September 22, 2016: Unbundled parking: Fewer cars from Cushing Village

September 22, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the final up-or-down decision grows near on whether the proposed Cushing Village development will move forward, it is important to consider not only “whether” the development will proceed, but to consider, also, “how” it will proceed.  In a prior Guest Opinion in the Citizen-Herald, for example, Cushing Village developer Chris Starr committed that “residential parking will be ‘unbundled’ from their monthly apartment rent, which will encourage residents to use the nearby public transit and go car-free if they prefer.”  That commitment should be carried forward by the new developers.

One way to manage parking, and thus help control the automobile traffic generated by new developments such as Cushing Village, is to “unbundle” the parking from the living units, such as was proposed by Chris Starr.  According to the Transport Policy Institute at Victoria University, “optimal parking supply is the amount that motorists would purchase if they paid all costs directly and had good parking and transport options.”

“Unbundling means that parking is rented or sold separately,” the Institute explains, “rather than automatically included with building space.”  Rather than rent an apartment with two parking spaces for $2,000 per month, in other words, the apartment is rented for $1,700, with each parking space rented separately for $150 per month.  In this way, residents of the building pay only for the parking they need.  For a development such as Cushing Village, which sits directly on a bus line to significant public transportation options (e.g., the T at Harvard Square, the train in Waverley Square), persons who choose to rely on public transit in lieu of a car are not forced to pay for parking spaces that they choose not to use.  In contrast, people who choose to rely on automobiles are called upon to pay the full cost of parking those automobiles.

The primary community benefit of unbundling the rent and/or sale of parking spaces from the underlying living unit is that the process attracts individuals who choose not to use cars as their mode of transportation.  The ready access to shared automobiles, such as Zip Cars, which will be located at Cushing Village, provides that transportation option when needed.

Unbundling has an unquestioned impact on reducing automobiles in new developments. In a 2013 “review of parking standards” in the Concord (MA) zoning code, Concord was told that “charging separately for parking is the single most effective strategy to encourage households to own fewer cars, and rely more on walking, cycling and transit.”  Unbundling residential parking, Concord was told, “can significantly reduce household vehicle ownership and parking demand.”

Concord was told that the process of unbundling parking makes “the cost of providing parking clear to residential and commercial tenants and buyers, and [helps] them make more informed decisions about their transportation needs.” Typically, the Concord zoning study found, “unbundled parking reduces parking demand by 10 – 30%.” One impact of this reduced parking demand is either that building size can be reduced or that developers can “build less parking and more of the functional building space (whether that is living units, commercial space or office space).”

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the regional planning agency of which Belmont is a member, agrees. According to MAPC, unbundled parking “is not only more equitable, but can also reduce the total amount of parking required for the building. . .Communities should encourage developers to unbundle the price of parking. . .”

As Cushing Village moves forward under the guidance of a new developer, Belmont would be well-served if Toll Brothers makes clear its commitment to follow-through on previously-announced plans to unbundle the pricing of parking and building space.

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September 8, 2016: As school year begins, “keep kids in motion”

September 8, 2016: Belmont Citizen-Herald

As the summer months wind down and school hours again take up much of the day for our community’s school-age children, one increasingly difficult task facing parents is to promote healthy living by our kids.  Healthy living involves not simply healthy eating, according to Be Well Belmont, but involves efforts to “keep kids in motion.”

Both the message and the messenger deserve public attention.

Be Well Belmont is a project of the Belmont Food Collaborative.  The effort, according to Suzanne Johannet, an M.D. and the BFC board chair, is based on the observation that unhealthy living imposes costs, both governmental and societal.  Be Well Belmont is pursuing several major “themes,” Johannet says, including both obesity prevention and mental health.  Youth services, Johannet says, is an important aspect of both of these themes.

Be Well Belmont is part of a larger network of community-based health initiatives.  It joins sister efforts such as Live Well Watertown and Shape-up Somerville.  In most states, Johannet observes, the activities of these efforts would be undertaken by the county public health department.  However, she says, Massachusetts has never had strong county governments and county health departments are non-existent.

Accordingly, Johannet says, local grassroots efforts are supported through regional networks called Community Health Network Areas. Belmont is part of CHNA (pronounced, Chuh-NAW) 17, which also includes Somerville, Cambridge, Watertown, Arlington and Waltham.  Funding is provided to the CHNA when regulatory actions such as hospital consolidations are approved by state regulators.

Be Well Belmont began in late 2015 by pulling together more than 70 community leaders, ranging from the school superintendent, to the library director, to the police chief and a host of community volunteers, business people and clergy, not as policymakers but rather as idea generators and community role models.  The evening’s conversation was charged with identifying “gaps in community wellness activities.”

One resulting objective of the Be Well Belmont organization was to “keep kids in motion.”  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that young people aged 6 – 17 participate in 60 minutes of physical activity daily.  Such activity, HHS says, not only helps build healthier bodies for our kids, but also helps improve academic performance, including grades, attentiveness in the classroom and ability to concentrate on tasks.

Paying particular attention to keeping kids in motion is important both by gender and by age.  Engaging in physical activity declines as young people grow older, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.  The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study noted that by high school, only 29% percent of high school students had participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity on each of the seven days before the survey. Young females were half as likely as young males to have engaged in such activity (17.7% vs. 36.6%).

The Be Well Belmont efforts are part of a growing campaign to keep kids physically active outside of the classroom in the face of video games, television, and other screen time attractions.  For example, physical activity might beneficially be viewed as part of each child’s daily regime as much as daily homework is.

As the summer days of bicycles and camps turn into days of classrooms and nights of homework, it is important to keep kids in motion.  From walking to school to hoola hoops to bikes; from backyards to houses of worship; from friends to family to neighbors, renewing our community’s commitment at the beginning of this school year to help our kids stay healthy by helping them to stay physically active is one promise we should make and keep.