I’ve gotten away from posting about parking. I thought I beat that dead horse back to life and back to death again. I thought the people that follow me had probably heard enough about publicly subsidized car storage. Alas, as I am destined to be, I was wrong… again. I shared a meme about parking on Monday morning and as I sit here Tuesday afternoon, the argument rages on in the comments.
Let me restate this is simply as I can. Parking is not the problem. On second thought, parking IS the problem, just not the problem you think. The message is not so clear after all, I guess. Parking is the cause of your problems downtown, not the solution. So let me clear this up, once and for all (just kidding, I’ll blog about it again in six months)…you don’t have a parking problem, you have an attraction issue.
There are some simple ways to know the truth about your perceived parking problem.
In cities where parking has been added, “business” has not improved and the downtown has not been “revitalized”. In these cities, and there are thousands of them, as soon as the additional parking is installed, some other issues is brought to light, some other problem is identified and then soon enough, more parking is needed, again. No downtown has ever, EVER improved by the addition of parking. It is a distraction from the real issue.
During downtown events, people will find a place to park, and this is our introduction to the attraction factor. We humans are drawn to attractions. If something is happening, we want to be a part of it- call it fellowship, or communityness, or even FOMO- but people want to be where the action is. The parade, the art walk, first Fridays, whatever the cause, people like to participate, they like to see other people and have a little fun. And during these events, those people find a way to attend. They might park further away, they might walk, they might bike, they might get a ride from an Uber or a friend, your town might even facilitate a shuttle system, but by all means- the masses will find a way. They do not let limited parking stand in their way of visiting an attraction and enjoying a night out.
The best businesses never suffer from a lack of parking. The great restaurants and the top-of-their-game retailers never seem to struggle with the same lack of parking as their nearby counterparts. They don’t have extra secret parking that their neighbors don’t, they have something else, something far more powerful than parking- they’ve got the goods. They are an attraction. They have something to offer. People will always make their way to the businesses that are a draw.
I don’t know where the parking lots and decks are in the French Quarter. I looked around last time I visited and I just couldn’t find ‘em. News flash- they aren’t there. The best districts in the country and around the world don’t offer abundant parking. That is why they are the best districts. This is the attraction factor at work. Good urbanism is the hook, good businesses are the pull.
Parking does not draw people to a place, you can argue this in the comments until your fingers fall off, but the truth will set you free. People are drawn to attractions, not the utility that facilitates attending an attraction. To focus on parking as a downtown improvement strategy is putting the cart, way, way, way before that proverbial horse.
Make any analogy you want to explain this issue, I certainly will. So here are my freshest… the movie The Northman would have been no better if the theater had additional seating and would have sold no more tickets. Seriously, that movie was awful. The Pittsburgh Pirates would not have improved attendance for their dismal 2022 season by adding additional rows to PNC Park. Seriously, that season was awful. TGI Fridays will not overcome their terrible menu of appe-teasers by adding more tables. Seriously, those Southwest Potato Twists were awful. In each of these aforementioned instances, the utility of attendance does not facilitate more attendance because attendance is not the issue. A struggling restaurant would not add seating as a way to improve sales, in fact, expanding would exacerbate the issue by creating an additional financial burden while doing nothing to address the issue of attracting customers.
This is the attraction issue at work. People are drawn to a draw so focus on the draw. Bring Hamilton to your theater if you want to fill the seats. Bring Taylor Swift to your arena if you want to sell tickets. Hire Gordon Ramsey as your chef if you want to pack the tables.
Focusing on parking is a distraction from the real issue at hand, which is the fact that your downtown is not a draw. Sadly, no one wants to visit the decrepit buildings and the storefront churches and dusty antique stores. The busted sidewalks and weeds in the cracks just won’t lure the masses to your downtown. Not even if you have all the parking!
The parking problem is not perpetuated by frustrated consumers, but from failing business owners and disgruntled building owners. They do not understand why no one wants to rent their collapsing commercial space or frequent their Celtic Gift Shop that’s open 7 hours a week. It certainly can’t be their own failings as an entrepreneur, the problem must lie somewhere else. So they turn to the easiest culprit, the scapegoat of all scapegoats- PARKING. And as these buildings and business owners bang the drum for more parking- well, unfortunately, people start to listen. Customers start to believe them, worse even, city council starts to believe them. Next thing you know, a city is spending $30,000 per space to build a 6 story parking deck to prop up a business that doesn’t even stay open during normal shopping hours, let alone special events, and is most likely owned by the same person that will still park in front of their business- in the prime spot- MEANT FOR CUSTOMERS- when the parking deck opens!
The squeaky wheel gets the grease and in the case of downtown, the worst business and building owners are the squeakiest. The good owners go about their business of being successful. They are focused on making improvements and making the numbers work. They are too occupied making money to complain about why their businesses isn’t successful. Please, I implore you to stop listening to bad business owners and letting them inform policy decisions.
A good city, like a business owner, will focus on the draw. This means creating a community that fosters an emotional attachment. No one has ever been emotionally attached to concert seating, a restaurant table or parking. These are simply just a function of the draw and to assume they are the draw itself is ignorant.
More so, adding parking actually removes the attraction itself. It would be as if the concert venue removed the stage to add seating. If the restauranteur removed the kitchen to add tables. Can you imagine removing a building in Historic Charleston? Consider the stupidity of demolishing a building in Paris for parking. Yet this is what struggling cities do. They remove the stage, they take out the kitchen. The downtown buildings and the businesses they house are the attraction. They are the draw itself and every single one that goes away is one less reason to visit your town. Why not just tear all the buildings down so people can come for miles to visit your pristine parking lot, unencumbered by silly buildings?
So rest your fingers, brave keyboard warrior. Misguided city council woman, please move away from the frustrated owner of the antique doll shop. Free yourselves from the confines of the parking argument, my people, once and for all! You deserve better. Your town deserves better.
Instead, focus your previously misused energy on things that matter. Start thinking about how to make your downtown an attraction. Consider how to get the rundown buildings cleaned up through code enforcement and legislation. Ponder how a pedestrian oriented Main Street will attract more customers. Pontificate on what it means to foster an emotional attachment and why quality aesthetics will improve the quality of commercial tenants. Reckon for a spell, if you will, how to create a place that people will get to no matter how they do their gettin’.
This is no mystery. People are drawn to beauty, to talent, and to quality. We seek out entertainment, fun and spectacle. We flock to pretty places and places full of people. Like the successful concert venue, restaurant or shop- a downtown must first focus on being a draw and worry less (or not at all) about where people will store their cars.
It is very simple and you can rip off this formula from all of the great cities and districts. They won’t even mind. Put pedestrians first. Ensure the streets are pretty. Raise property owner standards. Provide elegant public space. Be inviting, be fun, be whimsical. Simply stated, provide what people love and you will never experience a parking problem again.