Live Free Or Drive!

By Jennifer Smith and Jim Smith

The recent battle over permit parking has kept a spotlight on Venetians’ continuing dilemma of where to stash their cars. Yet, no solutions have yet been proposed that would address the problem – with or without pay parking – with a long-term solution.

Much of the dialogue has centered on having not enough parking. But what if we look at it from the perspective of too many cars?

Unlike most of Southern California, Venice began as a planned city that did not exalt the role of  the automobile. In the first years of the 20th century, it was unclear whether the car would become king.

At that time, most visitors traveled to and from Venice via the Pacific Electric Railway, also know as the Red Cars. Once in Venice, short distances made walking convenient and prevalent.  In addition, there was a miniature train that traveled around central Venice and there were trams on the Ocean Front Walk that carried passengers all the way to Santa Monica. Cars were a luxury that few could afford. Even as late as the 1960s, fully half of Venice residents had incomes beneath the poverty line. Many Venetians at that time could not afford a car or had at most one old car for an entire family.

As Venice became gentrified, incomes soared as did the number and size of vehicles per household. A full-scale parking problem became part of life at the beach. At the same time, visitors to the beach from other parts of Los Angeles County, and beyond, were more likely to drive than take the bus. The Red Car was destroyed by the 1950s in a proven conspiracy by the auto makers and oil companies. Today, Venetians are often marooned without a car on summer weekends, since they are not able to return to a convenient parking place after their outing.

We believe Venice would be better off with less cars, or none. It could lead California and the nation in withdrawing from the addiction of car dome. However, with any addiction there has to be a cure available. Weaning ourselves from cars is necessary both because there is no place to put any more of them, and because the earth is suffering from global warming, much of which is caused by carbon pollution from millions of vehicles.

There exist some alter-natives at present to automobiles. They include the superb Santa Monica Blue Bus, the MTA, bicycles and walking. But none of these have enticed the majority of drivers to abandon their cars. There are several reasons for this.

First, notwithstanding the parking problem and more and more traffic, cars are convenient. You can hop in your car and usually find free parking at your destination. Secondly, cars are cool. Even Venice had a recent car show. Millions of dollars are spent on advertising to convince you that you’ll be a better, more attractive person in a new car. The auto industry has followed the advertising gimmicks pioneered by the cigarette manufactures.

For years after the Surgeon General’s cancer warning began appearing on cigarette packs, tobacco companies continued to tout the “coolness” of smoking. It was only with the gradual curtailment of advertisements and a growing public opposition to smoking that cigarette use nose-dived.

Are automobiles as dangerous as tobacco? Cars are one of the biggest direct killers of people. Last year 37,017 people were killed in auto accidents. But cars also kill indirectly through pollution. According to a Common Dreams report, citing a recent European study, auto emissions kill 40,000 people annually in Austria, Switzerland and France. If these three countries are typical, then auto pollution could account for more than three million deaths annually world-wide. Tobacco is estimated to account for five million annual deaths worldwide. However, it is a much smaller cause of pollution and global warming than is the automobile industry.

Also, childhood obesity is linked to transportation options that do not also provide exercise.

How can we, in Venice, begin to back off from our addiction to automobiles?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Make some streets pedestrian  only. This will begin to show other uses  for the huge amount of our city that is  paved. Windward Avenue from Pacific to  Speedway would be an excellent place to  start. Restaurants could add outdoor  tables. A farmers market could be held, as well as numerous festivals during the year.

2. Turn some streets into parking lots. Diagonal parking would fit on  Main  Street from Rose Avenue to the  “Traffic” Circle and on parts of Venice and Washington Blvds.

3. Create local alternatives to cars. Legalize pedaled and electric rickshaws, revive the OFW tram on Speedway (This would also open up the public beach on the peninsula to swimmers and sun bathers). Create a shuttle that circles Venice for the benefit of visitors and residents, alike.

4. Use a bike for convenience and exercise. All of Venice can be reached in 10 minutes or less on a bicycle (See Typical Travel Times Around Venice, Nov. 2002, ( The only problems are that it can be dangerous (try biking down Lincoln Blvd.) and there is a lack of bike parking. Many streets are wide enough for separate bike and car areas. Abbot Kinney Blvd. is a good example of the anti-bicycle attitude that prevails at the city’s Dept. of Transportation. When traffic lines were repainted a couple of years ago, the result was that a center lane was created that is virtually unused. Instead, the parallel parking could have been moved far enough away from the curb to allow bike lanes that separated them from car traffic.

Venice is the perfect place to ride a bicycle. Flat terrain, excellent weather, mixed use developments, and limited parking all contribute to the sense of using your own power to get from here to there. Infrastructure improvements must keep up with the community’s desire to have transportation options. Infrastructure improvements send a signal that alternative modes are valued and encouraged. The more bicycles there are on the road, the safer bicycling becomes. Venetians need to pressure local governments and transportation planners to make bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure a priority.

5. Stop requiring parking in new construction. This increases the cost of construction and lessens the possibility of affordable housing. Low and very low income residents are less likely to need large amounts of vehicle parking, if any. But requiring expensive parking areas makes buildings much more expensive to erect and is a disincentive to building affordable housing.

Even middle-income housing and most commercial construction should not have a parking requirement.

Not only does it increase the cost of the building, but it also forces landlords to charge higher rents which can only be afforded by chain stores and upscale businesses. Parking requirements and more parking lots are driving (pardon the pun) gentrification. If businesses on Abbot Kinney Blvd., for instance, were not able to offer parking to their customers, it is more likely that over time more and more businesses would cater to the thousands of Venetians who live within walking or biking distance of the boulevard.

Each off-street parking space uses 300-400 square feet of land. Land in Venice is expensive. Using space for parking results in missed opportunities, such as renting or selling the land, which would result in more tax revenue. When looking to park, it’s nice when it seems to be free. But free parking is not really free. Someone is paying for the land – between the owner who is providing parking for residents or employees, to the local government who is missing out on tax revenue, to everyone else who is missing out on the benefits of increased density. Indirect costs of free parking are higher taxes and retail prices, reduced wages, and reduced benefits.

Minimum parking requirements are usually set by local jurisdictions based on the highest predicted demand at single-use suburban sites. So, the minimum amount of parking a mall is required to provide is calculated based on demand on Christmas Eve. The result is obvious – a large supply of vacant, paved land is unused for nearly every other day of the year. Suburbs are built around ample free parking because there are few or no transportation alternatives available. This model of minimum parking requirements is not appropriate in denser urban communities – yet it persists.

Communities are forcing their planners to evolve. The wasted, paved space is no longer acceptable in many municipalities. Newer models of determining parking requirements are based on what other communities have developed, independently of the traditional car-centric model. New standards, for shared parking, bicycle parking, and maximum parking, better fit the goals and uses in the community.

6. Pay people not to drive. The government (federal, state and local) subsidizes auto travel to the tune of billions of dollars. Use some of that money to reward people for giving up their car or buying an electric car. While electric cars still cause pollution in their manufacture, and their non-biodegradable parts such as tires, they are a step in the right direction.

7. Make mass transit free. This is also beyond the reach of we Venetians, but it is a concept that could cause a massive shift away from cars. As it is fares account for only about 15 percent of operating costs.

Some of these suggestions are modest and others are far reaching. All of them are likely to draw opposition from someone. Yet, if we don’t begin to face our addiction to cars and work to eliminate it, we’ll soon choke on our own pollution. On the other hand, we can make Venice a walking and biking community that is a pleasure to live in. The choice is up to us.