Dr. Gridlock: Can parking be 'green'?

By Robert Thomson
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; 12:18 PM

Cars are part of the transportation system even when motionless, and the warehousing of automobiles has absorbed the attention of urban planners for more than a century.

An exhibit called House of Cars at the National Building Museum traces a continuing evolution in our thinking about how to provide space for vehicles. More optimistic viewers will see the evolution this way: In the mid-20th century, parking garage design reflected out determination to adapt cities to accommodate cars. Today, we're trying to adapt the car to fit into our urban spaces.

As part of the building museum's program, I moderated a discussion last week with panelists who tilted toward optimism. Google images for "green parking garage" and the first thing you'll see is the parking garage for the Santa Monica Civic Center developed by architect James O'Connor of the Moore Ruble Yudell firm.

O'Connor, one of the panelists, said that he wasn't asked to create a structure with so many environmentally friendly features, but the city was very pleased with the results. Cars on the roof needed shade. Why not use solar panels to perform the task? The firm used recycled materials in construction and special glazings to limit heating and cooling. The storm drain system reduces pollution in the runoff.

Beyond the wide range of such elements, the building just looks really interesting. See the House of Cars exhibit, open through July 11, and displays will make it very clear how much of a leap forward the Santa Monica garage represents. Or just visit one of the concrete fortress that Metro riders use for parking at stations like Vienna, New Carrollton or Shady Grove.

Still, the Santa Monica effort created a 900-car parking garage. How green can that be? I asked District Transportation Director Gabe Klein, another of the panelists, if he hated people such as O'Connor, whose skills can create inviting, low-impact welcome centers for automobiles -- car magnets for an already congested city.

Klein said no, that what a sensible transportation policy does is offer mobility for everyone rather than focusing on one mode vs. another. In his presentation, Klein talked about the District's efforts to make parking payments easier for travelers while allowing the city some flexibility in pricing street parking. He also described plans to expand bike parking through a string of mini-parking stations across the city.

In the District, the government's role in parking policy is pretty much limited to the streets. The more off-street parking -- green or otherwise -- that gets created here, the greater the role of private enterprise in determining the details of how the city accommodates cars.

Last month, in another part of the museum's program, Professor Donald Shoup of UCLA made the case that parking comes with costs that go well beyond the driver's payment.

Shoup said the decisions that public and private planners make about providing parking can skew people's travel choices, raise the cost of housing, waste precious space, limit urban design options, harm the environment and damage the economy. He discussed three reforms that could tilt those impacts in a more positive direction:

-- Charge the right price for curb parking, setting it at the lowest price that will leave one or two vacant spaces on each block. (That reduces cruising for street parking, a big factor in city traffic congestion.)

-- Return meter revenue to the neighborhoods that generate it. Aside from generating revenue for local improvements, the policy builds political support for appropriate pricing of meters.

-- Reduce or remove off-street parking requirements. Requiring so many garage or lot spaces to go with new offices and residences limits flexibility in planning higher-density buildings and encourages driving over transit, biking and walking.

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