If you plan for everyone to drive cars, they will

On June 18, City Council took its first look at an ordinance to make it easier to build granny flats, also known as ADUs or backhouses. A granny flat is a small home on the same lot as a single-family home. They have traditionally been used to keep multi-generational families together or as an affordable option for rental housing. Very few new ones have been built in Austin lately, in part because rules make it hard. But this column isn’t about granny flats. It’s about one comment Council Member Leslie Pool made, about the requirement that each new granny flat be paired with an off-street parking space:

I want to acknowledge that while we’re moving in other transit-oriented directions, which I support, the reality is that people in Austin still drive cars, which is why we have the requirement for at least one [off-street] spot for a car to park.

In the past, CM Pool has showed vision toward what she calls “other transit-oriented directions” by signing AURA’s pledge to make a transit-oriented Austin. So I’d like to challenge her and any others thinking along these lines to think bigger about how they as Councilmembers can shape our city.

Off-Street Parking Doesn’t Just Reflect Our Driving Reality, it Drives Our Reality

Not every new household in Austin must bring or buy a car. I get around without a car and it’s getting easier all the time. But many people will weigh whether to own a car and decide that, as things stand, they’d be better off with one. Some of the people who decide to own a car are actually close to choosing not to have one, but are ultimately swayed by the particulars of their situation.

Our parking requirements are one of the prime reasons driving the decision to own a car:

  • Some potential ADUs in older, central neighborhoods, won’t get built because a legal parking space can’t fit on the lot or the homeowner doesn’t want to pave  their little paradise to provide a parking space.  Potential residents who would’ve chosen to live in an affordable, small, central home are forced to live further on the periphery and drive in.
  • Instead of some ADUs being built with a nice garden and no car parking, and others with a small or non-existent garden but a parking space, all will have the parking space. Deprived of the potential benefits of doing without parking, residents may as well make use of the space.

Requiring parking drives the reality of people choosing to own cars. It’s important for policymakers to not just react to life as it is now, but to be move us towards a future where people have the practical freedom to live with whatever transportation mode they choose.

How it works downtown

The city council ended parking requirements downtown a few years ago. The result has not been a parkingpocalypse of car-drivers unable to move downtown because they can’t find parking. Most new projects that have gotten built since then have included parking. This shouldn’t be surprising: downtown is mostly a high-end market and people who can afford to spend a lot of money on housing can afford cars as well. New apartment and condo complexes like Fifth and West, the Seven, or the Bowie include parking as an amenity.

But some projects are getting built with less or no parking. A new office building on Guadalupe was built completely without parking to lower rents; it advertises availability at a garage a couple blocks over. The JW Marriott hotel was built with limited parking. Some employees take public transit in; others park at a leased parking lot a few blocks away. Conference guests are encouraged to take public transit or use spaces at the convention center garage. The Aloft hotel is going to be built using a valet-only model that shifts cars to existing underutilized garages. There’s even rumors of new apartments planned for downtown without parking for a much lower price point than typical downtown living. Even though downtown is the most accessible place to live in the city without a car, the transition has been slow and gentle.

From here to there

If Council Members fear the consequences of allowing ADUS without parking, there are half-measures they could take that would get most of the benefit. One example would be to allow no-parking ADUs only near high-frequency bus lines that can support carless mobility. This would let the city continue to dip its toes into accommodating folks like me who get around without a car, while maintaining the vast majority of the city for guaranteed parking.

Other Policies

ADU parking requirements are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how policy makes it impractical for most people to live in Austin without a car. Off the top of my head, some other ideas:

  • Dedicated transit lanes.  About half of those who travel down the Drag do so in buses, packed efficiently into only 6% of the vehicles. If one street lane were allocated for buses to zoom by, like the transit priority lanes downtown, this could benefit half of the street’s users in a stroke.
  • Mixing uses. The city maintains a fairly rigid separation of residential space from commercial space. This has some advantages, but the disadvantages for people getting around without a car are obvious: they have to go further from their homes to reach convenient places to work, shop, and dine.
  • Allow more residents in transit-accessible places.  There’s a limited number of places in the city that are already convenient to live without a car: downtown, West Campus, and other inner-city neighborhoods.  Building new transit-accessible places is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. The simplest way to allow more people the freedom to live without a car is to allow more people to live in the places that are already transit-accessible.

Vision

The reality is, Austin can’t wait until an imagined transit-oriented future before we give more people the practical freedom to choose whether to own a car. We must forge that future for ourselves. Every day that we delay, the hole we’ve dug for ourselves gets bigger. As I write, there are construction crews building subdivisions in District 6 that will be pretty much impossible to live in without a car for decades to come. Other construction crews are spending tax dollars widening MoPac so that the residents of the new subdivisions can drive into downtown. Shouldn’t we also be building places where people who choose to live a transit-oriented life can do so without paying for parking?

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If you plan for everyone to drive cars, they will

10 thoughts on “If you plan for everyone to drive cars, they will

  1. Are there any design-build companies in Austin actually doing affordable granny flats? As an affordability policy the whole point is moot if only rich grannies can afford them.

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    1. There are about 30 granny flats being built per year in Austin, mostly in Mueller and Crestview, both of which operate under less onerous rules on required parking, spacing between houses, etc. That’s the point of many of the rule changes AURA (aura-atx.org) is advocating. The good news is that these rent cheaper than similarly sized new builds (definitions of “affordable” seem to vary a lot – give me your definition and I’ll tell you if it meets that criteria), and a sizable chunk will be built for extended family/friends living and will be rented out effectively for free. There are a few nonprofit developers who have built some granny flats as part of the homes they build, and would be able to do more *if* rules were loosened.

      Hopefully that’s helpful.

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      1. Thanks, Brennan. Agreed, “affordability” is a vague and no doubt contentious term. (Mueller doesn’t meet my personal idea of affordability, but that’s a discussion for a different thread.)

        For the purpose of a discussion of permitting ADUs in established neighborhoods in order to allow people to age in place, it seems like a good working definition of “affordable” would be: once construction is complete and the homeowner has either rented out the ADU or downsized into it and rented out the original house, is it a net economic win? Or would it have been cheaper just to stay in the old house and do nothing?

        Someone elsewhere gave me a link to the Alley Flat Initiative report which has some useful calculations on this point. They would need updating for 2015, and a reality check against actual construction costs: http://www.soa.utexas.edu/files/csd/AFI.pdf

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  2. The term “granny flats” has a lot of pleasant associations and I gather that it came from the laudable desire to help seniors downsize while staying on their property and in their neighborhoods.

    However, when it comes to actual grannies (and grandpas) I think it comes with some unrealistic expectations.

    As the middle-aged child of senior citizens I can tell you that seniors hanging onto their independence may be one of the most legitimately car-dependent segments of our society. Commonly they suffer from minor or major mobility issues that make it difficult or impossible to take advantage of the improvements in walkability and public transit that we hope to foster through density. Very often the deciding moment when seniors have to leave their homes and move into environments with more support (assisted living or other alternatives) is when it is no longer safe or practical for them to drive.

    In practice it may turn out that the parking permit should belong to granny and the people who should forgo a car are her younger renters.

    Now, how to pry the car keys out of 20- and 30-somethings’ hands…

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    1. There are the seniors who are more or less housebound as well – I know a woman whose mother with Alzheimer’s was living in her granny flat behind the house. Its a mix, but there is quite a lot of evidence that a relatively high percentage are used for multi-generational living.

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  3. Sing it, OP! Minimum parking laws are ridiculous. If a developer is willing to spend his money on building a unit without parking, who are you to not let him? If a renter/buyer is willing to spend his money on said unit without parking, who are you to not let him? Stop running people’s lives and let them make their own choices. Nobody’s making you move into a place without a parking spot, so stop making me move into a place with a parking spot.

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