No Parking

I

A STORE in a museum sounds a little out of place when you first hear of it. But standing before the old-time country store exhibit in the Municipal Museum of Rochester, New York, you realize it deserves preservation as an antiquity. That kind of store, once a potent institution in the social life of western New York, has now vanished from those parts to live on in rural backwaters and mountain slopes.

The shift from animal to motorized transportation has affected every phase of our social environment. It destroyed the country general store in well-motorized areas and now clutters the streets of business centres so that trade is being hampered in the great urban general stores. This article is a layman’s attempt to examine the parking problem with relation to the city trading areas. The interests at stake are so valuable that one may reasonably expect merchants and landlords to act with more celerity than the general public. The public is sadly inconvenienced by the immobile automobile, but the existence of great stores is actually threatened by it.

The automobile killed the country store. Customers, responding to the pull of advertising, could go farther for their goods in search of lower prices and widor selections. They changed their gait, but not their goad. The urban department store, which had its greatest development in the period including the maturity of the streetcar and the adolescence of the automobile, is also a general store. Although larger and better organized, it is still an omnium-gatherum, stocked to meet all common family wants. Competing department stores cluster in locations accessible to mass transportation facilities, of which the street railway was once the most potent. The trend toward concentration continued as long as streets in and near the shopping districts could hold the parked vehicles of retail buyers without blocking the essential movement of merchandise in and out of the area.

When that point was reached, the benefits of centralization began to fade. The general store took the first hesitant steps in a retreat toward the country. Some of the well-centred department stores established branches in residential areas in order that their prospective customers might trade there without too much lost time and motion. New department stores began to arise in the suburbs, where cheap land provided more parking space. The great mailorder houses, holding their hand until sure that streetcars were vanishing as automobiles increased, put millions into peripheral emporia, with ample parking spaces of their own roundabout. Chain stores spread swiftly; even the unchained village storekeeper benefited when his customers found that the difficulty of buying in the near-by urban centre decreased the lure of advertised bargains. Occasionally a crossroads country store, which by some miracle of merchandising had kept fairly alert and efficient through its time of trouble, discovered that its isolated location had regained pulling power.

Decentralization of merchandising is society’s defeatist answer to automobiles abandoned in shoals by their owners.

A pedestrian may be defined as a person on his way from one motorcar to another. A traffic count in your city would probably show that 80 per cent of all persons passing the enumeration points were traveling in automobiles, and only 20 per cent in streetcars or on foot. Of the foot travelers in sight in any city, a good portion are on their way to their own automobiles, which are lying in wait for them somewhere near by. Cars without drivers constitute a parking problem which daily becomes more acute and depressing. On its solution depends the shape — and perhaps even the fate — of the city of the future.

Dynamic traffic is easier to control than static traffic. Anyone at the wheel is better than no one at the wheel. A combination of public money, engineering skill, and traffic police can cope with automobiles in motion, but not those in suspended motion. The moment a motorist leaves his machine, it becomes a bulky nuisance. Try to imagine rail transport without adequate sidings and stations, or airplane traffic without proper landing fields and storage spaces. Every motorist finds himself often in the position of an aviator with no place to land his machine. But with the aviator this predicament is accidental and dangerous; with the motorist it is merely a commonplace irritation, all the more galling because there is nothing he can do, by himself, to relieve his sense of frustration.

Picture that motorist, even as you and I, traveling slowly along, one block after another, with one eye on the curb, seeking a place to leave a car while slipping into a particular store for a purchase. There’s the store, as inviting as ever, but all curb space is already occupied, much of it by office workers whose cars are present for all day. So the harried unfortunate rolls along block after block, as I have done a thousand times, wondering if centralized merchandising makes sense.

II

None of our cities were designed for motor traffic, and only in the West were they young enough and small enough, when the automobile arrived en masse, to adapt themselves even measurably to the new traffic medium. Los Angeles, blooming late in a favorable setting, — a big country with no winter, — has marched with the motorcar successfully. To-day it accommodates the highest automobile saturation — more than one car per family — with less inconvenience than any other city. New York City, with only half as many cars per capita, has far more trouble with them. California, with one motorcar to two and a half persons, is the best-equipped state and the most motor-wise in the Union. This might indicate that automobile congestion is not beyond avoidance.

But whereas Los Angeles could control the problem by taking thought in advance, other cities have had to adopt drastic renovations. In the famous Loop district of Chicago, great retail stores were built in answer to public convenience. Streetcars were then the favorite means of transport, and all lines reached the Loop. Land values soared; the city budget inexorably became based upon tax collections from those favored blocks. Then the transportation habits of the people changed and the Loop began to lose trade, simply because the people could not get to the stores. Parked automobiles were in the way.

How many automobiles? Not many, considering the mischief they wrought merely by standing there. In the whole Loop, the curbs could accommodate only 1100 automobiles. Suppose rigid enforcement — and enforcement never became quite that good — allowed each parked car only an hour of occupancy. In that case the Loop could accommodate only 8800 cars in a day, not a twentieth of those whose drivers sought to enter on rubber tires for trading purposes. All sorts of compromises were tried without success. Parking — any sort of parking — was out of place in the Chicago Loop. But when experts recommended no parking, the mercantile interests tried to shout them down. If people could not park near the stores, who would come to trade?

Ten years ago a ‘no parking’ rule was applied to the Loop in desperation. Demand for off-the-curb parking space in and near the Loop soon began to create supply. Lots were cleared to provide parking at a price which would recover at least tax charges. A building boom began in garages designed primarily for storage. In the Loop and around its outer edges arose scores of these structures. This response might not appear so promptly everywhere; financial Chicago acted because that district possessed a unique prestige over a wide region. Pulling power had become so firmly established that investors felt sure of returns. San Francisco has recently lifted its Market Street district out of the dilemma in much the same way, and New York is now trying it on certain cross streets in the mid-town area.

Every well-established metropolitan shopping district is now beset with similar difficulties. During the depression, automobile registration held stationary, while facilities both for motion and for parking increased. Public works provided better traffic flow and more curb space; high taxes and lowered rents led to the wrecking of obsolescent buildings and the establishment of commercial parking lots. Adversity forced a partial advance toward one ideal of city planners — the creation of open spaces in what had been closely built areas. Downtown Detroit is the outstanding example of tax-enforced clearance. But many of these clearances were motions of despair by landlords and lessees to recover taxes on properties in distress. It is reasonable to expect that many of these lots will be taken out of their present use when new building begins.

Meantime automobile registration in the nation has again risen. Soon it may reach 30,000,000 registrations — one car to every 4.5 persons. A prospective saturation point — although one uses the term dubiously because this industry has been confounding doleful prophecy from its birth — is the California figure of one car to 2.5 persons. While the rest of the states push on from the present 4.5 ratio toward the 2.5 potential, areas of greatest business concentration will find themselves embarrassed in this race between vehicles and facilities.

Just as the misery of the Chicago Loop was caused by relatively few cars, so the margin between convenience and inconvenience in traffic is always narrow. One car or truck double-parked in a narrow street, because there is no space at the curb, doubles or trebles the interference factor of every car in the block. It is the last drop that saturates the solution. The addition of a million cars to the nation’s total, unless terminal facilities are provided for them, may easily double the parking difficulties in congested trading areas.

Several leading cities have found it advisable to reroute traffic through express highways, along which no parking is allowed, and stop lights are synchronized according to a considerably higher speed than can possibly be accomplished on streets jammed with parked and double-parked cars. By prohibition of parking on ten cross-town streets, travel time across Manhattan has been reduced from thirty to seven minutes, and traffic on near-by streets has been greatly relieved.

The apathy with which the great downtown merchants and their landlords await this threat is no advertisement of their acumen. A fortunate few are able to escape to more accessible sites, with all or part of their operations and fortunes, but the majority are tied by long leases and large investments. Outlying and suburban trade is growing, not so much from the transfer of old stores as from the establishment of new ones. The mail-order houses were foresighted in placing new stores where customers would come to them instead of taking their stores to harassed customers in the traditional gathering places. General Wood reported $200,000,000 as the annual trade of Sears-Roebuck retail establishments, and expressed the thought that historians one day would marvel at our stupidity in building closely when the decentralizing motorcar was at our command. Thus, serious failures are bound to result if proper terminals for motor transportation are not provided in the downtown areas.

III

But why make the effort? Why fight to preserve the congestion? Why not spread our activities now that we have the chance? Just this: people crowd together for convenience in adjusting their affairs; each urban centre is a complex of mutual advantages, and the present frame is worth preserving since the alternative — decentralization — cannot duplicate those advantages. A professional man, for instance, rents an office in a skyscraper inhabited by scores of his competitors whom he can consult in person merely by changing floors in an elevator. A woman coming downtown to shop may wish to compare prices and goods in many stores of like nature. A buyer arriving to make wholesale purchases saves time when he finds his prospects grouped. The megapolitan urge now brings together great herds of standing automobiles whose presence defeats many of the benefits of congestion; yet those benefits could hardly be restored by decentralization. Mere spaciousness is clearly not a perfect answer.

Decentralization creates problems of its own; here are a few of them. On the broad highways entering many cities, there is little cross movement, either for trade or for social purposes. The stream of traffic divides the people even more effectively than a river, and its passage is more dangerous. Rural and suburban slums, along wide traffic arteries, mushroom even more quickly than urban ones decay. Roadsides are now too often hideous and too frequently vicious through the spreading of borderline activities once concentrated in small areas. Distribution costs have been tremendously increased. Police surveillance can hardly keep up with the spread. Decentralization forced branch banking, which appeared first in the most highly motorized state, California. Once banking operations were scattered, bank robbery began to boom. Moving payrolls and valuable merchandise on open highways becomes perilous in proportion to distance. Extending urban activities on the ground level seems likely to handicap some of the more delicate and precious results of gregariousness.

So there are excellent reasons, both selfish and social, to fight intelligently for the preservation of the best urban trading areas. One sees individual firms and corporations undertaking all manner of expensive and desperate dodges. Merchant A provides parking space on his roof; B clears a ground-floor parking lot near by; C erects a tiered-deck structure to accommodate customers’ cars; D buys a distant parking site and offers free bus connections. Each tries to outdo the other; the motive is competition instead of coöperation, and the streets remain as cluttered as before. Parking lots and new garages testify to the willingness of capital and management to provide facilities.

Under these impacts the stability essential to sound investment in parking facilities is hard to find. A multi-story garage represents an investment of $400 to $1100 per car, a mechanical parking garage $1000 to $2000 per car. During the depression 90 per cent of all ramp garages defaulted on their bonds, and nearly every mechanical parker experienced financial distress. To-day the financial risk is discouragingly high. The open lot provides the least expensive parking, but cannot be depended upon for permanence. Yet it is clear that provision of terminal facilities for motor vehicles is a next great building task for the American city. Just as bridge-and-tunnel building flourished in the optimistic days of the last boom, so the building of automobile terminals might well flourish in the next one — except that investors remember what happened to many of those ‘ speed-the-traffic ’ enterprises so blithely undertaken. Apparently what is most needed is a combination of monopoly, to decrease risk, with municipal supervision, to ensure fair charges.

This is tenable middle ground between two extremes — public ownership on the one hand, and private initiative on the other. There are engineers who insist that, because adequate motor terminals are as important as highways in assuring maximum flow of traffic, those terminals should be built at public expense, with benefit of condemnation proceedings and at lowest interest rates. The parallel is not quite accurate, however. By and large, the highway job is beyond private means, while the storage job is not. Land investment is already made; land owners are already interested in putting their properties to more productive use; in fact, they frequently overdo garage building. Individual terminals need not be enormous, provided there are plenty of them; there are sound arguments against oversize and in favor of intelligent placing of storage spaces correlated to strict widths. A huge terminal with narrow approaches might do more harm than good. When unrestricted private initiative applies itself to transportation, it frequently overdoes or does badly, and next tries, naturally, to pass the costs of error on to the consumer. Planning and regulation in the public interest are needed to provide maximum incentive to private interest at minimum public expense.

A balanced plan of this kind was proposed by Miller McClintock, director of the Harvard Bureau for Street Traffic Research, to the National Conference on City Planning. Mr. McClintock is convinced that cities should set up Parking Authorities, similar to those now functioning in the case of bridges and other public works. A body so constituted, after surveying its city, might well arrange with the city government to encourage construction of motor terminals. The simplest way of doing this would be to reduce the tax burden for a definite number of years on certain sites by virtue of their quasi-public utility in connection with parking. This assurance would bring in capital at low rates for clearance and construction purposes.

With this leverage on taxes, the Authority could control design and type of construction, ensure proper spacing of the projects, and, if necessary, regulate rates. It could stimulate necessary building and restrain unnecessary building. Communities inclined toward municipal ownership might conceivably use the public credit to build on suitable locations which have reverted to public ownership through nonpayment of taxes. Constructive public action on this general line might hold a large part of the space opened by the depression, and develop sites now used only on the ground level to greater capacity as a means of coping with the approaching deluge.

IV

The new approach to a solution of the parking problem is less concerned with police enforcement than with providing facilities. Enforcement is easy when accommodations are available, because the motoring public soon adjusts itself to paying for car shelter and protection. After a little grumbling, the customer finds he is getting something worth while for his parking money — ease of mind, saving of time, protection of property. No more broken fenders, tire thefts, police summonses. The individual budget soon becomes adjusted to reasonable charges. But where adequate facilities are not available, the motorist is a stubborn animal. He will stand only so much police prodding and pushing before he takes his revenge at the polls. No drastic ordinance in restraint of curb parking can be expected to work by itself, and there are not enough police officers to enforce the letter of the law when the public reaction is sluggish or hostile. Parking meters help enforcement in two ways — by keeping thrifty parkers out of the controlled area and by registering overstays automatically. In small cities they ease the situation materially; but since their use adds nothing to the parking area, they cannot cure the acute congestion of metropolitan centres.

Since an automobile requires 100 square feet and 800 cubic feet of storage space, retail shopping districts can hardly hold their prestige by relying altogether on ground-level parking lots. Parking decks, in connection with department stores, offer the greatest structural economy. Studies made for Kaufman Brothers of Pittsburgh indicated that a single parking deck would pay for itself in two months. Low-cost parking is essential; how much will the traffic bear? At this point enter the engineers, with new types of construction especially designed for parking needs. Obviously shelter and heat are not so important as space; motorists leave their cars outside in all weathers and are accustomed to paying for storage in the open.

Allen Brett, Detroit engineer who has been fighting automobile confusion for ten years, is designing buildings along this line, although his contribution to parking progress is much broader than this particular phase. It was Brett who ten years ago sounded a warning to constructors which time has reënforced until it is now quoted as basic: ‘Take care of the parking demand created or your building will obsolete before it is up.’

Says Mr. Brett: ‘ In some areas land is too costly to be left in open parking lots, yet ordinary garage construction may be too expensive to provide safe investment or permit a parking fee satisfactory to the customer. In such cases, the tiered deck may be the solution. It consists of a series of platforms one above the other, with connecting ramps. There are no walls and no heating plant. If there is a basement, it should be filled with cars. The Eliot “Cage Garage” in Boston and the Kaufman deck in Pittsburgh are examples on a small scale of what might be done in extenso if enough capital and space were available. A splendid opportunity exists in Chicago, where I drafted plans for a similar structure to use the air rights over the Illinois Central tracks north of Randolph Street. In my opinion cities might well construct and operate parking structures which are properly spaced and designed.’

V

The automobile, in its way, knocked city planning out of stride. There was a time when city planners took for their ideal the City Beautiful. They went in for large parks and sweeping vistas. Their open spaces were devoted either to æsthetics or to recreation; they could not foresee the time when space might serve society best by being left open and unadorned. Those cities are fortunate which, like Chicago, can use part of a spacious park system for parking cars. Gradually, automobile pressure has brought a new emphasis into city planning. The aim now is to coördinate beauty with utility, to make the city convenient as well as beautiful, on the theory that no one is likely to be pleased with a city which unduly complicates normal existence.

Some of the new studies in social planning, like the designs of Norman Bel Geddes, are noble visualizations of the bliss which might envelop future travelers and parkers if dreams come true. Broad limited ways for uninterrupted travel above street level; complete safety for pedestrians, ample provision for cars at rest, open spaces around all buildings. This is rescuing the city with a vengeance; no sane person would want to live anywhere else if the byways necessary for slow motion and static traffic were as thoroughly developed as the highways for swift motion. But such perfection is hardly attainable within the life of this middle-aged motorist.

One suggestion of the new city planners, however, might well be pushed far in our time. This is the proposal to establish interior lines for future building operations when present structures are replaced by new ones. Exterior building lines are everywhere regulated to provide street and sidewalk space, a universally recognized need. Now that getting automobiles off the street is equally necessary to social convenience and safety, the interiors of blocks might well be conserved for this purpose. If all structures occupying the four sides of a block combined their service and heating departments, placing them underground, the space would leave open an interior large enough to accommodate the automobiles of tenants and also to provide for off-thestreet loading and unloading of both customers and goods. Creating of double frontage, with relation to light, air, and merchandising, more than offsets in rental value the loss of enclosed space.

Proofs of these benefits are evident on Park Avenue in New York City, where two apartment hotels — the Marguery and ‘277 Park’ — have large open courts, privately policed against intrusion by the public, for the accommodation of guests’ cars and for service needs. It is significant that both hotels occupy railroad property; trust railroads to appreciate the need of terminals and sidings. In both hotels the inside rooms on the courts command premiums, because of their quiet and landscaped vistas, thus reversing the usual balance between inside and outside accommodation. Pioneering along this line has been done by Mason in Massachusetts and Brett in Cleveland, while Los Angeles recently adopted an ordinance applying this principle to apartment-house developments. Here is a logical innovation which an established Parking Authority might push with advantage to any congested area. This procedure might change the whole picture of urban congestion for the better in thirty years, without either public expense or unfairness to any vested or speculative interest.

VI

If I had written this article several years ago, I would have pointed it at the average motorist, who, like myself, is a sorry victim of automobile congestion. But the appeal to public convenience seldom rouses as prompt a response as the appeal to private interest. Consequently I have narrowed this presentation down to the threat which parking pressure aims at merchants and landlords in urban shopping districts. Selfpreservation should rouse them to rally their fellow citizens to the defense of their cities. If, in addition, they had the support of the automotive industry, the forward movement would soon become irresistible. It goes without saying that parking troubles limit automobile sales and profits. But since parking is a problem with infinite local variations, curative moves must start locally, and cannot expect or deserve aid from a national industry until they have won definite and substantial support at home. The first steps are up to the defenders of the besieged citadels.