Monday, September 17, 2007
Parking, New Housing, and a few NIMBY Myths
Show me a new residential development in Hyde Park, and I'll show you a clutch of NIMBYs with a petition against it.
What are the usual NIMBY objections? Well, once you get beyond the rhetorically powerful but empirically dubious claim that new development poses a "danger to our children," somehow putting new housing on the same threat level as Osama Bin Laden, NIMBY opposition to new development typically boils down to the matter-of-fact issues of parking and density.
A mid-rise or high-rise tower, the NIMBY argument goes, will put more cars on the street, adding to the congestion that already exists. Too many people, plus too many cars, means a deterioration in the quality of life that now exists at an ideal point of equilibrium. From this perspective cities, and places within them like Hyde Park, shouldn't have too many people.
Unfortunately for the NIMBY argument, empirical data on household auto ownership show that NIMBYs often get things backwards. Which is why we need to keep a few simple facts in mind when considering NIMBY objections to new development: 1) that greater density of housing leads to less use of automobiles, not more; and 2) that greater density of housing leads to a correspondingly smaller demand for parking.
Here's how we support these assertions. (All figures below are taken from the 2000 US Census.)
In the City of Chicago, according to the 2000 census, 31% of people got to work without a car. They walked, they biked, they they took the train, bus, or shuttle; or they worked from home. This is something that is not possible in most suburban environments, and directly correlates to higher residential densities, because people's homes and jobs tend to be further apart in suburbs.
In the City of Chicago, the average rate of household auto ownership is 0.9. That is slightly less than 1 car per household. This number means that there are a substantial number of Chicago households that do not own a car. In many Chicago neighborhoods, the number of households that do not own a car is between 30 and 40%. In Hyde Park, it is 48%.
In fact, the greater the residential density, the lower the rate of household auto ownership. This is why high-rise housing needs less than 1:1 parking per unit. This is true not only of Chicago, but has been empirically demonstrated in Los Angeles, San Francisco, places like Metro DC and Arlington County, and, of course, New York City. Similar trends are detectable in the urban cores of most older US cities. The research suggests that it is probably a very general rule of urban life. This becomes clear if we look at comparable rates in nearby suburbs.
In a suburban community like Downers Grove, for example, the number of households without a car is only 9%. In Elmhurst, 6%. In Highland Park, 4%. In Wilmette, 2%. Returning to Hyde Park, the number jumps to 48%.
Clearly, we don't need the same ratios of parking per household as are found in the suburbs. And if we build for those ratios, we would guarantee that more cars would be on the street. As far as congestion goes, adding parking is like adding a lane to the expressway: upping supply only ups demand.
The upshot of all this is that, in an urban environment with sufficient non-auto modes of transportation like Chicago -- safe and accessible pedestrian ways, bike lanes, public transportation, cabs, paratransit -- it is possible to build in such a way as to reduce the need to drive, thereby reducing auto congestion. Where people have alternatives -- in dense urban environments -- they drive less. Beyond a certain point, not owning a car actually becomes a feasible option for many city households. I know people who don't own cars. I even know some who don't even drive. You may, too.
What's more, all of these numbers used to be much higher before the onset of suburbanization. The critics of density within city limits have a poor appreciation for local history. Chicago's population has steadily dropped until quite recently, when it began to stabilize due to immigration. Looking at just Hyde Park, we see a drop in population of 34% between 1960 and 2000, or a decline of about 22,000 people.
There are 22,000 fewer people in Hyde Park than there were just 40 some years ago! That is the size of a small town, and similar trends are to be identified across the City and region. Neither Hyde Park nor the City are likely to ever reach these levels again, but this was the population level when Hyde Park was the prosperous, well-served neighborhood that old timers (really old timers) remember. Given this demographic history, the argument that Hyde Park can't support more density simply falls apart.
Hyde Park, like most of Chicago, was built to house far, far more people than it does today. In fact, as an economic and cultural system, Chicago is much more efficient where it has managed to preserve levels of density closer to those of the pre-suburbanization period. More households mean more property taxes, which means a higher tax base, which means better schools and services; it means more transit riders, which means more operating revenue for the CTA, and fewer budget crises; it means more people on the street, which means greater safety; and it means larger markets, which means more and better shopping close by.
Does this add up to a threat to our children? Hardly. Does it add up to more congestion? No. The NIMBY argument is a knee-jerk reaction to change with no basis in fact. The push by neighborhood groups for lower density and more parking means that NIMBYs are pushing suburban conditions in an urban environment, resulting in the worst of both worlds.
What NIMBYs don't point out in their petitions is that the suburban conditions that they long for come with a host of their own problems: greater auto usage, even worse congestion, worsened air quality, higher rates of household spending on transportation, and higher greenhouse gas emissions.
Does this sound like an acceptable vision of the common good?