The Alamitos Beach Parking Issue in Long Beach: How We Got Here and What We Need to Do

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Photos below by Christopher Hassler

Parking in Alamitos Beach doesn’t cost you a dime. It does, however cost you something much more valuable: your time.

At this point, it’s nearly a part-time job. You clock-in the minute you even think about going home: What time will it be when I get there? Where did I park last night? Which street has the early morning street sweeping, again?

You drive home, dreading the inevitable hunt for a spot. After 30 minutes of circling around the neighborhood and nearly hitting someone because your eyes were fixed on parking spaces, you finally find a spot. You know that if you had arrived any later, the search could easily have been longer.

You get out and inspect your space. There’s a Smart Car in front of you and it’s going to look like you’re wasting space when it leaves. Panic ensues but you’d rather get a threatening note about that again over searching, yet again, for parking.

When you get ready to leave in the morning or during the weekend, you pause to think about what the parking situation will be like when you return. Leaving your hard-earned spot fills you with anxiety.

Soon enough, you start planning out your entire life around parking.

How We Got Here


Source: United States Census Bureau / American FactFinder

One of the defining characteristics of Alamitos Beach is that roughly 40% of the housing stock was built before Long Beach instituted parking minimums in 1952.

Stroll through the neighborhood and you’ll come across several apartment buildings built between the 1920s and 1940s that stretch across nearly the entire parcel. These buildings don’t leave any room for garages or parking spaces.

Above: One such parcel-devouring building, built in 1946. Fourteen units that have no choice but to use curb space for their cars.

Other developments from this era do provide a few garages for their residents, but still fall far short of current parking requirements.

There are several reasons as to why this occurred: car ownership was relatively uncommon, there was a popular streetcar network that ran along Ocean Boulevard and Broadway, and developers wanted to squeeze in as many units as possible to maximize their profits. Ultimately, this neighborhood was not designed for the car culture that would come to define so much of life in Southern California.

It was only a matter of time until the streets of Alamitos Beach became clogged with cars. The streetcar system in Long Beach was entirely dismantled by 1961, and car ownership was now in reach of nearly every resident. Due to increasingly restrictive zoning, jobs and destinations were pushed farther out beyond the reach of alternatives modes of transportation. The problem of overcrowded curbs has existed ever since.

A Closer Look

To better understand how much demand for curb parking outpaces supply in the neighborhood, let’s take a look at this section of Alamitos Beach, bounded by Esperanza Ave., Appleton St, Junipero Ave., and Shoreline Way/Alamitos Ave. This area is a census tract with publicly available population data. Below are some statistics from the latest American Community Survey on this particular area’s population, number of housing units, and the percentage of homes that use zero, one, or multiple vehicles.

We can use the statistics below to estimate the number of vehicles used by residents in this area: about 3,375 vehicles for 2,674 occupied homes. By my own count, there are roughly 1,920 on-street parking spaces:

Population, Housing, and Vehicles in Census Tract 5766.02
Total Population 4,383
Total Housing Units 2,873
Total Occupied Units 2,674
% of Occupied Units with:
0 Vehicles 6.3
1 Vehicle 64.3
2 Vehicles 26.3
3 Vehicles or More 3.1

But on-street parking isn’t the whole picture. There are at least 1,502 off-street spaces in this section of Alamitos Beach. That’s without counting 14 parking structures for apartment buildings that didn’t have parking space numbers in their building permit records.

Taking on-street and off-street parking together, the area has at least 3,422 spaces. So if there are at least as many spaces as there are vehicles, why is there such an intense competition for curb space?

Above: large retired vehicles not used for daily transit, like buses or ambulances, receive free storage on public real estate.

We’re not using our off-street parking efficiently. Spaces in private structures sit empty because access is limited to occupants of the adjoining apartment building, and City parking minimums required developers to provide far more spaces than are typically used. Meanwhile, neighbors with one- or two-car garages often use them as storage units or additional rooms since they can keep their vehicles on the street at no cost.

The other usual exploits of free curb parking are also in play here. Residents reserve spaces for visitors or roommates with their own vehicles and/or extra junk cars dedicated for this very purpose. Work vehicles tie up spots for days. Lately, buses-turned-RVs have begun cropping up in what seems to be the newest fad in hogging curb space.

The waste of off-street space and abuse of on-street space result in a situation where a resident without garage access can spend 30 minutes or more looking for a place to park when returning home at night. And that resident isn’t just competing with their nearby neighbors, but with people from several blocks away who couldn’t find a space closer to their home.

It’s a typical tragedy of the commons scenario; we have a scarce shared resource that is overwhelmed by demand. The City’s apparent unwillingness to manage this resource has led some residents to try to take matters into their own hands by leaving threats on their neighbors’ windshields.

Possible Solutions

There is no room to significantly increase the parking supply in Alamitos Beach. With almost 10,000 homes across the entire neighborhood, proposed fixes such as squeezing 100 more spaces in by changing the angle of parking spaces are only drops in the bucket. Unless property owners want to tear down valuable housing for public parking structures, we can’t possibly provide the supply needed for existing demand. Besides, increasing parking supply is like widening a road; it only allows more cars to be used in the area, adding to traffic and pollution.

Solutions, therefore, lie in reducing the demand for curb parking. If we want to put an end to 30 minute searches, threatening letters from neighbors, and the anxiety over leaving a parking space, we need to limit the number of cars on neighborhood streets to the point where parking becomes convenient even during times of peak demand.

Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA and a leading expert in parking policy, demonstrated over a decade ago in his book The High Cost of Free Parking that anything over an 85% occupancy rate of curb parking in a given area leads to congestion because drivers cannot find a space that is reasonably close to their destination. In other words, at least one out of every eight parking spaces should be open at all times to avoid cruising for a spot.

How do we get down to 85%? We can start by implementing an overnight parking permit district that limits demand among residents.  This would serve a different purpose than Long Beach’s existing Preferential Parking District program, which was designed to keep out college commuter traffic.

A number of cities throughout North America have used districts to help solve curb problems similar to our own. Atlanta, for example, places a cap on the number of permits issued per household that varies with off-street parking: two permits for a residence that does not have access to off-street spaces, and one permit for a home that does. Instead of a household cap, Toronto limits the total of number of permits issued in a district to the total number of on-street spaces. The city also uses graduated pricing so that the first permit for a residence without a garage is half the cost of any additional permits. Permits for households with access to off-street parking are more expensive.

These districts discourage people from using garages for anything other than their vehicles and put an end to the abuses of free curb parking. They’re not costly, either; Atlanta charges $20 for an annual permit, while Toronto’s annual fees range from $10 to $42.

Above: using garages as storage mean excess cars outside of garages.

We’ll also need to expand access to off-street parking so that unused spaces in one apartment building’s garage can be rented out by neighbors. This will require extensive collaboration with property managers to unbundle spaces from leases, so that a tenant who is not using a spot doesn’t have to pay for it, and to create a system for the monthly rental of empty spaces in their structures.

Parking management will be an ongoing effort instead of a one-time event. None of the cities that have tamed their curbs got there with a single policy. Effectively reducing parking demand involves other strategies such as supporting alternative modes of transportation, and providing real-time information to the public on the availability of both on-street and off-street spaces. The City of Long Beach will need to regularly review parking and make adjustments to policies as needed, and that will require dedicating more resources to parking management.

Regardless, it’s time we started making progress on this decades-old issue. We have plenty of parking space; it’s just not being managed smartly. Let’s reduce the anger and anxiety involved in what should be a simple and mundane task. It’s time to quit our part-time job.

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