budgets. The parks budget is inevitably the first thing cut. Again, we provide for automotive travel, but not safe, enriching places where our children can run and play and make new friends.

We have systematically engineered the least efficient, least sustainable, least logical, and most expensive transportation system imaginable—and then designed our homes, businesses, schools, churches and parks to support that design.

We’ve made a mistake.

It’s time we started thinking about this. It’s time we started asking questions and demanding more.

We can fix it, but it won’t easy to overcome the powerful inertia of the status quo. It’s going to take knowledge and passion and dedication. It’s going to take a lot of people engaging in the process of shaping their communities.

It’s taken us 60 years to get to this point, so transformation won’t happen overnight. But we’ve got to start somewhere. So why not here? Why not now?

It’s time.

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