By Dom Nozzi
Everyone seems to know exactly how to make their downtown better: MORE PARKING!!!
A few years ago, I read a research article written by a couple of internationally famous transportation and livable cities experts. Part of their work was to survey 32 cities worldwide for the amount of parking and lane mileage provided downtown, and then look for correlations between these factors and both gasoline consumption and the livability of the city.
Based on this analysis, they came up with a rule of thumb for a CBD (Central Business District) parking-to-CBD employment ratio. Their conclusion was that beyond 200 parking spaces per 1,000 jobs, the city becomes noticeably ugly, congested, polluted, auto dependent, energy intensive, and deteriorated.
When I did an analysis for Gainesville FL (where I was working as a town planner), I was astounded to learn that despite all the rhetoric about insufficient downtown parking, the city has over FOUR TIMES more spaces than this rule-of-thumb ratio.
Here are some spaces-per-1,000-jobs numbers for perspective:
Phoenix = 1,033
Houston = 370
Detroit = 473
LA = 524
DC = 264
Chicago = 96
NY = 75
Gainesville = 840
It seems to me that if we decide it is “unreasonable” to expect people to walk a couple of blocks from their parking space, or unreasonable to build multi-story parking garages (with first floor office and retail), the city is in trouble of fouling its own nest.
A couple of provisos:
- No more downtown parking? Nothing mentioned above should be taken to mean that we should not add ANY form of parking downtown. I’m tired of hearing that canard. I generally support multi-story parking garages, in part because their “verticality” helps define the public realm. And they are especially nice when they include a first floor “wrap” of retail and office (since without such a wrap, the structure has a severe deadening effect). Another enormous benefit of such parking is that it substantially reduces the amount of real estate consumed by car parking. A car parking space consumes an ENORMOUS amount of space (about 350 square feet). Since a healthy town center requires walkable compactness and “agglomeration economies” to thrive, the extreme dispersal of the town center with acres and acres of parking asphalt is a recipe for town center decline.
Many town centers around the nation provide insufficient amounts of on-street parking. I support adding as much on-street parking as possible.
On-street parking buffers pedestrians from the noise and danger of cars, and helps slow cars to a more pleasant and safe speed. In addition, on-street parking is extremely helpful for retail, since retail does better when pedestrians find a more pleasant place to walk (or enjoy an outdoor cafe), and because the parking provides a handy place to park near the front doors of businesses.
In my opinion, it is OFF-STREET parking (asphalt parking lots) that we need to be careful about downtown. Such parking creates “gap tooth” dead zones that harm the downtown ambiance and unique character, create ugliness, and increase crime and safety problems. The space used for off-street parking is usually better used for residences, retail, offices, or cultural buildings — all of which help enhance the quality of the public realm and build vibrancy (and “agglomeration economies”). We need to strike the proper balance in our efforts to revive the downtown, instead of putting all of our eggs into the off-street parking basket.
- Quality of transit. Occasionally, people respond to the information I present above about parking ratios by saying that the other cities have higher quality transit, and can therefore get away with less parking.
While it is certainly true that the bigger cities have higher quality transit, I believe we need to realize that this is a “chicken and egg” issue. Which comes first? Quality transit, or the conditions that demand the installation of quality transit? While it is possible that we can get quality transit first, it is not probable. After all, we live in a democracy. Our elected officials are not dictators who will take actions that do not have political support. In nearly every city with quality transit, conditions emerged which lead the citizens to choose to support whatever it took to install quality transit. Conditions such as a high cost and inconvenience to drive a car, park a car, or both.
In summary, we need to strike a balance between the need to provide parking and the need to create a livable, vibrant, transit-supportive, attractive downtown.