Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Improving Parking in Westchester?

The town of Tarrytown, NY recently instituted special valet parking to ease the shortage of parking spaces for shoppers, restaurant patrons, and movie goers, said a NY Times article on Dec. 31.

When I read articles like this one, I often wonder, has the world really gone crazy? But I think the bigger issue is why this isn't as obviously crazy to other people as it is to me.

I could be preaching to the choir when I say I find it unbelievable that in lieu of going through the extraordinary measure of sending cars out of town via valet parking, Tarrytown officials have not first adopted a yellow bike system, built more bike lanes, developed secure bike parking, and created safer conditions for cycling to town.

The valet parking measure was only partially successfull according to Steven McCabe, village administrator.

The Times also reported that Tarrytown is not alone in trying to address parking woes, and that "municipalities throughout Westchester County, striving to improve their downtowns, are confronted with a lack of space to create convenient parking.

One of the problems, according to J. Michael Cindrich, the mayor of Mount Kisco, is what he calls “suburban syndrome.”

“Everyone wants to park right in front of an establishment and walk in the door,” he said, according to the Times.

Said one cyclist Mike Pidel, who often visits Tarrytown and lives nearby, the problem with cars and parking is so bad that it affects cyclists, and he often feels it is more dangerous because of the lack of parking. But he also blamed local ordinances for allowing private home owners to block off precious parking spaces with their driveways, and local businesses, for allowing their employees to park in front of their establishments.

It is no secret to Americans that car ownership has more than tripled since the 1960's: Families in the suburbs are the worst offenders, some owning more than 4 cars per household of five people. It's no wonder there is no parking, no room on the highway, and tremendous traffic jams every day.

Owning one car--just one car--creates the second largest source of spending in an American household according to the 2004 U.S. Bureau of Labor who calculated that a car consumes 17 percent of household income after shelter of 32 percent, well above food which consumes 13 percent of our take home pay.

Yet, the Sierra Club reported that "auto ownership and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) continue to grow." U.S. VMT grew at rates over 3 percent per year during the 1980s, and is forecast to increase 25 percent per capita between 1990 and 2010, they said.

Since 1970, the number of miles Americans travel by car every year has grown from a little over 1 trillion to about 3.5 trillion according to the Federal Highway Administration.

So whose fault is it, and what can we do to change the situation?

It's everyone's fault really, but let's start with government, who are pouring their energies into building faster and better roads, while neglecting the bare essentials for safe cycling and bike parking.

We're also talking about neglecting the barest bike necessities, such as not even being able to take your bike on a bus when you cross a bridge--say the Tappan Zee, 24 hours a day, or the George Washington at night--because there are no bike facilities to cross the bridge.

It seems incredible that a town would devote so much energy to building valet parking before its even attempted to establish safe bike parking and bike lanes, or increased ticketing for dangerous driving around cyclists.

Then there are the people who get sucked into the fantasy that drivng a car is cool, and should be as essential to your character set as a pair of Gucci sunglasses. The reality, not driven by advertising, is that driving a car instead of riding a bike makes you sedentary and overweight.

So what can you do? You can recognize the organizations that are struggling to help small upstate towns reconfigure their streets and byways in ways that are meaningful for the coming centuries, such as the New York Bicycling Coalition (www.nybc.org).

With the help of Josh Poppel, their director, the organization maps roads that cyclists feel are unsafe and offers voluntary solutions for reconfiguring the town's transportation dynamics. So supporting organizations like NYBC is an essential first step.

The other major step you can take is to vote people into office that you know will make the right changes.

A 2005 study conducted by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler under a joint arrangement with the University of Sydney, Australia, and Rutgers University sought to understand why Canadians cycle three times as often as Americans.

They found that having limited parking meant that people cycled more--which implies that Tarrytown's move is even more lacking in vision than they imagined--and that greater bike networks and a targeted government effort at increasing cycling and cycling safety made the big difference.

Make your needs known, and put your vote, and your money, where your mouth is.

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