People and cars

Different priorities

European cities are moving aggressively to promote alternative forms of transport to the car in their downtown areas, not just with friendly programs like easy public bike rental stands (one in Copenhagen is pictured above), but with  programs that are downright unfriendly to the automobile: street closings, traffic light sequences designed to slow car commutes; disappearing parking spaces; hi gas taxes and usage fees. An article in the New York Times discusses this in depth.

Lots of public expenditure for warehousing single-occupancy cars

Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, American cities are still overwhelmingly planning their cities around the automobile (above is a large parking deck recently finished in downtown Birmingham whose volume is almost entirely given over to the daytime warehousing of single-occupancy vehicles. At night, its eerie fluorescent lights hum over thousands of empty square feet at a prominent intersection, Richard Arrington Blvd. and 4th Avenue North).

Current zoning laws require far too much parking for certain uses in certain urban environments. Even when they don’t, market forces–including lending institutions which refuse to contemplate anything but car-centric projects–end up mandating the same car-dependent situation. European cities have learned that vibrant center cities are vibrant because of people, not vehicles. Public policy, gas taxes, and history make this an easier sell over there. Here, it’s a lot easier to pave a road for cars than to stripe a lane for bikes, or construct a decent transit system. We can’t turn ourselves into Europeans, but we could sure learn a lesson or two.

[thanks to mreames for the bikes shot; terry mccombs for the parking deck shot]

14 responses to “People and cars

  1. Agreed. Birmingham hardly needs another parking deck (even though the one you pictured is preferable to almost all of the ones we already have). But, there are hardly any other options to those who don’t live in the downtown core. We would do better to improve the transit system, even if only within the downtown core and nearby neighborhoods like Norwood, Glen Iris, Five Points South, Five Points West, Highland Park, Forest Park, etc. Right now the transit footprint is too large to really be manageable given the resources. By scaling back a bit, we could dedicate more resources to the lines that would be used the most, make those really excel, and then move out from there once the ridership increases.

  2. It’s always struck me as silly that parking deck doesn’t have at least a single storefront on the corner. A shame, too, since it shares a corner with the Redmont, which deserves a vibrant street life, if for nothing but the benefit of its guests. Of course, a quick glance across the street to the north half of that intersection makes that new deck look mighty fine.

    • That big empty stair tower at the corner is not ideal. Definitely should have been commercial. There is storefront space to either side of the corner, but it feels like an afterthought, has suburban-style planting obscuring the glass, and needless to say no takers.

  3. That’s a great idea, BHam!! I like the way you think.

    It’s going to take something else as revolutionary as the automobile to ween Americans off the beasties, though I have no idea what that might be. With the current car worshippers at ALDOT ruling over the roost, it’s going to take a concerted effort to get more transportation options offered for our region. It’s haaaaaaaard to beat the ease of mobility the car gives each of us, though. I liken it to an addiction. :~/

    • In Europe it’s narrow streets, high gas taxes, smart zoning regulations, and excellent transit systems that wean people away from cars. You are right, it is much harder here, both with the general public and with ALDOT. It is crazy Alabama is one of only 2 or 3 states that offers no public funding for non-auto transportation. Crazy.

  4. Does the Transit Authority publish its ridership figures on a route by route basis?

    I think it would be important, if considering consolidating/cutting lines that you don’t cut ones in disadvantaged areas where they could very well be the only method of getting around. Turning downtown into an upperclass playground shouldn’t be the end goal.

    • That is a good question. I am not suggesting that we just axe routes to poor neighborhoods. In fact, if ridership is higher on these routes, then I would be for dedicating more resources to these routes to make them more consistent. However, I am sure there are some tradeoffs that can be made to increase efficiency. If adding a bus to one route and making the route more reliable in the process would increase ridership by 50 people per day, whereas an existing route only serves 10 people per day, then I would think the trade-off would be a net positive.

      As it is, the transit authority runs buses as far south as Shelby County, as far west as Lipscomb, and as far northeast as Center Point. I guess I am just suggesting a tightened focus that would make it easier for the system be more reliable, and possibly cheaper. I think both of those things would increase ridership.

      • The best would be to get a new, dedicated source of funding for an enhanced core tram/rapid bus network. The existing bus system would be in place, and would link in. The success and ridership of the core would open up demand for improvements to the rest of the network.

    • As underfunded as they are, I think BJCTA has nothing but the most basic of ridership numbers, making it difficult to analyze routes. There are union issues as well, making it hard to experiment with changes. A well-done rapid bus or tram system serving downtown and UAB would link with Central Station to serve riders coming from working class districts–everyone would benefit. You are right that as skeletal as it is, it would be very bad news to cut regular bus service from some of those places.

  5. I recently rode the bus home from work which took me from central station to Hoover. What struck me was the obvious inefficiency of having three bus routes that use all or part of Red Mountain Expressway/U.S. 31 that do not connect with each other at common nodes. For instance if I wanted to ride the bus from Hoover to Brookwood Mall I would have to come all the way in to Central Station and then take another bus back down 31 to the mall. The same goes for all parts of Homewood. It seems as though the entire system is set up to discourage use. That said the bus to Hoover was packed at 5:30 in the afternoon.

    • Having your experience really hits the point home that rather than a regionally integrated system, what we have is a patchwork created not out of sound transport logic, but rather based on which municipality is paying what amount of money, and agreeing to which routes. It’s bewildering and embarrassing. I don’t bus when people say “Birmingham is too sprawling” or “we’re too car-crazy” to have good transit. Look at Charlotte or Dallas–both much more sprawling than us, and both car-crazy, but both making good progress in transit investment which has led to tangible economic development.

  6. I see only buses running empty or near-empty. Bham News writes editorials pushing transit, but they have never produced a serious look at these issues. And nobody mentions that density across much of Birmingham won’t support bus service more frequent than once an hour. Without parking decks, Birmingham would have many more asphalt parking lots. Here they are necessary tool for urbanism. Also, the new deck across from the Redmont is fitted with storefronts if there is ever demand.

  7. A further note about parking decks: Of the four early skyscapers at Heaviest Corner, the two that have been refurbished include new parking decks, the Woodward Building’s by the owner, the John Hand Building built and leased by the Birmingham Parking Authority. Neither of the remaining two towers will proceed without something similar. Decks can be good urban neighbors if designed properly.

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