Book Review

It’s Official, I’m a Parking Groupie!

by Michele Reeves on May 9, 2013

Post image for It’s Official, I’m a Parking Groupie!

Yes, this is my autographed copy of the High Cost of Free Parking!

I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with one of my professional crushes, Donald Shoup, at Railvolution in LA late last year. Oh yes, it gets better. He actually sat next to me, too! I brought my book to the conference in the hopes that I would overcome my fear of being overwhelmingly dorky, and would work up the nerve to ask him to sign it. Which I did, and he so graciously assented.

Of course, as I handed it to him, a fierce internal debate was raging: should I explain why my copy looked so pristine and unread!?! You see, I pored over, and took copious notes from a library copy, and loved it so much, was impelled to buy my own. The book I handed over to the good doctor was so clearly recently purchased, I was very concerned that it didn’t look as worn as I thought it should for such a loved tome! Thankfully, I resisted the urge to blurt all this out in one long, run-on sentence.

What I did manage to say to Dr. Shoup, and it is absolutely true, is that this is one of the most well written books I have ever read. It was such a treat to be able to tell an author directly how much I appreciated his writing style, and the care he took to make it amazingly entertaining as well as amazingly informative!

The book is well known in the planning world, but I think many treat it like Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence — something that everyone wants to have read, but they are daunted by the size!

Well don’t be…daunted by its size, that is. The whole read is charming (I know, that sounds like a strange description for a 734 page book about parking), his chosen metaphors offer wonderful insights into the parking ecosystem, and the research is meticulous. It’s one of those volumes that, as you read it, you constantly quote it to hapless bystanders. Which, sad to say, was totally me during the entire duration of my first pass through this parking opus, snagging anyone nearby and asking,

“Hey, did you know…”

“…In 2002, the total subsidy for off-street parking was somewhere between $127 billion and $374 billion a year. If we also count the subsidy for free and underpriced curb parking, the total subsidy for parking would be far higher. In the same year, the federal government only spent $231 billion for Medicare and $349 billion for national defense.”

“…Every day, cruisers [looking for parking] within [the] 15-block [Westwood Village neighborhood] drove farther than the distance across the US. Over a year, their cruising creating 945,000 excess vehicle miles traveled — equivalent to 38 trips around the earth or two round trips to the moon.”

“…For a downtown concert hall, Los Angeles requires, as the minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows at a maximum. These different priorities help explain the very different parking arrangements for Louise Davies Hall (home of the San Francisco Symphony) and Disney Hall (home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). San Francisco built Louise Davies Hall with no parking garage, while Los Angeles completed Disney Hall’s 2,188-space $110 million parking garage three years before it had raised the $274 million needed to start building the 2,265-seat Disney Hall itself.”


…With the installation of the first parking meters in Oklahoma City, “cars pulled into metered spaces and moved out when their owners had finished their business, while in the unmetered zones, the old congestion remained. Magee’s idea of a coin-operated meter for the regulation of parking on city streets was proving itself, although at the time of installation most everyone had been skeptical of what the meters would accomplish. Within a few days other businesses were asking for meters on their streets, and within several months far more than the original 150 units had been installed.” (From Oklahoma Historian LeRoy Fischer)

Somehow, Dr. Shoup has managed to compose a book that is equally powerful to the geekiest of transportation engineers, and to the most enthusiastic of community volunteers.

I am going to leave you with a final passage…which are the opening few sentences to the book:

“Children first learn about free parking when they play Monopoly. The chance of landing on free parking is low, about the same as the chance of going to jail. Monopoly misleads its players on this score, however, because parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the US.”

Vintage Shoup! Now go out and get a copy and read it. Seriously.


On Switch, Sandpaper Letters, and How We Learn

by Michele Reeves on March 20, 2011

Post image for On Switch, Sandpaper Letters, and How We Learn

What do elephants, riders, and paths have to do with change?

Emotion = elephant, intellect = rider, and path = environment, route, or context. These are the metaphors Chip and Dan Heath use in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Their basic premise is this: you cannot get your elephant to go anywhere if rider and beast do not have aligned motivations.

The case studies on change cited in Switch were besprinkled with examples of written reports and spreadsheets that contained vital information, but were totally ignored by organizations and companies. The conclusion the Heath brothers draw in their book is that dry facts presented in writing do not engage people’s emotions, therefore, they usually fail to influence behavior all by themselves.

While the importance of engaging both heart and mind rings absolutely true, I think the authors missed an important point about how people absorb information effectively. Namely, if you use only a single channel, such as writing a report, to engage your audience about complicated issues, then the intended beneficiaries of your knowledge may be digesting very little of your message, regardless of emotional involvement. I see this in my consulting practice with cities of all sizes. Municipalities that want to revitalize a downtown or commercial corridor usually have an impressive array of reports on the subject already filed away somewhere gathering dust. And therein lies the problem, ALL of this information is contained in a report!

Over the years, I have learned that there are very few people who truly process written information efficiently. And this is particularly true of busy property owners and business owners, who don’t have time to read consultants’ tomes. Since a downtown tells its story through its infrastructure (how it looks), and its ground floor uses (they need to be active), cities must meaningfully captivate and motivate property owners and business owners to initiate renewal, or it will be stopped before it ever starts.

To effect change, cities must engage their constituents, face to face, with voices…with hands-on experiences…with images, in order for people to really learn and connect with information. As in the case of my work, I try to take the rather dry subject of land-use and bring it alive. And, if I do my job well, then a lot of excitement is generated just by bringing focus to people’s intuitions about their downtown environments and how they function optimally.

This idea of engaging all of the senses for learning reminds me of one of the methods that Montessori preschools use for teaching the alphabet: sandpaper letters. The name for the work really does represent exactly what you would think: each letter is cut from fine grain sandpaper and is individually mounted on a hard square backing. Children watch the teacher trace the letter using her index finger (mirroring the same motion you would use to write the letter), while they hear the teacher says the sound the letter makes (not its name). Then, the student copies the teacher’s actions.

This work stimulates a preschooler’s hearing (the sound of the letter), sense of touch (feeling the sandpaper under the finger), and vision (seeing the letter and watching the teacher model the movement of writing it). It is very effective. Montessori preschool students learn to read before kindergarten not because their emotions are engaged, but because all of their senses are engaged.

So, while I am in agreement with the Switch authors that motivating change is much easier when our feelings and thoughts are united behind a goal, I also believe that there are many ways to captivate our thinking selves. And sometimes, as in the case with the sandpaper letters, enthusiasm and animation–our emotions–can be triggered just by neurons connecting and blazing new trails. Thinking begets feeling.

Hear…see…touch…experience…not just read.


On Emergence, Ants, and Bottom up Revitalization

by Michele Reeves on November 19, 2010

Post image for On Emergence, Ants, and Bottom up Revitalization

I was thinking about commercial districts yesterday as I finished Emergence, by Steven Johnson. I was particularly taken with his descriptions of ants, and how they build colonies with no central vision or control. A fully functioning ant mound is created strictly through a series of small local interactions between ants, largely using pheromones. Though the amount of information exchanged in each is tiny, from these local interactions, a higher functioning order emerges.

This is exactly the sort of behavior cities should be encouraging between stakeholders to foster organic revitalization.

Instead, from a city’s perspective, from a planning department’s perspective, and from a development agency perspective, it is often easier to focus on that one big new “catalyst” project that will single-handedly improve an area, rather than encourage many small-scale projects, fostering a bottom up approach. Unfortunately, this desire to renew from above takes a tremendous amount of public capital and doesn’t always work.

Is it possible to consider rejuvenation of a commercial corridor or a downtown from a different, more cost-effective perspective?

Yes, provided that you have decent building stock (and by decent, I mean a continuous run of structures from almost any era) and a functioning grid. From those simple building blocks, you can directly improve what you have, rather than trying to indirectly help it by completing a single large new building. From the seeds of your downtown or your commercial corridor, you can grow a place, which will then require significantly less, or perhaps no, public money to encourage new construction.

In Emergence, Steven Johnson writes about the five fundamental principles that a system designed to learn from the ground level must exhibit, as an ant colony exhibits:

  1. More is different. The statistical nature of ant interaction demands that there be a critical mass of ants for the colony to make intelligent assessments of its global state.

  2. Ignorance is useful. It is better to build a dense interconnected system with simple elements and let sophisticated behavior trickle up.

  3. Encourage random encounters. Encounters with individual ants are arbitrary, but because so many of them are in the system, those encounters allow individuals to gauge and alter the macrostate of the system.

  4. Look for patterns in the signs. The knack for pattern detection allows meta-information to circulate through the colony mind. (Smelling the pheromones of fifty foragers in the space of an hour imparts information about the global state of the colony.)

  5. Pay attention to your neighbors. Local information can lead to global wisdom.

Paraphrase: Get all of your stakeholders talking and doing — the more people the merrier. The more projects the merrier. The more activity the merrier.

Or, to put it more formally, if we create opportunities for and catalyze a sizable number of small local interactions, these can bring about positive changes in cities and neighborhoods with minimal monetary investment. And, these interactions and projects will take your city in directions you never imagined, and I mean that as a good thing. “Let sophisticated behavior trickle up.”

Now, meaningfully engaging stakeholders is not easy. It’s much simpler, and more attractive, to focus on big flashy projects with a lot of quantified knowns on sites controlled by the city. But, it doesn’t help create sustainable renewal.

So, how do you stir up the pot? Who do you get interacting? What the heck is Michele Reeves talking about?

  • Business Owners. Are they talking to each other? Do they have a functioning business association or downtown association? If not, help them. Provide funding, expertise and assistance.

  • Property Owners. Nothing happens in a downtown or commercial corridor without the property owners. Do they know each other? How do their buildings look? How do they interact with the public sector? Usually, in historic districts that are languishing, there is a complete and total disconnect between some of the long-time property owners and the public sector. In other words, they hate the planning and permit department. Cities need to repair this vital connection between property owners and government before renewal can occur. Get property owners engaged!

  • Retail Sophistication. What is the level of retailing in the downtown or commercial corridor? Can business owners and property owners benefit from merchandising training? Do property owners and shop owners understand the tie between good design, attractive buildings, and retail performance?

  • Permits. Does your planning and permit department do everything it can to help small business owners and property owners? Often, the public sector tailors their process toward large development, which makes the path to acquiring a permit nearly incomprehensible to local entrepreneurs and small building owners. Start building connections to these groups and understanding their needs. Create streamlined “cheat sheets” for simple building improvement permit procedures, or step-by-step instructions for restaurant tenants and food cart vendors.

  • Brand. Is there a unified story or identity for your district? Create your story. Manage your story. Leverage your story. Makes sure everyone is telling your story, the way you want it told.


Book Review: A Field Guide to Sprawl

by Michele Reeves on September 27, 2010

Post image for Book Review: A Field Guide to Sprawl

I picked up this book recently from the library to thumb through. It is a coffee table lark on sprawl, told primarily through the use of very effective aerial photos.

I had two major takeaways:

The first is how much things have changed in terms of the perception of the suburbs, and sprawl in general, since it was published just a few years ago in 2004. The advent of the economic crisis and the subsequent housing slump, which has been felt most heavily in the suburbs, has been a game changer. Add to that the shifting demographics of age and race and the tottering state of many retail strip centers and malls in our outlying metro areas, and you have a mix of conditions that makes it difficult to predict the future of many of these communities.

The second takeaway is to marvel at how very creative we are, as a people. I mean, it requires a tremendous capacity for imagination (and a complete lack of sense) to dream up this many ways to screw up land use so spectacularly!

Recently, Big Picture featured a great aerial photo essay on sprawl development in SW Florida that is similar to the photos found in this book. In this case though, it looks like Google Earth was employed to capture the images, instead of a photographer in an airplane!