It’s pretty hard to make an argument that car-dependency is good. Some people try to say that its necessary, maybe, but credible arguments that car-dependency is a good thing are elusive. By almost any metric, our over-dependence on motor vehicles does not benefit us. Cars pollute, they make us less healthy, and they isolate us in our own neighborhoods because instead of encountering neighbors as we walk around our streets at 3 miles per hour, we’re cocooned in our metal boxes going 30.
Some folks insist that personal vehicles are necessary because we don’t yet have adequate transit or multi-modal infrastructure in place. Before we can start reducing and eliminating parking minimums, they say, we need to invest more in these other things first. It’s true: we do need to invest more in these things. But arguing about the chicken or the egg doesn’t help us advance either.
Here’s what we know for certain: the only guaranteed outcome of creating more parking spaces is more driving.
Polls like this one from 2015 show that Denverites feel that “the single most pressing issue facing the City and County of Denver today” after affordable housing is “transportation and traffic.” When we consider that we’ve been planning to accommodate and prioritize car traffic for decades and yet traffic is still a more pressing concern than homelessness or public safety, anything that results in more driving is moving us in the wrong direction.
The chicken or egg argument is not new, and the city of Atlanta offers a good example of planners facing this problem. In a story on Atlanta’s public radio station, senior planner Tim Keane responds to the chicken or egg problem by suggesting that “You really have to start with the density and less parking. If you don’t, then you’ve lost your opportunity, because once you’ve built that infrastructure, it’s so difficult to undo that.” The story observes that Atlanta is a city filled with parking structures that have become a huge obstacle to a truly revitalized urban core.
I’d also suggest that claims of the inadequacy of transit and bike/ped infrastructure in Denver are a little overblown and can themselves contribute to a narrative of a low-functioning system that isn’t accurate and that probably offers people an excuse to remain dependent on their cars. It also reflects a certain kind of privilege to claim that you must have a car to live in this town, since there are many folks who don’t have a car and rely on transit and other modes to get around.
The best example I can provide of the basic functionality of our transit/bike/ped system is my own. I’ll be the first to concede that Denver’s current multi-modal infrastructure legitimately doesn’t work for some people, but it is entirely adequate for more people than many would think. For example, last week I rode my bike from my house in Park Hill out to my job in Aurora as I do most days, but I also had two appointments to get to later in the afternoon in central Denver. I was able to leave work a little early, so I rode my bike to my first appointment at my son’s school, and then I hopped on the 24 bus and took it up to 22nd Avenue where I got off and rode my bike the remaining half mile to a doctor’s appointment. In other words, thanks to transit and our existing bike/ped infrastructure, I got to work and to two separate appointments without the use of a personal vehicle. This was not an atypical day.
So, Denver has a chicken. Maybe it’s more like a proto-chicken, and not fully realized yet, but it works for a lot of people. Let’s stop arguing about whether the chicken came before the egg or vice versa, and start saying “YES” to both the chicken and the egg. It’s the only way we’ll get either.