Op-ed: A better balanced transportation policy in San Jose benefits the environment
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Everyone is aware of the awful pollution that spews out of our gas-powered cars. Yet have you ever thought about how the abundant parking spots we have scattered throughout San Jose are part of this problem?

You have the opportunity to do something about it next month. First, let us explain how too many parking spaces are hurting our environment and our wallets.

When we get stuck in seemingly endless traffic with every lane clogged with cars, here’s the first thought many of us have—if only there was another lane of traffic. Sure as can be, we’ve seen countless people nod along to what comes next: as soon as areas spend millions of dollars adding a lane, the new lane fills with cars. The reason is what transportation gurus call induced demand. Or in “Field of Dreams” parlance, if you build it, cars will come.

The same principle applies to parking lots and garages. The more space we carve out just for cars, the more cars, traffic and pollution we get. All this while San Jose is trying to reduce its pollution so our planet and state can recuperate from global burning.

Maybe you drive to work every day or for every errand. But not everyone does. And not everyone should be pushed to live where they have to drive to get anything done.

For us, as much as we love driving on an open road on a weekend trip, we minimize driving throughout the week. The more time we spend walking, biking or taking public transit, the better we feel about our personal health and our planet.

A lot of people in younger generations feel similarly. Planning is all about building for the future, not the past, and about choosing priorities.

This month, the San Jose City Council will vote on enabling new developments to rejigger our priorities—to emphasize more sustainable, healthy ways of getting around using public transit, scooters or bicycles.

These expanding options will encourage new residents and employees to reduce driving to work or around the neighborhood. They’ll cut down on the traffic San Joseans already experience, as well as hopefully the traffic deaths. They’ll cut down on car pollution, and they’ll shape a community more suited to sustain our parklands and hillsides.

Meanwhile, this new policy won’t mandate developments have an arbitrary, antiquated amount of parking that ends up sitting unused. They’ll bring into balance the number of parking spots with other ways of getting around.

Mandating more parking means spaces sit empty. In fact, to get good data on unused spots, local organization TransForm did the real work—counting every single empty parking space in over two dozen multi-story buildings in San Jose. A quarter of spots were empty. That’s space that could go to more shops, housing, bike storage, green space and other community amenities.

With all these extra parking spaces, guess who ends up paying? Developers can pass on the cost to residents. Santa Clara University Professor CJ Gabbe finds tenants spend 17% of their rent on parking, which particularly hurts folks who are low-income and/or don’t own a car.

Imagine if I bought a Porsche and you had to pay for part of it. That’s akin to San Jose’s current parking policy.

San Jose has an opportunity right now to re-envision how we plan for, and accommodate, more housing and better transportation while also reducing our climate impact.

So if you want to see a better environment for the next generation and a fair policy that fits right, please tell the City Council you support the staff’s recommendation in June.

Zoe Siegel is trained as an urban planner and is the senior director of climate resilience at Greenbelt Alliance. Alex Shoor is the executive director of Catalyze SV.

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