Parking advocates embrace climate deniers’ playbook

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Michael Clemson, the Vice Chair of the Long Beach Transit Board of Directors, and the Energy Program Manager for the California State University Chancellor’s Office, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

Cars dominate the politics of Long Beach, and so do their effects. Our reliance on cars forces us to devote huge amounts of public space to streets and parking while air pollution continues to kill. Then there are carbon emissions contributing to a climate catastrophe.

Yet, still, we demand free parking. So our leaders spend time chasing after the one more parking spot that will finally solve the issue, despite the clear and compelling evidence that adding parking actually adds new drivers. Fighting parking demand with more and more parking is a self-defeating strategy that counters the best evidence available.

To boost a counter-factual approach, too many parking advocates borrow climate denier talking points. They tell us that taking away parking would be catastrophic. In reality, it would allow the city to invest in the kinds of things that save lives while improving quality of life.

The gaggle of arguments against alternatives to driving are almost exactly the same as the tired and debunked ones climate deniers used against solar and renewable energy back in 2006.

Deniers said it would cost too much to build alternatives while ignoring fossil-fuel subsidies. Deniers called clean energy “social engineering,” forcing Americans away from the “natural” choice that they were free to make. Deniers said that clean-energy production would be unreliable and insufficient, hurting the economy.

From 2019, we can see all of these fears were unfounded. We invested in renewables and now they are cheaper than fossil energy. Despite California tripling its renewable energy generation, the electrical grid is more reliable than ever. Californians and Long Beach residents are far from resenting the move away from fossil fuels in the energy sector. In fact, supporting renewable energy is just about the only thing that everyone in the US can agree on.

We have plenty of workable solutions to depollute and decarbonize transportation as well. The city has made significant progress in installing bike lanes, promoting scooters and keeping public transit affordable. Yet, significantly more time, energy and money goes into building and maintaining a fossilizing fossil-fuel infrastructure that puts more and more cars on the road.

“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity,” urbanist historian Lewis Mumford wrote… in 1955. The evidence that adding car lanes and parking spaces only increases the number of cars on the road has existed almost as long as cars themselves.

Since the 1950s, it’s only gotten clearer that mandated residential parking and massive parking structures do not make parking easier because it leads to new drivers. New cars for those drivers take up the new parking, resulting in a need for more parking, resulting in new drivers. In the end there are more cars, more traffic, more carbon, and less money and public space for alternatives.

That’s why the California Air Resources Board says that, even with more electric vehicles, we need to simultaneously reduce driving significantly and drastically increase renewables to achieve climate goals. It will take more than money to make transit fast and convenient and biking and walking safe. To work they need more public space, and that might cost some parking spaces.

If the city wants to take the climate crisis seriously, it will have to address how much we drive. A quarter of carbon pollution from the average Long Beach household is from cars and trucks. That’s bigger than ALL the carbon pollution from the home’s electricity, natural gas and water use; or the family’s meat consumption; or really anything else. There is no way to rapidly reduce carbon emissions while ignoring the single largest source.

No one wants more cars on the road, yet the city keeps spending money like we do. What would it look like if we stopped investing in things we want less of and instead invested in things people want more? Safe bike lanes, wider sidewalks and transit improvements generate immediate benefit and also reset expectations of the possible.

Investing in a new oil field would be controversial because of the disastrous impacts to the environment, especially the climate and air quality. But investing to increase the use of that oil by building more parking is not only uncontested but demanded.

This isn’t to say that everyone will be forced to ditch their cars tomorrow. Even with the reductions in driving needed to achieve our climate goals, Long Beach will still be a city that relies on cars. To change, we must be in for the long haul of creating affordable, effective, convenient alternatives.

Every new parking space takes us in the wrong direction by increasing Long Beach’s fossil-fuel addiction. By denying our responsibility to tackle the largest single emission source the we are denying the seriousness of the health and climate crisis.

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