By Dom Nozzi
In a research article written by Jeff Kenworthy and Peter Newman — famed and respected transportation and livable cities experts — an analysis of downtown parking was conducted. 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. 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 this parking assessment for Gainesville, where I was working at the time as a town planner, I was astounded to learn that despite all the crying and moaning about insufficient downtown parking, the city has over four times more parking spaces than this rule-of-thumb ratio established by Kenworthy and Newman.
Here are some spaces-per-1,000-jobs numbers for perspective:
Phoenix = 1,033
Houston = 370
Detroit = 473
LA = 524
DC = 264
Chicago = 96
New York City = 75
Gainesville, Florida = 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 garages (with first floor office and retail), cities such as Gainesville, which have such excessive parking already, are in trouble.
Does this mean that cities with overly abundant parking should not add ANY additional downtown parking?
Nothing mentioned above should be taken to mean that we should not add ANY form of parking in a downtown with more parking than this 200-space threshold suggests. I generally support REPLACING less desirable parking with more desirable parking. For example, I strongly like the idea of replacing surface parking in a town center with a parking garage, in part because multi-story garages provide “verticality,” which helps define the all-important public realm in a town center. And multi-story garages are especially desirable when they include a first floor “wrap” of retail and office. In addition, most American cities — particularly in smaller cities —desperately need more on-street parking in the town center. 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 the businesses.
In my opinion, it is off-street surface parking — especially FREE off-street parking — that we need to be careful about in a town center. 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 surface 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 town center vibrancy.
My biggest concern is that there is probably a town center parking threshold beyond which it will not be desirable for people to live downtown because of the excessive number of dangerous, unpleasant surface parking “gap tooths.” In addition, most town centers need more culture, service and retail to increase the attractiveness of living in the town center — and some prime locations for more of this would be where existing surface parking is now located. As a result, since it is a critically important objective that more residences be created in most town centers, we need to be sure that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by putting in too many surface parking lots. Too much town center parking kills the desirability of the town center as a place to live.
We need to strike the proper balance in our efforts to revive the downtown, instead of putting too much emphasis on providing free, abundant off-street parking.
As an aside, one significant reason why many American town centers provide excessive surface parking is that many landowners prefer to speculate with their town center properties. They will hold the property in a low-cost form of revenue generation such as off-street parking until their property increases sufficiently in value to make it desirable to sell the property.
Is “quality transit” a necessary prerequisite for town centers?
Many people believe that the only way to reduce the amount of off-street parking in a town center is to first provide higher quality transit. While it is certainly true that the bigger cities often 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 a city can achieve quality transit before transportation conditions such as scarce and priced parking is found in the town center, 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 led the citizens to choose to support whatever it took to install quality transit. The political demand for better transit, in nearly all cases, can only emerge when there is significant citizen discontent about such factors as traffic congestion, or the scarcity and expense of parking. If streets are free flowing, and parking is both free and abundant, it is highly unlikely that citizens will be motivated to demand better transit. It is just too easy to drive a car into the town center.
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 town center.