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As they ought, Northland, the good folks who want to develop a sizable chunk of land at the end of Needham St, have proposed a seemingly solid transportation demand management (TDM) plan, which includes shuttle bus service to Needham Heights (commuter rail), Newton Highlands (T), Boston, and Cambridge. They are also proposing 1,900 parking spaces. That’s just not consistent.

The point of the Northland TDM, as with any TDM, is to reduce the amount of driving to and from the site. Needham St. is already a daily disaster. Adding intense density at one end will only make it worse. A TDM that encourages other modes — shuttles, bikes, walking, Star Trek transporting, &c. — and discourages driving is a civic necessity. Northland is aiming for a 30% non-car mode. 

A big issue is the question of Northland’s ongoing investment in the shuttle program. Sure, Northland will get the shuttle program up and running, but how can the city be assured that Northland will maintain a robust program after five years? Ten? Twenty? (Have the city run the program and tax Northland and its neighbors is one answer, but I digress.)

The key is to get Northland’s interests aligned with the city’s. And, to fully understand the challenge, we have to expose the dirty little secret of congestion. Developers don’t really have a vested interest in reducing congestion. Yesterday, I wrote about induced demand and the conclusion that adding capacity does not reduce congestion. It only adds more cars to the system. If you’re a driver, that sucks. But, if you’re a developer, more cares = more cars. A third more capacity adds a third more potential residents, office workers, or customers.

Parking works similarly. The good folks at Northland obviously don’t believe that the congestion on and into the Needham St. corridor makes very intense development on the site a non-starter. They know the traffic situation as well as anybody. That their development will exacerbate traffic is not a commercial concern. And, while they don’t want to be forced to build unnecessary parking (which is both an expense and an opportunity cost), they seem to have made the calculation that 1900 or so spaces make economic sense. The project works with that volume of parking.

But, as Jake Auchincloss explained in economic terms in his newsletter, parking leads to driving leads to congestion. Those 1900 new spaces are going to generate new traffic into and out of the Northland development. Presumably, the site is economically viable with the number of people driving that 1900 parking spaces supports. Northland had the opportunity at Tuesday’s Land Use public hearing to say, “We’re investing in the TDM because our project depends on it.” They didn’t say it.

So, on the one hand, Northland is saying “eat your vegetables” and, on the other hand, saying “here, have a fistful of candy.” There is a fundamental tension between Northland’s commercial interest and their — apparently sincere — effort to minimize the impact of their commercial interest.

The city can make it simpler. Create a situation where it is in Northland’s economic self-interest to create and maintain an even more robust TDM. Make the viability of the project depend on Northland’s ability to get people to the site other than by car by severely limiting their ability to get people to the site by car.

Reduce parking on the site.1 

Reduce parking from 1900 to 1000 spaces. Or to 500 spaces. Reduce parking to some negotiated number that makes it critical for Northland to maintain a private transit system while still allowing a reasonable return on investment. If the city reduces parking significantly, we won’t have to ask how we can be sure that Northland will maintain its shuttles. We’ll know Northland has to to survive.

1Yes, reducing parking on-site will create demand for parking off-site. If that’s your concern, mention it in the comments and I’ll address the issue in a future post.