Category Archives: driving

Victims of Predatory Towing, It’s Time to Be Heard

by Mike Roan

During each of the last 2 weeks* I’ve attended discussions hosted by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, at the Utah State Capitol regarding House Bill 115. The bill is designed to begin to address what I consider to be the egregious and predatory practices of some towing companies, which tow cars without owner or police action.

Parked cars in Provo.

Parked cars in Provo.

Last week, a group consisting of 12-15 towing companies, along with representatives of Provo City, Ogden City, UDOT, Utah realtors, a couple of property owners and me — as the only regular citizen with no direct economic interest in the issue — agreed to make a few minimal changes to the current statute regulating the towing industry.  Those proposed changes are:

  • Towing companies would be required to accept credit cards for payment.
  • Towing companies would be required to provide people being towed with a copy of ‘their bill of rights,’ which explains state statutes and city ordinances (where applicable) relating to charges, operating procedures, methods of contesting tows, etc.
  • UDOT would study the rates tow companies charge and other aspects of the industry, the findings of which would be submitted to Mr. Stratton in the late summer of 2013.
  • Cities’ and municipalities’ rights to regulate areas not addressed by the state would remain unchanged.

In spite of this agreement, when the amended bill (HB 115) reflecting what was agreed upon was presented to the House Business and Labor Committee on Friday, March 1, the towing industry showed up en masse to oppose the bill.

Those speaking in favor of the bill were Mayor Curtis, Gary Williams (Ogden City Attorney), a representative of the league of cities and me.

If you would like to see the law changed to reduce/eliminate predatory towing in our city and state, please contact your Utah state house and senate legislators now!  If you don’t know who they are or how to contact them, visit for their names and contact information.

The towing lobby in Utah is very strong and without substantial citizen input nothing is likely to happen. Let your voice be heard!

The learn more about this topic or HB 115 see this report by Fox 13.

Mike Roan is a more than 30 year veteran of the financial services industry. He has degrees from BYU and Northwestern University and is the neighborhood chair of the Riverside Neighborhood. He has lived in states all across the U.S., as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian countries. He is a father of six children, a graduate of Provo’s Citizens Academy, and has initiated a number of local initiatives.

*Editor’s note: more time may have elapsed now because the editor took forever to post this after receiving it. 

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The Ongoing Tragedy of Unwalkable Streets in Ogden

In the aftermath of a fatal auto-pedestrian accident in Ogden last week, Fox 13’s Ben Winslow followed the story as people became “outraged” over the lack of walkability in the area.

Ben’s story from Tuesday also identifies one of the primary problems:

“The lighting isn’t necessarily the best,” [Ogden police Lt. Chad] Ledford said of Wall Avenue. “You couple that with the five lanes of traffic and the speeds and there was a collision.”

Thobe is the second man to die while crossing Wall Avenue in two months. Peterson said Thobe’s best friend, David Saures, was killed on Christmas Eve while crossing Wall Ave.near Binford Street, about 300 feet away. The person who hit Saures and left him to die in the street has never been found, police said.

Apparently UDOT is studying the need for some sort pedestrian safety device in the area. However, as my original post pointed out, this is a classic stroad and the underlying design is the biggest problem. I’d love to see more safety devices in all of these places, but ultimately they’re going to need some radical fixes to really bring about much improvement. It’s sort of like trying to make a bomb safe; in the end, the best way to render it inert is to dismantle it.

And in case you forgot, here’s what this area looks like:

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.40.18 PMA follow up story further explains the problem:

“I’ve been here for a little over five years and we’ve had a dozen people hit and killed in this area,” said Jennifer Canter, the director of St. Anne’s Center, a homeless shelter where both men were headed when they died. “It’s a staggering statistic, and it’s not just at night — during the daytime, too.”

The problem area is a stretch of Wall Avenue between 25th and 29th Streets. There are unmarked intersections, where police say drivers should stop for pedestrians. But because there are no crosswalks, the people who cross the road to head to the shelters say hardly anyone stops for them.

People do jaywalk, and the street lighting at night is terrible. The danger is increased as the homeless make their way from the downtown area to the shelters to find a bed at night.

It’s rare that the media gets a chance to report on these issues because they’re fairly wonkish and hard to cover without turning to advocacy. So it’s exciting to see Ben’s ongoing and excellent coverage.

A few points emerge from that coverage:

• The people being hit in this area are walking out of necessity, not choice. That’s key; with better design there would be more voluntary pedestrians, which would increase safety for everyone. As it is, it’s tragic that the people with the fewest options are also being killed.

• Even a casual bystander can pick out the major problems here: too many lanes, fast speed limits, insufficient lighting, etc. How is it, then, that some traffic engineer was not able to see these problems? Or, perhaps the better question is why traffic engineers refuse to account for people in their designs.

• Accidents along stroad are shouldn’t be surprising and won’t end on their own.

I could go on, but the point is really very simple: bad design leads to carnage.

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Cars Are Parking Machines, Not Mobility Machines

Over the past few days several different friends have shared with me a post about how cars are parked 95 percent of the time. So, I guess I better get blogging on this topic!

Parked cars in Provo. Note how what should be a sidewalk here is actually a parking lot. So this spot is particularly awful.

Parked cars in Provo. Note how what should be a sidewalk here is actually a parking lot. So this spot is particularly awful.

The post offers three different methods for testing how much of the time cars are parked. They’re all pretty easy to do, and the author ulimately concludes that Donald Shoup — author of The High Cost of Free Parking, among other things — is correct when he argues that cars are parked most of the time.

So, yeah, that’s basically a waste of resources.

But what I really like is where the author goes from there:

One reason to talk about this is to highlight the importance of parking. It is what cars do the vast majority of the time.

It highlights a crucial inefficiency of mass private car ownership. It points towards huge parking space savings (an enormous land bank) that shifts away from mass car ownership might open up, if only we could massively improve the alternatives including making car-sharing and other ‘metered access to shared cars’ (MASC) more of a mass market phenomenon. – See more at:

In other words, it would be much more efficient, almost mind-bogglingly so, if we only had the number of cars in a city that were needed at any given moment.

So, I might need a car for 30 minutes at 9 am and you might need one for an hour at noon. Right now, we both probably have our own cars, but it would really make more sense for us to have just one car between us. On both individual and city-wide scales this would translate into huge savings, greater efficiency, and generally prettier spaces.

Parked cars on Center Street.

Parked cars on Center Street.

Its also worth mentioning that if cars are parked nearly all the time they’re not really “mobility” machines so much as they are space-wasting devices. In other words, though we think about cars as a means of transportation, that’s almost incidental when compared to their “primary” role, which is sitting around. There are a lot of implications to this reasoning, but if nothing else presenting and discussing the situation more honestly would probably help us tackle problems like too much parking and too many cars.

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How Many People Have to Die

Earlier this week, Fox 13’s Ben Winslow reported on a fatal auto-pedestrian accident in Ogden.

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.35.05 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.33.00 PM

But here’s the worst part:

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.33.51 PM

After Ben’s original story on the fatality on Christmas Eve, UDOT apparently also said they were considering* putting in a pedestrian light in this spot.

In case you’re curious, here’s what that area of Ogden looks like:

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.38.54 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.40.28 PM

Screen shot 2013-02-25 at 9.40.18 PMJudging from these pictures I’m skeptical that a pedestrian light would make a huge difference, though anything would certainly help; as is so often the case with these types of accidents, this area is marked by over-wide stroads that are completely hostile to pedestrians. It’s dangerous, ugly, inconvenient and actively encourages unsafe behavior, such as speeding or ignoring foot traffic.

It’s baffling that someone was even walking in this spot in the first place, given how unpleasant it looks.

I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with these accident posts, but they keep happening so I keep pointing out the obvious: people will continue to die needlessly as long as we have atrociously designed streets like this.

*This post originally stated that Ben Winslow reported that UDOT would put in a pedestrian light. He actually reported that they were considering putting one in.

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Snow: A Case Study in Traffic Calming

Last month, I argued that Provo gets narrower streets after snow storms and that those narrow streets work just fine. The point was that we should be building new narrow streets and slimming the ones we already have because, clearly, they work.

But a video I recently discovered from Streetfilms explores how snow storms have other traffic-calming effects as well:

The video focuses on “neckdowns,” or elements added to street corners to slow cars as they turn. The idea is to increase safety for pedestrians and, as the video points out, the cars aren’t really using the space anyway.

The video shows a whole series of accidental neckdowns resulting from snow and tracks cars as they make turns. As the narrator points out, they’re “not stopping anybody from getting where they need to go.”

The takeaway here is that after snow storms we often have working examples of how our own streets should be structured; we don’t need to rely on distant case studies or theoretical models. Instead, we just need to walk outside a few days after a snow storm, look at how much street is being used, and only plan to build that.


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Density May Have Saved Saturday Postal Delivery

Everyone knows why the United States Post Office has floundered: the internet. It’s an excuse that has been dragged through the media so often in recent years that it seems irrefutable. And certainly it’s true to a large extent.

The post office in downtown Provo.

The post office in downtown Provo.

But this week’s announcement that USPS was cutting Saturday delivery is illuminative because it shows that the organization can’t meet its physical obligations. To save money, it’s trying to cut the amount it spends on fuel, labor and physical infrastructure. USPS was spread too thin.

Or in other words, low density sprawl is killing the post office.

The problem is that USPS charges the same rates to deliver to a low density Arizona suburb as it charges to deliver to a high density Manhattan neighborhood. However, the cost to deliver to these locations is vastly different; in Manhattan the time and fuel spent per delivery is low because one carrier can make one trip and turn over a lot of parcels.

In Arizona, however, a mail carrier spends considerably more time and fuel going from house to house. Over large distances, these costs add up. Not coincidentally, USPS is now hoping to save money by reducing the amount of time and fuel it spends making deliveries.

Or said another way, density clusters destinations together, reducing the expense of getting to them. It’s also worth mentioning that the USPS business model was developed before our modern, wildly inefficient form of sprawl — or Suburban Hell — existed.

Here’s a clip (that only sort of illustrates these ideas but is funny anyway):

A recent post from Slate touched on this idea while arguing that the problem is the USPS’s legal monopoly:

Private carriers charge substantially more to deliver parcels to rural locations. According to the UPS website, the lowest rate to deliver a four-pound package from New York City to White Owl, S.D., is $20.51. The Postal Service, which is under pressure from the federal government to provide affordable service to remote locations, charges just $12.07 to deliver the same box.

Though the author calls for USPS to respond to the market with greater agility, the solution it suggests — and which is already working for other carriers — is essentially density-based pricing. Send a carrier to a lower density place where productivity falls, and you’ll have to pay more.

Distance as a factor in pricing is an intuitive idea and it works in basically every other industry. Flying from Salt Lake City to Singapore, for example, is more expensive than flying from Salt Lake to Denver. A papaya, which probably comes from overseas, usually costs more than an apple, which may have been grown domestically.

Sometimes other factors change these dynamics — an economy of scale and other things allow H&M to sell cheaper clothes than most local designers — but generally shipping an item further makes it more expensive. And it always raises the prices. (An H&M shirt purchased directly from the H&M factory would be very cheap indeed.)

Sprawl increases shipping distances. And when you’re delivering to every single house in the U.S. every single day, those distances add up quickly. USPS failed to respond.

In other words, USPS charges high or medium density prices even for deliveries to low density areas. If USPS were profitable, it would mean that high density customers were subsidizing low density customers. But in reality no one is subsidizing low density customers, hence the lack of profitability.

In this regard, USPS is a victim of inefficient development patterns; it couldn’t solve its problems by forcing America to stop building sprawl.

But the situation vividly illustrates how sprawl erodes quality of life and the amenities we may previously have taken for granted. We’re overextended and if we don’t change the end of Saturday mail will be the least of our problems. Hopefully, the USPS announcement serves as the canary in the coal mine that prepares us for more sprawl-induced social cutbacks.

Delivering mail to these homes is relatively expensive compared to the cost of delivering to the (still not very high density) apartments in the next picture.

These five addresses cost USPS less than five address in sprawling neighborhoods.

A postal carrier can reach all five of these residences in the same time it takes to reach one or two of the homes in the picture above.

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Street Parking Is Wonderful

Imagine if every time you bought a gallon of milk, a law required you to pour the last third of it down the drain. It’d be pretty frustrating and completely pointless. Why throw away something that’s perfectly good and that you’ve already paid for?

But that’s exactly what we do when we tried to prevent or reduce street parking.

Take my parents neighborhood in Cedar Hills. Like many places, the neighborhood apparently has a law against parking overnight. Practically speaking that means a third of the time no one will be parked on the street. It also means that every home has to include enough parking for several cars.

A street in Cedar Hills.

A street in Cedar Hills.

Another view of that same street. Note how unnecessarily wide this street is as well.

Another view of that same street. Note how unnecessarily wide this street is as well.

However, the residents of Cedar Hills are already paying for the streets in the form of taxes and housing costs that include insane amounts of parking. As I write this, for example, there are five cars parked on my parents property and there’s still enough room to play basketball in the driveway. Each home literally includes a parking lot.

So in other words, the residents are paying for the streets but they aren’t allowed to actually use them. It’s like throwing away a third of the milk. Or, to use a more related metaphor, it’s like putting money into a parking meter but not being able to actually use the corresponding spot. It makes no sense.

Thankfully Provo doesn’t have these same silly laws. Unfortunately, however, my impression is that many residents would like to get them. Based on conversations I’ve had over the years I get the sense that many people feel like there’s something wrong with street parking. And I suppose there is if your agenda includes wasting as much money as possible.

In any case, our goal should be to maximize our investment in streets, which means getting as much use out of them as possible. One way to do that would be to add several more lanes for traffic — the streets are wide enough after all — though of course that would utterly destroy the neighborhoods themselves.

A better way to maximize our investment would be to add uses to the streets that would cut down on loud, dangerous traffic. One great way to do that would be to add housing.

But another, easier thing to add, is street parking. Parked cars typically make no noise and don’t hit anyone, and their presence tends to slow moving vehicles thereby improving safety. They also provide a safety barrier between moving vehicles and pedestrians.

In a coming post I’ll suggest one way to add street parking and create safer, quieter streets. But for now let’s all just try to get over the idea that parking on the street is somehow bad, or low class, or ugly. It’s not. Rather it just means that we’re trying to milk our investment for all it’s worth.

Parking cars on wide streets takes advantage of a resource we’ve already paid for. Impeding street parking on wide streets is simply wasteful.


Filed under driving, parking

Closing Streets Can Be A Bad Idea

In my second post on BYU’s upcoming campus redesign, I mentioned almost as an after thought that closing streets leads to more driving.

To understand this idea, imagine trying to get from the southeast side of campus to the northwest side — say, from J Dawgs to the Marriott Center. Right now, you can drive through campus:

According to Google Maps, this route is 0.9 miles long and takes three minutes.

According to Google Maps, this route is 0.9 miles long and takes three minutes.

After Campus Drive closes, however, drivers will be forced to chose from other, longer options.

This route is 1.3 miles long and takes 5 minutes.

This route is 1.3 miles long and takes 5 minutes.

This one — which will probably be the most commonly used alternative — is 1.4 miles and also takes 5 minutes.

This one — which will probably be the most commonly used alternative — is 1.4 miles and also takes 5 minutes.

Though the start and end points will vary, this problem will arise for anyone traveling from these regions of the city. Even if I’m going from, say, Memorial Park to somewhere on the northwest side of campus, the redesign offers fewer options that require slightly more driving.

In other words, closing this street produces a net increase in the number of car miles traveled. That wouldn’t be the case if demand for car routes was significantly declining; the longer distances would be offset by fewer car trips. But I haven’t seen any evidence that car traffic is actually decreasing on Campus Drive, nor has BYU suggested that that was a factor in its plans.

Campus Drive. This area is slated to become a pedestrian only space. That may be nice for this one spot, but cars will be forced to drive longer distances to circumnavigate it.

Campus Drive. This area is slated to become a pedestrian only space. That may be nice for this one spot, but cars will be forced to drive longer distances to circumnavigate it.

Closing streets might also make sense if demand for pedestrian space increased beyond supply to the point that cars and people were in immediate conflict. Times Square comes to mind as an example of that scenario, as do a number of European plazas. But as I argued last week, supply for pedestrian space on BYU campus is likely oversupplied right now.

In any case, the point is that diverting constant levels of traffic onto fewer streets doesn’t really improve overall pedestrian conditions because it produces more driving. Sure, one little slice of BYU campus might be prettier or easier to walk on, but 9th East, 8th North and other streets will likely be less pedestrian-friendly. I call that an overall failure.

In the past, I’ve argued that we need small blocks with a lot of little routes. It’s an idea championed by people going all the way back to Jane Jacobs and others. I’ve mostly focused on pedestrian routes in these posts because it’s easier to cut a pathway through a block than it is to carve an actual street.

But if we’re going to have cars — and be pragmatists — we need something similar for drivers. After all, forcing more cars onto bigger, faster stroads is what makes so much of our cities awful in the first place. This idea apparently is obvious to some people, as I’ve seen a fair amount of complaining online about potential increases in traffic on streets surrounding BYU.

So what should we do instead of closing streets?

Rather than completely close this road, why not just make it narrower?

Rather than completely close this road, why not just make it narrower?

The best option I can think of — short of simply outlawing cars — is to reduce the size and speed of streets while still keeping them open. So, rather than plant grass over Campus Drive, cut it down from five lanes to two (one in each direction). That keeps it available to cars, while also freeing up land for development. It also would slow down cars and be inherently more pedestrian friendly. And as I’ve expressed before, narrower streets are really fantastic.

In this case it’s probably too late to suggest changes. But the idea that closing streets to cars can actually make a place less pedestrian friendly is an important one to remember; many people in Provo and elsewhere, after all, favor making all of downtown pedestrian-only. Though that idea seems wonderful, the supply and demand conditions are even less favorable for it than they are for BYU’s new pedestrian project.

Campus Drive is destined for closure.

Campus Drive is destined for closure.

Ultimately, I look forward to the day when we have no more cars. I wish every street was a pedestrian-only zone. And we definitely need to make our cities easier for people to experience on foot.

But as long as we have some cars driving, the best practical solution I can think of is to try to reduce the miles they travel, slow them down, and keep their concentrations relatively low. Permanently shutting down streets accomplishes the opposite.

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Provo Needs More Housing Without Parking

In my recent post on converting malls to housing I mentioned the need for more nice-but-affordable housing in Provo. I used loft style housing as my example because that’s popular right now, but really Provo just needs better housing of any kind that is appealing and not geared to either established families or students.

And one really great way to make housing affordable is to cut parking.

As is the case in many cities, it’s standard in Provo to include parking in new development. I recently attended a meeeting about a proposed development in the Joaquin Neighborhood — one of the more walkable places in Utah — that proposed two parking spaces per unit. It’s insanity because parking induces demand for parking.

But even most historic housing in Provo has parking; though there are really old homes here and there that lack garages, they’re the exceptions rather than the rules. The problem, then, is that even people who want to ditch their cars are forced to pay higher housing costs that include parking.

But up in Salt Lake City there are some buildings that don’t include parking. Take this listing, for example:

a condo w/out parking

Screen shot 2013-01-06 at 10.37.06 PMThe link includes additional pictures of this apartment, but really its quite an impressive place. And it has no parking. The result is that the $182,000 price tag buys more home for someone willing to take advantage of the walkable surroundings.

When I asked what people with cars do, I was told that “there’s plenty of parking on the street or you can buy a pass for a city lot.”

Here’s another parking-free listing for a very cheap but very cool place not far from the Gateway and Pioneer Park:

Screen shot 2013-01-16 at 7.37.00 PM

Note the extremely low price of this condo. There are some financing issues that contribute to that price, but comparably sized apartments with parking in downtown Salt Lake City go for $40,000-$100,000 more.

The point is that a city with aspirations of greatness and walkability needs housing like this. It doesn’t destroy the city, create nightmarish congestion, or generally ruin the world. Indeed it makes the city more diverse and affordable for the professionals and small families who choose these places. In many cases, these places also end up being some of the coolest, most valuable spots in the city.

And as I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing like this in Provo.

Provo isn’t ready to eliminate all parking and that isn’t a realistic possibility anyway. But it is ready for some housing for people who choose not to drive, or who would rather not have their parking costs rolled into their housing costs. That type of housing is a reality in many other cities and given Provo’s age it’s surprising there isn’t more of it already. But until that changes, Provo will continue to be at a disadvantage in the competition for talent and growth.

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Not All Drivers Are Created Equal

So I’ve been commuting for a week now and while I love my new job the drive to get there is killing me. Everyday, it seems, there is a huge accident that insufferably delays my drive time.

And as it turns out, that drive time is being impacted differently by different drivers.

The Atlantic Cities reported last week on a new study that removing certain types of drivers actually has different impacts on congestion:

The central finding of the the paper, published today in Scientific Reports, is that while keeping one percent of all drivers off the road cuts traffic congestion by three percent, eliminating the same number of drivers from particular neighborhoods can reduce travel time for everyone else by a whopping 18 percent.

The article goes on to mention that in San Francisco, removing drivers from certain neighborhoods, for example, would significantly alleviate drive times.

I didn’t have time to examine the study itself — I’m spending all my time as a prisoner in my car — but I could imagine these findings leading to more targeted uses of public transit. And at worst, I suppose, they give scientific credence to the idea that all the idiot drivers live in specific locations.

One of the many traffic jams I experienced last week.

One of the many traffic jams I experienced last week.


Filed under commuting, driving