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Innovations in Parking Can Mitigate Climate Change

Shifting from a car-centric society to a more equitable, mobility oriented one


Dr. Daniel Sperling, professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, was in town recently talking about the revolution happening in mobility with automated, shared, and electric vehicles. As a decade-long member of the California Air Resources Board, he plays a central role in shaping our policies relating to climate change, alternative fuels, vehicle travel and land use, and zero-emission vehicle programs. Many believe that the Air Resources Board is the most potent agency in Sacramento, and Sperling is at the center of its decision-making.

California is the epitome of car-centered development and culture. Interestingly, Seattle, with a similar car-centric history, just enacted a package of far-reaching parking-regulation reforms. The intent is to establish a better balance between all transportation modes, make the city more people friendly, and address climate change. One feature exempts any commercial or residential project within a quarter mile of high-frequency bus stops or a half mile from light-rail stops from providing parking spaces. The reforms also eliminate parking requirements for all nonprofit affordable housing developments anywhere in the city.

Building parking is expensive — $20,000-$40,000 for each space, according to a 2015 Seattle Metro report. Moreover, per the report, 30-40 percent of off-street parking goes unused each night. This parking construction expense gets passed on to tenants in the form of higher rents.

Beyond eliminating parking minimums, the new regulations require commercial and residential building to unbundle rent from parking costs. This means parking will be an added charge and building managers can’t charge people for parking that they don’t use. Uncoupling makes the cost of parking, $200 per month on average in Seattle, more transparent. In addition, to increase the use of existing excess parking, new flexibility will allow anyone to pay for vacant off-street parking spaces, either for an evening when on-street parking is full or for long-term parking. Currently, 27 percent of Seattle renters don’t own a car. These parking innovations will certainly discourage car ownership.

Parking reduction plays a crucial environmental role. Transportation accounts for 66 percent of Seattle’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Passenger vehicles are the source of half of these emissions.

Dr. Sperling foresees greater social equity with the proliferation of electric vehicles; the spread of Uber- or Lyft-type services, especially pooling services; and the adoption of driverless vehicles. Facilitating shared rides — pooling — is being greatly enabled by smartphones, social networking, and the mobile internet. More people who currently can’t drive — e.g., because they are too young, too old, or too infirm — will have more mobility options. Moreover, the experts argue that these options will offer the same or greater convenience as owning a car, but at much reduced cost — perhaps as little as a 10th of the cost, some claim.

Just think: No more worrying about metered parking or filling the gas tank when the gauge gets low; no more experiencing the hassle of getting the car serviced or needing expensive repairs. The future of mobility looks bright: more inclusiveness, less cost, less of a city’s real estate devoted to roads and parking, less air pollution, and help with offsetting climate change.

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