What a late-night meeting taught me about how parking concerns can block good development

TransForm Board Member and Oakland resident Jame Ervin attends a planning commission meeting and hears the usual complaints: “We need more parking,” and “The project shouldn’t be so big because it will add congestion.”

I remember in middle school, toward the end of 8th grade, our principal gave us an important lecture. The theme was “Choice.” It was an important moment because it was the time for us to plan our high school schedules and choose our path for the future. The one that would determine what kind of adults we would be. In the end she admonished us saying, “You have to make choices!”

And that week, I remember thinking about the classes I wanted, and the activities I wanted to do, and finding out the choices were rigged. The way our high school curriculum was set up, you couldn’t take college prep classes and also take classes in subjects like cooking, computers, or graphic design.

We had choices, but like many choices there were unacceptable trade-offs. Our land-use and transportation policies are quite similar to those key 8th-grade choices. We have “choice,” but it is clear that only one option usually prevails (assuming you can afford a car): driving.

A proposed community in San Mateo would provide walkable access to transportation, parks, and shopping – but still the biggest concern is parking.

A couple of weeks ago, I headed to a meeting of the San Mateo Planning Commission. There is a new proposed housing project just two blocks away from my job.  

I wanted to learn more about the project and the planning process in San Mateo during the meeting. In my eyes, this project was pretty ideal. I work at one of the many startups with offices in downtown San Mateo. This lot is currently a surface parking lot that connects to rooftop public parking. The location is a couple of blocks from Caltrain, no more than a ten-minute walk. The ECR bus is less than a block away. There are groceries, drug stores, dry cleaners, gyms, and restaurants within a few blocks. And it is right across from San Mateo’s huge Central Park.

It looked like a perfect “transit-oriented development” to me! Everything was within a ten-minute walk, with additional shopping options, like Hillsdale Mall, less than two miles away. Additional Caltrain stations could be served by one straight-shot bus ride, and the bike ride there would be free of hills. The project would also replace 100% of the public parking spaces with public accessible spaces in the garage.    

As the meeting progressed, I listened in on the public comments. The comments can be summed up pretty much by the following:

  • That isn’t nearly enough parking,
  • This project is too big and will add traffic and congestion. 

Sound familiar? This comes up constantly, but what most people fail to connect is that when you add more parking, you increase traffic and congestion. When you limit parking, like the project proposes, people are far more likely to use alternatives (transit, walking, biking) to get there. When there’s plenty of parking, they’ll drive.

“I can’t find a place to park, even though I live within walking distance.”

The proposed building has a residential parking ratio of about 1.6 spaces per unit. The developers did not talk about the overall unit breakdown (between sizes like one-bedroom or two or three). Parking in downtown San Mateo is in high demand, and downtown is a busy nightlife district. On the other hand, there is a good deal of residential housing in walking distance, from apartments to condos to single-family homes.  

However, the prevailing attitude throughout the meeting was that, regardless of the many alternatives to commuting by car, there simply wasn’t enough parking. One woman lamented that she could not find a space to park during a typical outing, even though she lives within walking distance of the area she wants more parking at.

I commented during the meeting, inquiring about ways to encourage the residents to drive less, or not drive at all so that this project could be built at the size proposed, but without increasing driving. Adding bikeshare, carshare, and secure bike parking all help people get out of their cars and frees up parking spaces. Most of the key amenities are in walking distance, transit accessible or bikeable, so it would be easy to choose not to use your car, or even just use it less often.

I realized that it really all comes down to choice and, more importantly, what choices are being offered to us. A lot of our transportation policy, or at least our thinking, limits our choices to get around. We don’t always consider that some people want the choice not to drive, or cannot drive by circumstance. 

We also do not build the infrastructure to support these alternative modes and make the alternatives a pleasant choice. Many places in San Mateo county along the El Camino corridor lack sidewalks and bike infrastructure to open up car-free options, and proposed projects lack funding to improve pedestrian access.

Our future depends on having real transportation choices.

We have a crisis right now in our region: traffic and congestion. But we also have crises with climate, health, and equity. We need to actually create choices – not just make the car the only logical choice in many places – to address all of these challenges.

Silicon Valley Business Journal has a great series about how the congestion will limit our economic growth in the near future

We can’t keep growing or accommodating our existing population comfortably without giving our residents, current and future, real choices for getting around.


About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.