Category Archives: Car Costs

Three Easy Ways to Fix the Streets around the College

For a few more precious weeks, she sits in front of me as I ride her home from school. The bleary-eyed days of babies screaming the house awake two hours before dawn are being replaced by mornings I consider serving the kindergartener a cup of coffee before school.

Today, though, this last baby chatters about the “app-ohs” she had for snack, asks if dragons are allowed in our house, and repeatedly demands chicken nuggets for lunch.

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We cut through Hope College’s peaceful campus to take advantage of their leafy sidewalks, but a wrong turn this week brought us down one of the streets directly adjacent to the school instead. It was lined with parked cars on either side, and we enjoyed the slow pace of the street, a pace that matched our own. A car pulled out behind us as we rode that street, glided past us as we turned the corner. Two blocks later the driver pulled into a driveway, safely home.

American to the core, the student appeared to have driven five meager blocks. And this is our culture: we drive as a default, as a reflex. We drive because it feels like an indulgent waste of time to spend those precious minutes on a walk. We drive because it’s easy and we’re promised parking on the other end – and sometimes because it freaks us out to cross that one road. Most of us have done this, myself included.

But this student’s journey suggests a set of solutions to the questions our city is facing this season.

Front page in the local paper last Tuesday: Record enrollment at Hope College has huge impact on Holland.

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The two big issues are parties and traffic/parking.

The college has and maintains 998 total parking spaces, said Tom Bylsma, Hope College’s chief financial officer and vice president of business. Students must have permits to park and earlier this month, a total of 955 had been sold. It is standard to leave a small cushion of spaces for snow piles in the winter, he said.

“That should be enough,” Bylsma said, adding that historically, about one-third of the students have a vehicle.

The car-lined streets in the Hope College Neighborhood is a concern mentioned numerous times by people who live there.

Homeowners on 12th Street said if there is practice or a game at the soccer stadium, it is near impossible to get in or out of driveways.

Yet Hope officials have not had any formal discussions about a parking structure, Bylsma said, but added they would be open to conversations about it with city leaders.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Bylsma said. “No matter what college or university you go to there will be parking challenges. We feel the parking is sufficient.”

The real challenge is parking behaviors of people, he said. People tend to want to park as close and conveniently as possible to where they want to be “and often people park where they shouldn’t,” he said. “And often times that is what creates the problem.” (Emphasis mine.)

“I see the biggest problem is going to be parking,” City Councilman Wayne Klomparens said Wednesday, adding it was a problem when he went to school there.

Councilman Myron Trethewey suggested allowing parking on only one side of the roads in that neighborhood to help ease congestion.

I rode through campus again today to see how all those parking lots are looking, and I bet you’ve guessed it already:

Hope College - parking lotb

Tom Bylsma, quoted above, nails it: we want to park as close to our destination as we possibly can, and will only choose otherwise if there is a compelling reason to do so.

In addition to all the dedicated student parking lots, there is free street parking everywhere in the city during daytime hours. Much of this parking is blocks closer to the classroom buildings than the parking lots. The streets by the college are, indeed, lined with cars for much of the day.

Hope college - 12th street

Much to the neighbors’ chagrin, there is no disincentive to driving five blocks.

This is actually not a problem that’s difficult on a technical level. It’s been addressed, successfully, in many other places. But it does require us to begin to think a little bit differently about when and how we use our cars in the city. With that said, here are some great options:

Option 1: Meters

This would be a fun experiment. Leave everything precisely the same as it is now, but meter the on-street parking at a reasonable rate (I’ll leave it to the experts to determine what’s reasonable, though parking guru Donald Shoup suggests setting a price that produces 85% occupancy). Given my memories of how far I was willing to walk in college to avoid paying for parking, this might solve whatever problem we have all by itself.

The powerful thing about this option is that it’s revenue-producing. Even though we think of providing street parking as a free service, it’s not. Our streets are built and maintained out of the big bucket of property taxes that we all pay into, so we’re subsidizing all this extra driving and parking as a community (city-wide, not just in this area). Although we could just use the revenue to offset the additional wear-and-tear from the weight of the parked vehicles, this would also be a great opportunity to improve our city’s bikeways as an additional step in solving the parking problem. We’ll talk a little more about that below.

Option 2: Parking districts

Chicago parking pass

Homeowners on the street might not be any too enamored with the idea of meters on their streets, but there’s a tried-and-true workaround here, too – the parking district. The sticker above is still stuck to the windshield of my car from last weekend’s trip to visit my adorable niece (and her wonderful parents) in Chicago. My brother has a resident sticker on his car, and can park anywhere in his neighborhood zone for free. This is a guest pass, which is good for 24 hours and cost them about fifty cents.

(As a side note, maybe someday I’ll tell you guys about how much car ownership costs in Japan. Seven years back, and I still can’t get over how cheap it is here in comparison!)

Option 3: Quality network of bike lanes

Putting a price on parking will deter students who drive five blocks, but presenting a viable alternative to driving is essential for those who live further off-campus. Replacing parking lanes with appropriately-sized bike lanes – ideally, separated from moving traffic – would respect the transportation choices that so many students are already making and be an economic win for the city as a whole, too. I’m hoping to talk about this in more detail in coming weeks, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Rainbow shoes

My friends tell me that the pigtailed toddler in rainbow shoes will be headed off to college before I know it. I hope the city of her choice, the school of her choice, will have set up systems that make active transportation easy. I hope that spending the inordinate amount of money necessary to own and maintain a car will be a choice for her, and not a requirement. I hope that someone has decided to make room for her on the roads if she chooses to travel on two wheels, as she does today. And let’s do the same for our neighbors kids.

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Room to Breathe

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It was summer at its best. Grilled chicken, watermelon, second cousins, fireworks, a toddler belly-flopping off the dock… and traffic, the unsung Independence Day tradition!

On our way home from the cottage, my family was logjammed for over an hour passing through Grand Haven. We were struck by how many people on bikes were crossing the river on the gravelly shoulder of US-31 – many of them children, most without lights, and all without protection from the crazies trying to fly around the traffic jam.

The whole city seemed to be at a standstill…

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… and it brought this visual to mind.

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Can you imagine what it would be like in our cities if we had more room to breathe?

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image courtesy Copenhagenize Design Co.

You Have Fewer Choices than Your Grandma Did

What a summer! It’s been great fun, but I’m finding it extremely difficult to make time to write. So here’s a post from the archives to tide us over. Enjoy these last days of summer, and I’ll see you back here soon!

Laundry time is radio time for me. I try to choose a good hour (or three) and click on NPR, hoping for an uplifting tale to distract me from the interminable folding, folding, folding.

Friday morning was no disappointment. Morning Edition had a story on the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, with interviews of people who had been there, people who had been among the first to cross the bridge that first day. Great stories.

Courtesy Archive Americana. Click photo for link to original interview.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast; I enjoyed hearing the story and the voices telling it far more than just reading the article.

The line that jumped out at me was this quote from George Klein, who was 20 when the Golden Gate Bridge opened and is now 95. He was a former high school track star who ran across the bridge and back on opening day. His words:

“I could take a train, then a ferry, and then take another ferry and then a train and make it to downtown Oakland in an hour and five minutes. And I defy you to do that today with the bridges — that’s how things have changed.” (His story begins at 3:10 in the recording.)

There’s the rub when we consider the transportation revolution we’ve seen in the past seventy-five years in our country with our wholesale conversion to the automobile. On the surface, it’s a quintessential reflection of American individualism, traveling entirely on our own terms. Digging a little deeper uncovers a multitude of issues, not the least of which is that owning and being able to operate a vehicle is the entry fee to get around. That leaves out young people, many disabled people, elderly people, low-income people… a substantial chunk of our communities are left out of this equation. Some of those interviewed may well have been unable to walk across the bridge without the transit infrastructure to get them there first – infrastructure we’ve now largely lost.

Lucky for us, the story isn’t over.

If you have a story of transportation loved and lost, I’d love to hear it.

$7,000: In Your Community

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We took stimulating the local economy in Ithaca, New York very seriously. My vacation pictures WIN.

A while back, we talked about how much money would find its way back into your pocket if you went from being a two-car to one-car family (here). At the end of that article, I alluded to the the financial gains that our communities would also see as a result of this shift.

So we’re starting today with the premise from the last article – you have an extra $540 per month in your pocket. It’s great for you – what does it do for your community?

CEOs for Cities says this about the effect of low car-ownership rates in New York City:

It’s no secret that New York City’s high density, extensive transit and excellent walkability are fundamental contributors to the lifestyle enjoyed by its citizens. However, as this study shows, these factors are also major contributors to their economic well-being. Because New Yorkers drive substantially less than the average American, they realize a staggering $19 billion in savings each year — money that their counterparts in other metro areas spend on auto-related expenses. And because they spend so much less on cars and gasoline—money that quickly leaves the local economy—New Yorkers have much more purchasing power to spend locally, stimulating the city’s economy.

(The whole article is well worth a read, by the way. The link again HERE.)

It’s tempting to think that this is unique to New York City, but the economic principles are the same everywhere – and we DON’T have to operate at NYC densities in order to make it work. We’ll start by looking at why keeping money in the local economy is desirable, and then circle back around to how that relates to car ownership.

When it comes to the local economy, the basic principle at work is called the local multiplier effect. Here’s how it works: You have $10 in your pocket. You go to Lemonjello’s and get coffee for you and your kids. That $10 pays a staff member, who goes down to New Holland Brewery and tries a Black Tulip Tripel Ale (which is great, by the way). The chef takes the $10 spent there to the Holland Farmer’s Market to buy tomatoes for the salads. The farmer then takes the $10… you get the idea? This $10 has already functioned as $40 in our community, and it continues to be recycled through our local economy.

Obviously, it’s not quite that simple. Lemonjello’s uses a local roaster, but the coffee beans themselves are certainly not grown in Michigan. New Holland probably gets some of their restaurant supplies from Sysco or some other national retailer. There’s an attrition of dollars to national or international interests. There are benefits to this as well, but it stops that multiplier effect in its tracks.

Here’s the rub: Local businesses recycle many, many more dollars through the local economy than chain businesses do. Chain stores are able to be price-competitive because they take advantage of economies of scale, which they do by purchasing in large quantities from centralized suppliers. As a rule, they also don’t pay very well. Because of this the vast majority of the dollars that we spend there leave the local economy, as the chart below shows.

Local businesses keep far more money in the area than chain retailers do.

Here’s where this ties in to our car discussion: Most automotive spending functions in the same way as a chain retailer does. About 73% of the money we spend on gas purchases and 86% of the money we spend on car purchases immediately leaves the local economy (here). It’s a similar story for insurance.

Now, if you dropped a car and then spent every penny you saved in that transaction at Walmart and Applebee’s and Lowe’s, there would be essentially no impact on your community. You still win, but it’s a wash for your community. The dollars still leave.

But you won’t do that.

There’s a reasonable argument that local businesses will do better with more bicycle an pedestrian traffic than the big-box retailers just because they’re more accessible and neighborhood-based. It’s easier to run past a neighborhood business than it is to traverse the Walmart parking lot (do they make those things nightmares on purpose?) if you’re on foot or on a bike.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that the Holland-Zeeland area would see as much as $300 million* returned to the local economy^ EACH YEAR if every two-car household became a one-car household.

To put that in perspective, the City of Holland is currently trying to raise $2.1 million to repair the DeZwaan windmill. Cleaning up Lake Macatawa is expected to cost $12 million. We could do both of those projects in January, then build the equivalent of the entire lauded Portland bicycle system by June with that kind of savings.

(According to Elly Blue’s Dinner and Bikes presentation, this system cost $65 million to implement – and that over the course of over 20 years. In Grand Rapids, bike infrastructure has been costing about $10,000 per mile.)

Yes, I know that’s not how it really works. But it serves to illustrate just what an insane amount money we’re talking about here, even with necessarily imprecise numbers. And it doesn’t take into account savings due to:

  • decreased health care costs as a result improved health due to more active transportation
  • decreased health care costs as a result of fewer motor vehicle collisions
  • decreased infrastructure costs as a result of fewer traffic lanes needed

Now, it’s true that there would also be costs to owning and maintaining fewer cars. Oil change shops, car dealerships, and repair shops would suffer; some would go out of business. And because some sort of transportation would still be required – bus, bike, or feet – a certain amount of savings would be offset by these costs. The net gain is still mind-blowing.

The question is, what would it take to get there? And what are our biggest barriers? Logistics? Politics? Culture?

What do you think? Would it be worth it to you to shoot the moon and go for crazy?

After I finished writing this, I asked that the good folks over at the Strong Towns Netowrk check my numbers, and they steered to a series that Elly Blue (yes, of Dinner and Bikes!) wrote on the very same topic. You can find the first installment HERE – I recommend it highly. And last month, Copenhagenize did a similar breakdown for the city of Seattle.

*The average household size in Michigan is 2.51 people. The population of the Holland metropolitan area (the cities of Holland and Zeeland, Holland Charter Township, Park Township, Laketown Township, and Zeeland Township) is around 108,000. This means there are about 42,835 households in our area. As of 2007, a statistically average household owns 1.9 vehicles, so I rounded up to two. So at two cars per household, that’s about 85,670 vehicles at $7,000 each.

Speaking Up

Love? Pshhh. All you need is PARKING.
Click image for credit.

Speaking up kind of sucks.

I did it recently. It involved a building project and a big ugly parking lot that was drawn to blight a lovely neighborhood. I didn’t know the group in charge well, but they also weren’t strangers. So I sent an e-mail… then had a conversation… then sent another e-mail. What response did I get? None, followed by a bit of condescension, followed by no word at all. Next week, construction will commence on the parking lot, complete with a twenty-year loan.

Sooooo, that didn’t go so well.

Most of us have probably had the experience of being shot down at one point or another. So we decide that it’s just not worth it, and don’t say anything. And if we do this with our local groups, it’s just that much more true of public bodies.

It’s understandable. Our government (and sometimes our schools, our churches, our neighborhood organizations) can seem so inaccessible to us, so unresponsive to our real desires. Things just….HAPPEN. And what we think doesn’t seem to matter. E-mail falls into a black hole; phone calls go unreturned; demonstrations are ignored by lawmakers; corporate money wins the day… again. We think, “What’s the use?”

It SEEMS hopeless… but it’s not. Not every time, anyway.

Up in Traverse City, this sketch, presented to the DDA by a citizen…

iPad sketch submitted during council meeting

Inspired this project.

actual project, as built

(Click here for the original story.)

When I worked for a transit agency, the fare structure changed. Fares were raised on the door-to-door service, which is a very expensive service to run. It’s mostly used by the disabled and elderly, as well as some people without cars who worked or lived too far away from the regular fixed-route bus lines to ride those. It was a substantial fare increase, and those who count on it REALLY need it. But do you know who came to the public hearing to let the Board know what they thought of it? One woman with Down’s syndrome, this woman’s parents, a paid disability advocate, and two bus drivers. Half a million rides per year, and only ONE person who would be personally, directly affected showed up for the meeting! Know what happened? The impassioned and emotional plea of two parents on behalf of their daughter persuaded the Board to offer a special lower-priced pass for disabled passengers to lessen the economic impact on them. All because one family showed up for a meeting!

I need to be reminded of this a lot – that it never hurts to ask. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do, where to start, who to call. For me, too. I’m working on a resource page that I hope to launch soon that will include some ideas for where to start and how to do just that. Ideas welcome, either here or on our Facebook page.

As for me, I’m on to the next thing. What will you do this week?

$7,000: In Your Pocket

A month or so ago, I asked my Facebook friends the following question.

Someone just gave you a tax-free raise of $7,000 a year. What do you do with it?

The responses I got were inspiring. We have so many dreams! Things like college funds, retirement, savings to support aged parents, paying off debt, investing, emergency funds, charitable giving, new bikes, and of course tropical vacations. In essence, all those things that we really want to do but haven’t quite figured out how to properly fund. We know that wages have stagnated – or even fallen – in recent decades. But what can we do about it? Well…

$7,000 is about how much it costs to own one car for one year.

The numbers on car ownership costs vary depending on how you calculate them. They usually include the cost of gas, maintenance, and insurance; the cost of the car itself and/or wear and tear may or may not be included. The AAA estimates that we spend over $9,000 per year, I found ranges from $2,800 for the lowest-income families to $15,000 for the owners of luxury vehicles (here). I went with kind of a low-ball figure for my informal survey, but it’s possible to spend less than that – most of us don’t, though.

Does that make you feel empowered, because here is something you can do? Discouraged, because the very idea is overwhelming?

I felt a little bit of both. It’s possible to be a one-car family in the suburbs, but it’s not easy. I’ve found it to be socially isolating, and if you run out of milk (or, heaven forbid, coffee), you’re stuck. Our family has gone back and forth between one car and two, plus or minus a motorcycle. It was doable for us before the kids were in school, but tricky.

(On a side note, I met another person on a bike outside the coffee shop this morning – a beautiful bright yellow one. “Ran out of coffee at home,” he said.)

But if you get paid biweekly, dropping a car will almost immediately put an extra $270 in your pocket every single pay period. Sometimes I like to ask myself – if I were starting from scratch, would I still choose a second car knowing that the convenience cost is $540 per month? Is that REALLY worth it? Or could we use our bikes more, ride the bus, or drop each other off places?

In fact, I’m asking the question again as I write this article.

Right now, we have two paid-for cars (that still require a lot of maintenance, gas, and insurance). We’d like to try dropping back down to one after our hopeful move into town in the next several months. When I think of how much we could use that $540 a month for, it’s almost a no-brainer (almost – because we are Americans, after all!).

So there’s the personal side of both the social and financial costs of car ownership. From the standpoint of our local economy the impact of all this extra money becomes staggering, and we’ll return to this topic in the next few weeks.