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

Monday, June 10, 2013

Common Garage Parking, In Practice: Part II

An article in a recent issue of the New York Times, spotlighting Charlotte in covering the trend toward less driving among younger Americans, opened with the following paragraph:
"Dan Mauney keeps misplacing his car. Mr. Mauney, 42, lives in an apartment tower in this city’s Uptown neighborhood, a pedestrian-friendly quarter with new office buildings, sparkling museums and ambitious restaurants. He so seldom needs to drive that when he does go to retrieve his car in his building’s garage, he said, 'I always forget where I parked it.'"
Although Mauney may have little "need" to drive his car, need does not always align with behavior when it comes to transportation choice. When one's car is steps away from the front door, its use, relative to need, is likely to be high, even where other options are available. By contrast, where the car is kept in a remote storage facility, out of sight and immediate access, it is likely that use of the car more closely coincides with genuine need. In Mauney's case, that need turns out to be surprisingly low.

Mauney's building may be a high-rise, but a similar common garage parking approach has effectively been adopted among new apartment buildings of the type seen here, in an example from Dallas:

This is of course the notorious "Texas Doughnut," a mid-rise residential liner wrapped around interior structured parking.  The product of on-site parking requirements and building codes which permit cheaper wood framing for lower-rise buildings, these structures have proliferated throughout the Sunbelt, though they can be found, with less frequency, outside that geographic range. To the extent these cities are experiencing urbanization near their centers (hello, Dallas), this is the form that urbanism frequently takes, for better or worse.

Despite the prominence of the parking facilities and the transportation mode choices that suggests, note that many residents are required to walk non-trivial distances to reach their vehicles. In some cases, as in the example from Houston below, the walk may actually exceed three minutes for some residents (Google maps shows no parking of any kind, underground or otherwise, associated with the apartments to the NE, NW or SW):

In debates about parking in urban areas, pricing and availability tend to garner the majority of the attention, with proximity only a secondary concern (although many complaints about these first two issues implicitly involve proximity). Similarly, attempts to reduce reliance on the car through parking reform have tended to focus on eliminating or reducing parking maximums or establishing a market pricing mechanism for parking spaces, rather than considering the location of the vehicle itself.

It should be common sense, though, that in an otherwise reasonably walkable area with some transit options, the further the car is from one's residence, the less use that car is likely to receive, since transportation is above all a matter of immediate convenience. Given that the "five minute walk" is generally accepted as a key walkability measure, having the car three minutes away inevitably helps shift the advantage toward walking. Other ways in which this modest time advantage could be magnified to privilege non-car modes could include:
  • Keeping cars in a centralized and fairly distant garage, as in the case of Vauban, but allowing bikes to be stored on-street or in another convenient location. 
  • Exploiting the limited access to parking garages by closing off certain streets to through traffic, but allowing permeability for cyclists and pedestrians. 
  • Prohibiting or greatly limiting on-street parking on surrounding streets, thereby reducing the perception of convenient parking while making the streets more hospitable to other modes of travel.
  • Reducing speed limits by law and through design features, including lane narrowing, textured paving, shared space, etc. 
Although these design elements are all consistent with the seemingly car-oriented Texas doughnut, they have rarely been put into practice. Rather, even where transit is present, the whole is often less than the sum of its parts: buildings are set back and present blank faces to the sidewalk, streets are engineered for vehicles, and the overall impression can be one of isolated and gated enclaves rather than a neighborhood (Dallas again, from Streetview):

For a city to make a system like this work, an entirely new approach toward both parking policy and thoroughfare design would be necessary. Rather than managing on-street parking, as with parking benefit districts, cities would need to arrange for coordinating off-street parking, something which many cities have neglected (for instance, Norman Garrick and Chris McCahill have found that a city like New Haven, CT, does not even have a count of its available parking supply, even though off-street requirements for individual buildings are typically micromanaged to an absurd degree -- truly a case of failing to see the forest for the trees), and which is not necessarily resolved simply by abolishing parking minimums. The "fee in-lieu of parking" model is one promising approach, although it is often undermined by the continuing presence of on-street parking, which encourages endless cruising for temptingly convenient spaces rather than use of public garages built with the collected fees.

With the common garage parking model emerging in these Sunbelt developments, however, something similar is taking place though the independent actions of developers, and residents seeking to live a life somewhat less tied to the car are apparently finding it there.

Related posts:
Common Garage Parking, In Practice