After six-ish years working in urban planning and design, I can confidently say that nothing gets people more riled up than parking — not even traffic compares. This is especially true in Austin, as we frequently hash out the merits of parking-centric topics like parking minimums, parking podiums, event parking, and residential parking permits. The city’s Residential Permit Parking Program, commonly called RPP, is especially contentious, as it has direct and visible results on the very street you live on, rather than being a more abstract discussion of how many parking spaces are required in some screened parking garage downtown.
So what is RPP? According to the city, “The purpose of the Residential Permit Parking Program is to help ease the impacts to neighborhoods from non-residential parking along streets adjacent to commercial properties. The desired outcome of RPP is to increase the amount of on-street parking available to residents and their guests while balancing the needs of others who desire to park along the street.”
Basically, it’s a permit system that allows only residents of a specified neighborhood to park on the street, regardless of nearby commercial amenities, transit stops, or public open space. Securing RPP for one’s street involves a five-step process that includes a neighborhood petition, a city-sponsored parking study, and the designation of a liaison to handle renewing the permits every year.
— meghan skornia (@MeghanSkornia) March 18, 2019
It sounds benign enough, like a simple solution to a minor problem — and for the most part, the city has allowed this thinking to prevail, handing out permits for areas within seven existing RPP Districts. According to Alyse Ramirez, a permit and licensing review analyst with the Austin Transportation Department, this includes 350 individual blocks with RPP restrictions currently in place at the moment, and “the program is always expanding.” But RPP is not so simple, and arguably threatens many of the things Austinites should strive for as our city grows and changes.
Differences of opinion regarding RPP follow the idealogical lines of many other controversial local urban issues — on one side you’ll find RPP-skeptics and urbanists, people who desire an Austin for everyone, “compact and connected” as they say. These are supporters of an affordable, inclusive city that does its part to address our pressing climate catastrophe. This crowd feels that RPP privatizes otherwise public property, increases the necessity of private parking, and decreases street safety.
On the other hand, we have RPP supporters, who tend to rally against any urban issue that comes their way while, ironically, choosing to live in an urban environment. They say they’re fed up with the trash that comes from street parking and the frustration of looking for parking spaces in their own neighborhoods — for guests, I assume, since two spaces per unit are required for most residential uses in Austin. This crowd apparently doesn’t realize they can buy all the street parking space they want in the suburbs. I’d be willing to bet that very few visitors are parking on the street in front of houses in say, Kuempel Tract Phase 2 Section 3.
“But you said there are valid concerns on each side.” Okay, there is one valid concern from the NIMBY crowd I can agree with: trash. It must be incredibly frustrating for UT football revelers to leave chicken wing bones in your tires and trash on your lawn:
This laser-like focus on the minor annoyances of urban life, frequently at the expense of more pressing issues, is what we’ve come to expect from the city’s neighborhood protectionist contingent — and it’s part of the reason I have a difficult time taking any of their concerns seriously, even the somewhat valid ones. It’s unfortunate that the past political climate has supported this band-aid of a program, but if the recent city elections were any indication, Austinites are ready for change. (To do my part, I will personally provide rubber gloves and trash bags to anyone who needs to remove street parking litter from their property. Hit me up on twitter.)
A child in 2075 asks why it’s too hot to go outside and play baseball.
— Tony Jordan (@twjpdx23) December 5, 2018
Sure, it’s frustrating when people disrespect your property, but is it frustrating enough to justify what RPP actually does? Here’s just a short list: privatizing public streets, hurting small businesses, adding to development costs — which in turn are passed on to consumers — increasing danger to pedestrians, creating a larger need for private parking, and adding costs to renters and homeowners in gentrifying areas.
It’s hard to fault current RPP supporters for not understanding these connections, as the city has been so complacent in handing out permits. Hell, staff might not even realize the wide-reaching implications of block after block of privatized street parking. It’s time to reframe this conversation to expose the minor, childish complaints about stuff like litter for what they really are: short-sighted attacks on urban livability. Let’s look at the various ways RPP works against that livability, one issue at a time:
RPP Privatizes Public Space
At its most basic, the RPP program takes a publicly-owned asset, the right-of-way, and reserves it only for those that live adjacent to it. Some of these RPP areas are next to public parks and green spaces, meaning these amenities are restricted to people who can afford to live nearby. While a street with parking that’s adjacent to businesses cannot be restricted with RPP, entire blocks of streets around it can be. Add in the fact that most RPP happens in areas with high rates of homeownership, and the argument practically writes itself.
According to Brandon Hodge, founder of Big Top Candy Shop on South Congress Avenue and president of the South Congress Merchant’s Association, data collected in recent years by an intrepid resident number cruncher revealed approximately 27 percent of single-family homes in Bouldin Creek contained Airbnb rentals. This number has likely changed, up or down, since the original data collection, but these Airbnb owners have effectively privatized a public asset — parking in the right-of-way — for commercial use via residential parking permits.
A quick and unscientific comparison between streets with RPP in place and Airbnb listings in my neighborhood, Swede Hill, yields less dramatic results, but underscores that fact that these Airbnb rentals have appropriated public assets for private commercial use. Meanwhile, nearby commercial tenants at the soon-to-open Next Door Creative Studios must fend for themselves on the parking front, despite equally shouldering the cost for its upkeep. Do we have any lawyers in the crowd?
RPP Hurts Businesses
It’s hard to deny that RPP hurts businesses in commercial areas. As nearby streets become restricted to visitors, businesses with no way to provide additional on-site parking struggle to retain customers. In an ideal world, our public transit would be good enough to render this issue a non-starter — but it’s not, and judging by the recent release of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which is lukewarm at best towards decreasing reliance on automobiles, that’s not going to change anytime soon. When Uncommon Objects moved from South Congress Avenue last year, a lack of on-site parking was one of the cited reasons.
Hodge can attest to the way RPP gobbles up a neighborhood block-by-block without any nuanced consideration of existing conditions. The first RPP restrictions to impact the South Congress area were located directly adjacent to one of his businesses, near the intersection of Milton Street and South Congress Avenue. Only 3 homes faced Milton Street, therefore requiring the approval of just two homeowners — the program requires 60 percent support — to place an RPP restriction. The proposal obviously passed, removing a whopping 15 parking spaces from public use, for the exclusive use of three homes. That the program has the power to even create these conditions in a core commercial area should render us all speechless.
Below: a Google Maps street view of the stretch of Milton Street near South Congress Avenue restricted by RPP for the sake of only three houses.
As RPP grew block by block, tensions rose, and the need for an agreement became clear. The city convened representatives from the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association, and the South Congress Merchant’s Association into the South Congress Advisory Group to reach a solution. The result? The group decided that no more than 50 percent of public access could be placed under RPP at any given time.
After the meeting where where members agreed to this general notion, the group spent the next few months working out details such as street sides, timing, and locations for the program. However, after the advisory group voted 9-to-10 in favor of the 50 percent coverage cap, the two neighborhood associations involved pulled out of the agreement after months of work. Think about that for a minute: public assets were sacrificed to private landowners, and those same owners couldn’t come to an agreement about giving them back.
RPP Adds to Development Costs
In the same vein, removing or reducing parking requirements is a simple way to reduce development costs — parking garages ain’t cheap — which in turn reduces the costs passed on to residents and businesses, not to mention freeing up extra space for living and working. As a city, maintaining everyone’s access to publicly-owned, already-available street parking in commercial areas will provide a bridge to our hopefully less car-dependent future. It is hard to imagine that any future development will not include parking, regardless of zoning requirements, if existing street parking is steadily rendered unavailable.
RPP Decreases Pedestrian Safety
A basic urban design principle is that narrower streets lead to slower automobile traffic, and street parking is one of many ways to create these conditions — remember, the likelihood of pedestrian survival in a crash is directly tied to vehicle speed. Wide streets without parked cars have no calming effect, and adding parked cars or narrowing the street incrementally slows traffic. It’s a simple solution for improving pedestrian safety, and the much sparser usage of permitted residential parking doesn’t have the same effect.
RPP is Discriminatory
Adding RPP in gentrifying areas is a PR nightmare, and I can’t believe more people aren’t bringing this up. Imagine living in your home for 25 years, with property taxes through the roof, and since your home isn’t new, you don’t have off-street parking. You have a large family, all owning cars to get to work. Yearly permits cost $16.24 per vehicle (and are restricted by some unknown process called an “Eligible Listing”, usually to two), with scratch off single-use permits costing $1 each.
To make matters worse, renewal information is sent via email by your neighborhood liaison, requiring internet access via computer or smartphone — plus you need to scan the form to return to the city. If you have family members or caretakers over, more than your allotted permits, those fines add up.
Need another hypothetical? Let’s pretend you work near Dell Seton Medical Center. Your employer doesn’t provide parking, and garages are out of budget. You pay taxes through your rent or property taxes, plus sales tax on things you purchase like groceries and utilities. This means you have the exact same right to the street a few blocks over from your job as the homeowner who lives on it — but you can’t park there, thanks to that homeowner having the spare time and skills to procure an RPP listing. This is a nakedly discriminatory practice that inflicts an unfair degree of harm on our city’s most vulnerable.
So Now What?
Let’s say the city had no clue about the far-reaching consequences of the RPP program, and, understandably shocked by the points raised in this article, collectively decided to make some changes.
A good start would be placing a limit on the total area that RPP can cover in a given region. This could look like a calculation covering a certain block area, east/west street side regulations, or limiting the permits to certain times. Neighborhood groups around South Congress Avenue failed to reach an agreement on the same topic in the past, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it another shot — this doesn’t address the legal issues of privatizing public assets, but it’s a step in the right direction.
— Jeff Thompson (@fastmole) September 16, 2017
The better solution is to simply realize what an unjust operation RPP is at its roots, and put a stop to it. Austin’s in the midst of a transitional period, working towards affordability and connectivity against a backdrop of urban growth so notable it would be actively harmful to maintain the status quo. In this period, many people still drive to compact and walkable commercial areas, since that’s the only option they have — but RPP stands in their way.
As transit improves and housing becomes more dense, many of the parking issues RPP misguidedly attempts to correct will sort themselves out, and those frustrations don’t justify the inequalities the current program creates. If Austinites truly want a “compact and connected” city — or simply a city that treats every member of its population fairly — it’s high time we abolished residential permit parking.