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Don’t Think of a Parking Space

March 16, 2017

 

I haven’t been mountain biking in years, but there’s one tip that has always stuck with me on and off the bike. It has to do with avoiding the kind of obstacles that tend to cause riders to crash or send them flipping over their handlebars. A mountain biking club in Brevard County Florida sums it up perfectly:

If you stare at an obstruction on the trail and think “I sure hope I don’t hit that,” chances are you’ll hit it! Instead of looking at that stump, rock, or hole on the side of the trail look down the trail where you want the bike to go.

This advice can be applied to other sports – golfers who can’t stop thinking about sand traps before they tee off will surely hit a ball into one – and it can also apply to life in general. While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that following The Secret will get you that job promotion or win you an Academy Award, it remains true that concentrating too much on the potential for failure frequently prevents success.

Yet, in a way that’s clearly not intentional and most likely the vestigial effect of the bikelash days, this is exactly what DOT does when they present street redesigns to community boards. Since concerns about parking frequently make or break a project’s chances for success, the agency tries to diminish concerns about parking… by making it almost impossible to focus on anything other than parking.

Consider this truly outstanding proposal [PDF] from DOT to create better bike connections to the Williamsburg Bridge. On most of the “proposed improvements” pages, the impact on parking is given prominent placement. Here’s just one example:

willybproposal

Is three parking spaces a lot? I happen to think it’s nothing compared to the benefits of this project, but a business owner who drives to work or a resident who leaves his car on the street might disagree. Either way, the concept of parking loss is now impossible to avoid, offered up by DOT as something to latch on to by those who tend to value car storage over safer streets. And latch onto it they will.

Even when there’s no impact on parking, DOT lets people know that there’s no impact on parking. Here’s a slide from DOT’s presentation [PDF] on another great project, the Amity Wiggle:

amitywiggleparking

A list like this raises interesting questions. Would providing dedicated space for people on bikes and calming traffic be less worthy goals if, say, one or two parking spots had to be lost? What about ten spots? And if DOT later presents another project to the community board that does impact parking, does that allow the board to believe it’s a worse project than one that doesn’t?

By frequently mentioning concerns about parking, anyone who wants to change a street – or their city – legitimizes and perpetuates concerns about parking. You know the old thought experiment where you tell someone not to think of a polar bear with green eyes and then all they can think about is a polar bear with green eyes?  I’ve been to community board meetings where DOT reps start their presentations by saying, “We know that parking is a top concern.” Guess what happened? Parking was a top concern.

How can cities change the focus so that parking doesn’t derail good projects? Here’s my advice, and I think it applies not only to the hard working men and women of the New York City Department of Transportation, but to anyone presenting a new street design to community groups, civic organizations, and other entrenched agents of the status quo:

Don’t do NIMBYs’ jobs for them.

If possible, don’t give prominent placement to NIMBY concerns in your presentations. Just don’t. Will there be an impact on parking? Maybe, but don’t put such information on the same list as a project’s positive benefits, such as injury and fatality reduction rates. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be prepared to answer the inevitable question about how much parking will be lost to a bike lane, bike share station, or other street transformation. But having such information available at one’s fingertips is vastly different from giving it a spotlight in a PowerPoint presentation.

You’re under no obligation to elevate trivial concerns in ways that put the onus on you to defend your belief that innocent people shouldn’t be crushed to death by automobiles. If someone believes that saving parking > saving lives, the onus is on them to explain such a morally bankrupt philosophy.

I want to be clear: the strategy isn’t to treat people like idiots or ignore and deceive them. We’re all neighbors, after all. The strategy is to treat people like adults and make them own their concerns. Cap’n Transit has a related and very good take on how do deal with and listen to NIMBYs:

We should listen to NIMBYs, not because that’s how you get things done, but because they’re people. People deserve respect, and one of the best ways to show respect is by listening. But listening and acknowledgment do not necessarily mean acceptance or agreement. We need to listen skeptically.

You may have noticed that people don’t like it if you tell them they’re being irrational. So what do you do if you think they are? Make them justify, rationally, their concerns and their Predictions of Doom. In other words: listen, but be skeptical. In the long run, listening without being skeptical doesn’t do anyone any favors, including the NIMBYs.

Emphasis mine.

So what does this mean in practice?

Consider a presentation about fixing a street that’s seen a rash of crashes and tragic deaths. Imagine listening to an engineer explain that a new design, if installed, will result in a 40% reduction in injuries and fatalities for all users. Since only a few parking spaces will have to disappear to make this happen, it’s hardly worth mentioning the number of spots that will go away.

The presentation ends. Then, as soon as the floor is open for questions from the community, someone raises a hand and asks, “How many parking spaces am I going to lose on my block?”

That person would look like a selfish asshole, right?

But consider what could happen next. The presenter, who anticipated that this question would come up, answers it quickly and then shifts the focus back to the project’s safety benefits. After that, it would be on the person who asked the original question about parking loss to explain why storing cars is more important than saving lives. The NIMBY, in this case, has done all the work of being a NIMBY, no assistance required.

I can only offer a Justice Potter Stewart kind of rule for when you should mention parking in a presentation and when you shouldn’t. On a mile-long project, will only five spots be re-purposed? Maybe that info just doesn’t deserve prominent placement. Will one hundred spots be eliminated? Perhaps it does.

There’s a larger lesson here beyond the individual project level. Cities around the world are going car-free – or car-lite – and moving toward such a future here in New York won’t be possible if leaders and traffic engineers keep NIMBY fears of losing parking at the forefront of their minds. The focus needs to be on mobility, safety, and sustainability, not car storage.

Just as mountain bikers shouldn’t look at a stump, rock, or hole on the side of a trail if they don’t want to get thrown from their bikes, there’s an easy way to prevent parking concerns from derailing street-safety plans:

Don’t mention it.

 

 

 

 

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