The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Home Is Where the Parking Is

On Saturday my neighbors in the apartments across the street were having a yard sale, and we were joking about how much stuff we've accumulated. I recalled that when I was in college I thought I could go through life with just a wok and a camera.

Now our closets are overfull. On our bookshelves, books hide behind books (and old VHS cassettes). Obsolescent electronics await the trip to the City Yards for e-waste recycling. Bags of old sports equipment jam the shelves above the washer.

But as with most Americans, the most space-consuming items of personal property we own are our cars, and finding a place to put them when not in use is a big deal. When we built our house, as required in Santa Monica, we had to build a two-car garage, at considerable expense.

We don't have an alley, so our double garage door is on the street, and it presents a rather unfriendly face. The curb cuts also take up parking spaces from the street: the city requires two private places, but loses one public one. I swear to my readers that our two cars sleep in our garage at night, but a lot of the garages in Santa Monica are used for other purposes.

Here is a little photo essay on garage doors, old and new, from a few blocks of Sixth Street.

6th Street garages (Photos by Frank Gruber)

The storage of automobiles has a big impact on the shaping of our cities. In fact, parking has a big impact on our economy. UCLA professor Donald Shoup wrote a large book -- The High Cost of Free Parking -- that is remarkable in part for how well its six-word title summarizes its 752 pages.

There happens to be plenty of parking around my house. It's a residential neighborhood several blocks and up a hill from the businesses on Lincoln. There are two elementary schools at Los Amigos Park, but the teachers have a parking lot (i.e., free parking). There is a parking crunch only at night sometimes when there's a big AA meeting at Joslyn Park or on Saturdays when there is youth soccer at Los Amigos.

We have now been included, however, in the City's newest preferential parking district, which extends all the way from Pico to Ocean Park Boulevard, from Fourth to Lincoln. (see story) The zone will reserve street parking for residents that Santa Monica High School students now commandeer.

Although at present few students park as far south as Hollister, where I live, the blocks near Pico, around Bay and Grant, fill up with student cars when school is in session.

The students may be the ultimate reason for the parking crunch, but they are not the proximate cause. The neighbors who told the City Council that they wanted preferential parking said that they only started to have parking problems three or four years ago. The reason: that when the City established preferential parking on the east side of Lincoln, it drove all the students to this one neighborhood near the school without restrictions.

So after the meeting, the neighbors may have been thanking the four City Council members (Richard Bloom, Ken Genser, Kevin McKeown and Bobby Shriver) who voted in favor of the parking zone, but it was actually they who created their parking problem by approving the other parking districts. City Council member Pam O'Connor voted against the zone, as she nearly always does.

If the City could find a way to distribute the student parking evenly within a three or four block radius around the high school, there would be enough parking for the students and the residents. But the students bunch up as close as they can to the school because they, like everyone else, want to walk as little as possible. So the residents on those streets are squeezed, while a block or two away -- not too far to walk for those teenage legs -- there is plenty of parking.

Preferential parking is in fact a good tool to use to manage parking resources. Residents don't own their street parking, but it's reasonable to give them the first shot at it. But in Santa Monica preferential parking is used as a blunt instrument. There are ways to use it to spread parking around to avoid concentrations.

The most basic technique is to apply the permit requirement to only one side of the street. Getting first dibs on half the parking is generally enough to satisfy residents during the day. The City tried this in the neighborhood east of Lincoln, but the experiment was doomed to fail, because the City tried it on only one block that was surrounded by blocks that were fully off limits to non-residents. Chaos on that block ensued.

What the City needs to do is apply one-side-of-the-street preferential parking to entire districts. That will spread out the parking.

So now what happens to the students who drive to Samo? There was a lot of talk at the City Council hearing about how they could buy parking at the new Civic Center parking structure, and that how perhaps this should be subsidized, as if entitling students to subsidized parking is a good civics lesson in a "sustainable" city.

The real problem with using the new structure for the students is that the City did not build it to create more parking. The City built it to replace the surface lots south of the Courthouse, so the City can turn the lots into a park. The last thing we need is to find out a few years from now that we can't build the park, because we "need" both the parking in the structure and on the lots.

Which is why managing our on-street parking is important. The last thing the City (or the School District) should do is spend money to build expensive and mostly unneeded new parking structures -- as the City did under the new library and which it now intends to do downtown.

It would be nice to make the environmentally pure argument that by severely limiting parking, students would take the bus to school, but that's not going to happen. If anything, more students would end up being dropped off and picked up by their parents, creating even more traffic.

With a little bit of creative thinking and some political will, the City could create a shared parking management plan for the whole area around the high school involving a block-by-block analysis of parking resources and the sale of permits to both residents and students.

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