Sunday, February 17, 2013

Long Live On-Street Parking!

(Photo by Alex MacLean)
Far too much space in our cities is devoted to cars. However, in our quest to to achieve some balance by changing excess car space into much-needed people space, one of the first targets is often on-street parking. It is an easy target, because there is often little resistance to removing it. Many traffic specialists are happy to get rid of it, because capacity for traffic flow isn't reduced with such actions (in fact, you're improving it, because on-street parking interferes with traffic as cars pull in and out). Bike advocates will also like the change, becuase cyclists won't have to worry about doors suddenly swinging opening into their path.

If you are trying to improve downtowns and other walkable neighborhoods, though, this urge to take the easy way out must be resisted. On-street parking is an extremely valuable resource, and it should be removed only in rare circumstances. There are many reasons for this, and I find the following to be the most compelling:

  • Density. By acommodating a sizable amount of your parking need on the street, building lots are freed up for more housing and commercial space, which means more people can be live and work in the neighborhood. This can lead to more successful retail, more safety due to more pedestrian traffic, and more potential for quality transit. Interestingly, it can also create a positive feedback loop, because higher densities also result in less of a need for parking.
  • Visitor Appeal. On-street parking is the most popular parking, so you are providing a desirable option for visitors. This improves their experience and may keep them coming back.
  • High Revenue. As the most popular parking spaces, they can collect the most revenue, which can be used to improve the neighborhood, such as Pasadena's use of meter revenue to improve streetscapes, or Portland's use of meter revenue to create their popular and successful streetcar system.
  • Low Cost. Curbside spaces cost next to nothing to create. Most American street rights-of-way are too wide and there is often plenty of extra space, so in many cases the only real expense is paint. In contrast, parking spaces in a garage can cost in excess of $30,000 per stall. Even if you have to move the curbs to create the on-street parking, which can get expensive, your cost will still be much lower than the cost of constructing structured parking.
  • Successful Retail. On-street parking is the best parking for retailers. It has been estimated by some retail experts that each on-street parking space is worth an average of about $200,000 per year in additional retail sales.
  • Traffic Calming. Parked cars visually narrow the roadway, which causes drivers to drive more slowly. Cars pulling in and out of the parking spaces slow things down further. This is very beneficial in a downtown or other neighborhoods in which walking is prioritized.
  • Pedestrian Safety. Most importantly, on-street parking provides a buffer between pedestrians and traffic. It is a psycological barrier, which makes walkers more comfortable, but it also provides real protection. One of my daughter's pre-school teachers was nearly killed a few years ago by a car that lost control because there were no parked cars to protect her.

If you have extra room in your street right-of-way that you would like to transfer from autos to pedestrians, you should think long and hard before removing on-street parking to accomplish your goals. Park(ing) Day is fun for a one-day way to socialize and draw attention to the need for public gathering spaces, but permanently removing curbside parking spaces on a big scale and placing unbuffered gathering spaces right next to traffic is not usually the best way to deal with the problem (New York's wonderful improvements to Times Square notwithstanding). Instead, get rid of a travel lane or a turn lane, put the on-street parking in its place, and bump your curb out to capture the new space. You will have calmer traffic, a protected area for gathering space, and all of the economic benefits that on-street parking provides.



Here's how I would capture extra pedestrian space: Ditch a travel lane and shift the parking into its place. The pink area then becomes extra public space for strolling, dining, and window shopping which is shielded from traffic by the parked cars. Part of it could also go to protected bike lanes, depending on how much room you have. Whatever you do, try to keep that parking!


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