By Milo Feldman
It’s Saturday morning and you’re driving through downtown Davis, stopping every five seconds at a stop sign for that random jaywalker. It’s bumper-to-bumper traffic at each stop, and you’re barely moving faster than the pedestrians who just always seem to have the right of way apparently.
So maybe you forgot it was a Farmer’s Market day. But still, why are there so many cars in this cow town? In a town that is known for having “more bikes than people” (and probably fewer cars than people), why are there seemingly more cars than bikes out right now?
And yet, you finally make it into the F street parking lot and it’s entirely full. “Why isn’t there more parking downtown?” You sigh, almost hit a biker (oops), and pull out of the lot, trying your luck in the parking garage by Good Friends.
If you’re an adult living in the United States, chances are you’ve had both of these thoughts––sometimes on the same day, or in the same hour. They’re necessarily conflicting ideas, as the number of people on the road and the lack of parking are entirely codependent factors.
“The more parking you create, the more people drive. And the more people drive, the more parking you need to create. We have created this vicious cycle of this sort of ruined urban environment in which it’s impossible to do anything but drive,” said Henry Grabar in an interview with NPR.
Phoebe Lau, a fourth-year Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation major at UC Davis from Foster City, California, has a driver’s license but doesn’t like driving. “The other cars stress me out,” she says. She doesn’t own a car, bikes and busses while in Davis, but when she returns home, she has to drive to get anywhere. “There’s buses that go to San Francisco but hardly any public transportation within [Foster City].” Living in Davis is possible without a car. But her roommates have cars, so she can still leave town for trips that would be very unpleasant bike rides.
Another fourth-year, Biosystems Engineering student Taylor Scobey, also isn’t a big fan of driving. While not uneasy about her driving capability, she wishes she didn’t have to rely on driving. She is an avid biker but owns a car so she can drive back to her hometown, Santa Rosa.
Davis is one of the best towns in America to live in without a car—it certainly isn’t impossible, especially when compared to many of the sprawling cities and towns in America. But it’s not likely that you’ll be able to live here long enough without wanting or needing a car. Both Lau and Scobey find that Davis is much easier to navigate without a car because of the lack of public transportation in their hometowns.
From what I have observed throughout my four years here, three of them without a car, the biggest pull factors for driving a car in Davis are as follows:
First, many people don’t live in close enough proximity to a grocery store for walking, biking, or bussing to be convenient. Grocery shopping becomes an event, and carrying more than one or two bags of groceries without a car is feasible, but certainly not easy depending on your location.
Second, getting out of town is a lot easier with a car. Bussing to Sacramento, San Francisco, or other cities is pretty doable and not too expensive, but you can’t easily leave Davis to enjoy nature. You can also take Amtrak, but, Scobey mentioned, “Amtrak isn’t super affordable, which is disappointing.” An Amtrak coach ticket is more expensive than splitting the cost of gas with friends, and for longer trips, often much more expensive than a plane ride, especially if you want to stop in a location for more than a few-hour layover.
Third, there are no Unitrans after around 9:30 pm, and no Yolobus after about 10:30 pm (which do not go into East, South, West, and much of North Davis beyond the intersection of Anderson and Covell), so going out at night requires biking, walking, or Ubering, which can be scary, dangerous, and pricy, respectively.
The aforementioned Henry Grabar’s new book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World examines parking in the United States. In short, he found that with great parking comes great sacrifice: front porches, walkable communities, and, frequently, affordable housing. Grabar argues that the housing crisis is intrinsically entangled with our reliance on cars and the need for parking.
He explained that as a country, we are too focused on housing for our cars instead of housing for people, which can be clearly deduced by looking at the requirements for new building projects. In almost any jurisdiction, there are minimum parking requirements for any new building project, yet there are maximums for housing in each jurisdiction.
“So the fact that we’ve ended up with a surplus of parking and a shortage of housing is no surprise – in fact, it’s by design,” Grabar said to Manuela López Restrepo with NPR. He found in his research that by square feet, there is more housing for cars than for people in the United States. To further support his point, he mentioned that Bloomberg reported in 2016 that more 3-car garages were built than one-bedroom apartments.
Grabar talked to a planner to understand how much of a barrier parking is to building projects. The planner told him that everyone who comes to the planning department with plans for an ice sculpture, and by the time they’ve whittled it down to make sure there’s enough parking, it’s an ice cube.
“And I think that neatly summarizes the distinction between pre-parking American architecture, which is ornate and interesting and fills the whole lot, and post-parking American architecture which basically looks like a fast food restaurant surrounded by parking spaces,” Grabar says.
And this is not that surprising to anyone in Davis, especially seeing the construction of The Green and Sol at West Village, with their sprawling parking lots that match the modern buildings in the space they require. Off-campus, we notice the parking question in the years-long planning for the renovations of the University Mall.
The original plans to turn the lot into a mixed residential and commercial lot around 260 apartments and a three-story parking garage were passed by City Council but turned down by the mall owner Brixmor due to the costs and the inability to find a residential builder.
Brixmor proposed a commercial-only plan, now named The Davis Collection, that was approved by the Planning Commission and then halted when Davis City Councilman Bapu Vaitla filed an appeal due to the loss of the housing component which does not align with Davis’ General Plan to have affordable housing options. The reality of creating affordable housing in the prime location on the corner of campus gets more complicated when the question of parking arises.
The parking requirements for the housing units as well as the businesses mean that for a mixed-use project, there must be a large garage or parking lot, which would reduce the amount of housing and businesses that could exist, and would play into the positive feedback cycle Grabar describes — the more parking created, the more people will be coaxed into driving because of the ease of parking. Maybe people who live relatively close by would have biked or taken the bus to shop at Trader Joe’s or The Old Teahouse if parking wasn’t readily available.
Grabar also mentioned that he has found that parking allows people to mask racist, classist, anti-immigrant sentiment under the guise of worrying about parking availability. He noticed this in Solana Beach, where plans to build an affordable housing project for ten families, called “The Pearl” were disrupted over the course of a decade. The neighbors complained about the supposed parking shortage, even though the developer was going to create parking for the residents on-site as well as additional parking for residential commercial use.
“It’s not acceptable to get up at a community meeting and say ‘we don’t want any poor people to live in the neighborhood.’ But if you get up at a community meeting like this one in Solana Beach and you say ‘we are concerned about the parking supply,’ well, that’s a legitimate excuse.”
In order to create a world with better parking, we must create a world with worse parking. That means getting rid of parking minimums which have created our parking abundance and reliance on driving. With that comes the architectural renaissance of moving parking to the back, moving residences and businesses closer together, and making streets more walkable.
It’s possible not to drive so much if the rest of the country follows Davis’ example and establishes bike-friendly roads. People drive because it is more convenient than not driving, so the first step is eliminating parking minimums while strengthening public transportation and creating walkable communities.
IMAGE CREDITS: “The Parking Lot” by Alden Jewell https://www.flickr.com/photos/autohistorian/16598201447