Sunday, June 30, 2013

Common Garage Parking in Practice, Part III: On-street Problems

Norwalk, Connecticut was facing parking problems. Although it had recently built a 775-car parking garage to serve its popular South Norwalk (SoNo) district, a formerly derelict collection of 19th century warehouse, commercial and factory buildings now revived as a bar, restaurant and shopping district, complaints continued to pour in from visitors and proprietors that the area lacked sufficient parking.

To a disinterested observer, these complaints might have seemed odd: the modest row of shopfronts along Washington and Wall Streets were surrounded by off-street parking and had ample on-street parking as well, and the blog Livable Norwalk confirmed that the SoNo area in fact did have an ample supply of parking in the vicinity:
From Livable Norwalk: public parking in blue, private in orange.

In spite of the purported lack of parking, the new garage (located a five minute walk from the heart of the area) was a target of particular ire from local restaurant owners, who complained that it was too far away for customers. Several attempts have been made to explain the lack of use of the new multi-million dollar garage in spite of persistent griping about insufficient parking, including:
  • A pricing structure that would give Donald Shoup nightmares. Norwalk charges dramatically more for its garage spaces than for on-street spaces, even though the on-street spaces are scarcer and more convenient. Moreover, the city makes on-street parking free during high demand hours (after 6 p.m. for most streets), while only discounting garage parking. In response to this situation, the city recently hiked prices at its garages while leaving metered spaces unchanged.
  • A poor pedestrian experience. One blogger posted videos to show the allegedly poor quality of the short walk from the garage to the center of the restaurant area, despite the fact that the garage incorporates a retail and office liner around most of its perimeter.
  • An excessively long walk. This is the claim of SoNo merchants and visitors alike regarding the five-minute walk from the garage to Washington Street, although for certain attractions (such as the Maritime museum and a few restaurants) the garage does represent the closest parking option. On-street parking is very limited in the immediate vicinity of the garage.
All of these explanations must play some role here, but one that is unmentioned is, I think, perhaps the most important of all: the presence of on-street parking itself.  Consider the nearby Stamford Town Center, a typical enclosed mall which is reached solely by paid garage parking. A typical visitor will need to walk about three to five minutes to reach a randomly-chosen store from the garage, and possibly as many as seven minutes to reach certain parts of the anchor stores. Yet there's rarely if ever been any complaint raised, so far as I'm aware, that parking is too far from the mall's stores, that that there isn't enough of it, or that the walk through the dim garage is too unpleasant.  

Glance again at the map above, showing the commercial thoroughfare of Washington Street running east to west at the center of the frame. Occupying the entire southern half of the southern block, outlined in blue, is the 265-space Haviland Street parking deck. To the north is the 775-car Maritime Garage. Washington Street itself offers only 22 spaces, in comparison to the over 1,000 public garage spaces in close proximity, plus many hundreds more in public and private surface lots. Although these spaces only supply a tiny fraction of the total, by their conspicuousness they play an outsized role, inducing many motorists to circle the block several times in hopes of winning the parking lottery, rather than simply proceeding to one of the garages.

From a performance parking perspective, one could suggest charging for these spaces at the market-clearing rate, but taking a contextual view of Norwalk's parking policies, that may almost be beside the point. The very existence of the parking spaces, regardless of their cost, exacts a psychological toll on would-be garage parkers by making their walk seem long relative to where, in theory, they might have parked. As long as the spaces exist, garage parking will always be seen as a second-best option. At the mall, by contrast, where the option of parking in front of one's desired destination is completely unavailable, shoppers are indifferent to longer walks and seem to endure them without much complaint.

From the perspective of the merchants, often the biggest boosters of underpriced on-street parking, this apparent drawback of on-street parking is in fact seen as its very benefit. Since shoppers are believed to be tempted by abundant free parking in other shopping areas, the retention of very cheap or free and convenient parking may be seen as essential to create the illusion, for motorists, of the same commodity found in suburban shopping centers (this sentiment is captured well in this article).

That this commodity is not available to 95% of peak-hour visitors regardless of how it is priced is irrelevant, given the same factors at play (that is, the theoretical possibility of a cheap, convenient spot is presumed to carry disproportionate weight in the mind of the potential shopper: the goal is luring them in, rather than actually providing them with the commodity sought).

How to reconcile all of these competing views, which have produced a parking policy that is at war with itself, pitting alluring on-street parking against the city's own garage parking, and cheap, scarce spaces against abundant, expensive spaces – a situation hardly unique to Norwalk? Well, there are several potential options apart from adjusting the pricing structure:
  • Convert the parking lane to sidewalk space. Although New Urbanists generally oppose the elimination of on-street parking, this is generally in the context of effective street widenings, in which the lane is turned over to through traffic rather than pedestrian use. Repurposing street parking for non-automobile uses (a favorite intervention of tactical urbanists, those deconstructivists of the autocentric paradigm), on the other hand, ought to be seen as a positive intervention.  Spanish cities frequently incorporate shared-space streets with through-traffic lanes, and with parking prohibited through use of trees and bollards (see at right, from Barcelona).  There is no reason such an approach could not be used on a much wider street, leaving ample room for sidewalk dining.
  • Total pedestrianization. Another option frequently derided on the basis of several conspicuous failures in the 1970s, pedestrian malls have actually enjoyed tremendous success in dozens of American cities (non-American examples are too numerous to mention). Limited vehicular access for deliveries during certain hours would preserve functionality without unduly detracting from quality of life.
  • Unconventional approaches to parking re-use. In a recent post, Matt Yglesias suggested that one way to deal with residents' fears of spillover parking generated by new development might be to eliminate residential parking permits and deed on-street parking spaces over the adjacent homeowners. Given that merchants would more likely than not be strongly opposed to either of the previous suggestions (but not always -- see an example of Minneapolis restaurants supporting a sidewalk expansion into street parking here), the same approach could be used in a commercial context. Establishments would be free to use the on-street space for their own parking, for some other use, or could simply sell the rights to the space to another merchant. 
In a new development, at least, one would hope that these knotty, politically divisive issues could be dealt with in a comprehensive, consistent and economically rational manner, yet at the planned Waypointe mixed-use development north of SoNo, renderings and promotional videos appear to show on-street parking despite the presence of a 1025-space parking garage (incorporated Texas doughnut-style).  Even if no such parking is actually part of the formal plan, the ample width of the carriageways implies, and will likely result, in their eventual presence.

Related posts:
Common Garage Parking, In Practice
Common Garage Parking, In Practice: Part II


  1. This sounds like a pricing issue to me. If the street parking and the garage parking were priced so that both are about 90% full-- with different prices at different times-- that would mean that the street parking spots would cost more than the garage. In fact, the garage might have to be free for a while.

    Over time, more and more people would realize they could park for free at the "secret" garage and then that 5-minute walk doesn't seem like such an awful thing. If the garage ever comes close to hitting 90%, only then should there be a charge for parking there. But by then, enough people have formed a habit that all will go well.

    This sounds similar to the parking situation on the west side of the Austin TX downtown, btw, and people use the free garage there.

    1. Hi jdw -- A better pricing system would certainly help. And perhaps over time people would become aware of the garage, and use of it might rise. Still, if we are considering price, we may as well consider supply and location too. If a city commits to building public garages, I do not see how retaining a negligible amount of on-street parking, which occupies a large amount of very valuable street area, can be economically justified. An effective and informationally-accessible system might be to have two or three garages serving the entire area, with prominent signs directing motorists to them, perhaps equipped with occupancy figures and current prices as is frequently seen in Switzerland and Germany. This would virtually eliminate cruising, open thousands of square feet of street space for higher-value uses, and all without impacting customer volume (since supply is more than adequate, and the evidence of malls shows a willingness to walk reasonable distances).

      Merchants fear that this would in fact harm volume by driving away customers, but I think the opposite might happen – with better information about parking and pricing, and less cruising, parking might actually come to be seen as less of a hassle in SoNo. The sight of largely or fully occupied street parking, while it may appear tantalizingly convenient, is also demoralizing for the motorist, contributing to the very thing -– the belief that it's "hard to park" -- that the merchants claim to fear most.

  2. I think this argument is very compelling... the trick is to find a way to shift the attention from curbside parking to garage parking in an incremental manner that would minimize merchants' (correct or incorrect) fears over a perceived loss of convenience and visitors' perception of a (seeming) loss of parking, since a concentrated garage or two are not nearly as visible as strips of parking along the street (they'd require the signage you mentioned).

    That last point reminds me of an old KunstlerCast (don't remember which one exactly) in which they discussed precisely this bizarre dichotomy: the *very same people* who are perfectly willing to park at a mall or big-box facility and trek for (maybe a quarter mile even?) across a massive parking lot or a garage insist on parking as close as possible to a downtown store, even if the walk from a parking spot a couple blocks away is often much shorter than the equivalent in a big box parking lot. Maybe this is just part of human neurology - get as close to the visible target as practically possible - that can't be stamped out so much as manipulated by finding a way to transition the universally-accepted "park once some distance away and walk to a cluster of destinations" format of the shopping mall / big box to the setting of the traditional urban retail or mixed-use district.

    The caveat is this: please make sure the garages don't cripple the streets with blank walls! Thankfully the retail liner tactic is becoming more and more common.

    As you mentioned, assuming the vehicular through traffic remained on streets with their parallel parking removed, then a substitute for the psychological "wall of parked cars protecting you from moving cars" would probably need to be introduced - there's nothing more unpleasant and insecure on a street than walking right next to speeding cars. A secure-feeling transitional zone of some sort would probably need to be provided in the reclaimed spaces, like the trees and bollards in Barcelona you mentioned. (Course if the streets aren't as wide this may then not be as much of a problem.)

    When it comes to major arterials though, I still think the multiway boulevard (with multiple lanes of parallel parking, often along slow-moving buffer access lanes) is an excellent urban design tool. Allan Jacobs' Boulevard Book does a wonderful job explaining the geometry of the multiway boulevard.

    1. Hi Marc -- I agree an incremental approach would be best. I am aware of a few European cities that have made long term (multi-decade) commitments to reducing parking supply in their city centers, but I am not sure how exactly they have gone about that. Certainly finding a way to get the merchants on board, as in the Minneapolis case I linked to, would make things tremendously easier.

      As for those big box lots, I've seen plenty of cruising there, as well, with people hoping to find spaces just a bit closer to the entrance (though, certainly less than in the case of your typical Main Street). This is much less feasible in a multi-level garage, where due to the design (making cruising inefficient if not impossible) motorists are strongly incentivized to occupy the first available space.

      As for street design, I think the absolute maximum in such a case would be two very narrow vehicular lanes (two-way), ideally paved with a textured, non-asphalt surface, and lined with planters, trees, bollards, etc. Speed should be constrained by design to no more than 15-20 mph. For major boulevards, all bets are off -- the Parisian boulevards I think you are alluding seem to work very well with on-street parking (I think Washington DC has several like this as well). I've got Jacobs' "Great Streets" but really need to add the Boulevard Book to the collection...

  3. Charlie, I have to be honest with you--when I first read this post, I thought you had gone off the deep end. "Shoup shows how on- and off-street parking are best managed according to market precepts!" I thought to myself. "And onstreet parking is as inevitable as daylight in city life!"

    It was only after thinking about it--particularly when I reread your previous posts and comments (especially about centralized parking in Vaubin)--that I began to realize that what we allow to populate the verge of the street* reflects our priorities on who uses what, where; what's important.

    Parklets and bike corrals taking up on-street parking spaces then take on a new importance: they reflect an expansion of the pedestrian** space, of pedestrian-realm uses expanding into the verge. By contrast, on-street parking reflects an expansion of the automotive realm into the verge.

    From this, a new understanding can now begin to flow, that we can use Shoupian pricing policies to redirect parking policy to be off-street-centric, but not forcibly incurring its cost on everybody who wants to redevelop or renovate their property--because the Shoupian pricing mechanism self-optimizes so that the cheapest parking spaces to provide are also the most desirable and hence most expensive--so that we can repopulate the verge with the things that really matter to us today: parklets, bike corrals, bioswales...

    (Of course, Shoupian parking policy requires that parking be self-financing: Shoup himself advocates for its revenues to be tied to a local BID, but they can also be tied to a self-sustaining business model in the grand old tradition of the transportation industry.)
    * By this, I am referring to the space between the outermost travel lane and the closest the sidewalk gets to the curb edge. The "verge" thus marks the boundary between the pedestrian realm and the auto realm.
    ** Bike lanes always seem to be placed in the verge. Where the Dutch place them (next to the sidewalk) versus where Americans place them (next to the travel lanes), however, seem to reflect a fundamental difference in perception between how to incorporate that infrastructure. By this, I mean: the Dutch treat cyclists as pedestrians with benefits, while we Americans treat them as half-price motorists.

    1. Steve: I reserve the right to go off the deep end at any future time, but was not intending to do so here! I do think there is a conceptual, if not actual, conflict between the Shoupians (advocating market/performance prices for on-street parking, which implies the continuance of on-street parking) and the Tactical Urbanists (a common "tactic" being subverting autocentric norms by repurposing the verge for non-automobile uses). In fact, a google image search for "Tactical Urbanism" shows almost nothing but attempts to creatively re-use the verge. Your great observation, "what we allow to populate the verge of the street reflects our priorities on who uses what, where; what's important" seems to be precisely the point that the TUs are trying to raise through their actions.

      Can they (the Shoupians and TUs) both be right? I think so. Shoup's market pricing system is already devised in the context of a non-market, generally public, and usually quite limited parking supply, so it should apply equally to a system of all on-street parking, all public off-street parking, or a mix of both. The concept of parking benefit districts also works well in this context – if the city opts to rent the verge to the merchants themselves, rather than to the merchants' patrons for storage of their vehicles, the revenues could similarly be reinvested in the area (in addition to the increased real estate values likely to result from an improved streetscape).

    2. I'd add that the newly-debuted bikeshare programs in NY and Chicago are also very much in the same Tactical Urbanist vein, as they are generally located in the "verge." In New York's case, the placement of the corrals probably eliminated over a thousand on-street spaces.

    3. And yes, finally, Vauban really is the exemplar of the common-garage parking/no curb parking idea, although it is (inaccurately) famous for being a "car-free" neighborhood:

      "Most of Vauban's residential streets are described as stellplatzfrei - literally "free from parking spaces". Vehicles are allowed down these streets at walking pace to pick up and deliver but not to park, although there are some infractions as the system depends essentially on social consensus - there are few official controls. Each year, households are required to sign a declaration stating either that they do not own a car, or that they do, in which case they must buy a space in one of the multi-storey car parks on the periphery, at a cost of 17,500€ (in 2006)." (Wikipedia).

      Making car access difficult and expensive might be thought to reduce the desirability of the units, but it seems that, once you get the cars mostly out of the picture, the resultant benefits for the urban environment are so immense that it more than compensates for the inconvenience. Add in some transit and make bikes as accessible as cars otherwise would have been, and you have a recipe for an extremely pleasant and desirable neighborhood.

      There actually is an American precedent for this type of design -- the garden apartment public housing superblocks of the mid-20th century, where streets were pedestrianized, or made very narrow with no curb parking, and cars were kept at perimeter lots. Nashville example, with dead-end, narrow streets with no curb parking, a central parking lot, and lots of pedestrian/bike pathways:

      The designers were on to something -- the germ of a good idea was there -- but the anti-poverty policy and housing management failures of the era were unfortunately laid at the feet of the urban design.

    4. Exactly, the reason the garden apartment superblocks failed was precisely that... they were superblocks; i.e, monolithic single-use dormitories. Vauban is hardly that.

      There is indeed some promise in the idea of relegating cars to a few fringe clusters, but the garden apartment "pedestrian streets" failed in part because they were such ambiguous "ownerless" spaces, as Jacobs and Newman pointed out so well. It's definitely not enough to just provide a strip of car-free concrete and leave out the context (the mixed uses and varying residential typologies) that turn the strip into a practical, populated, well-defined "outdoor room." The garden apartment utopians, while certainly earnest and well-meaning, missed on that completely. In the US we seem to understand how to provide the urban ingredients (a walkway here, a mixed-use building there, a pedestiran promenade there), but not how to "cook" them together into an actual meal.

    5. Marc -- agreed, but I will mention just as a point of interest that some of the most recent suburban developments are adopting forms remarkably similar to the garden apartment superblock. This example, with pedestrian paths, large, ownerless grass expanses, and narrow streets providing access to parking, including separate lots for visitors, is also from Nashville: If you look closely, I think you will see that there is virtually no private outdoor space -- instead, the carports enclose courtyard-like patios.

      Meanwhile, the Hope VI projects are emulating the design of 1950s suburbia:

  4. Another concern in any east coast small city is that many of the adjoining towns supply abundant free parking for their commercial districts. At what price point will potential patrons from nearby towns decide not to go to South Norwalk and merely opt for other towns? At what point will the merchants perceive this as happening -even if other factors are keeping patrons away?

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  6. Thanks for compiling this data. I wonder whether the higher minimums for multifamily housing are due to existing residents’ fears of spillover parking expressing themselves through the parking requirements? One might expect the requirements to run in the opposite direction.
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