For anyone that has worked in economic development, community development and especially, downtown revitalization, you have become all too familiar with the parking problem trope. It might be the single biggest frustration in the field, as no matter how much evidence there is to refute this notion, people simply don’t care. Let me sum up the thinking; people believe their downtown cannot be successful unless considerably more parking spaces are added. This sort of thinking is expensive, counterproductive and ignores the real problems the community might be dealing with. Now instead of writing 2000 words on the perceived problem, I am just going to list all the reasons why the perceived parking problem is just a bunch of bullshit and hopefully save you all countless hours of arguing about it.
Parking is not an attraction. People visit places because they are drawn to attractions and parking provides them with a place to store their car at that time. All the parking in the world will not matter if there isn’t shit people want to do in your downtown. Focus on adding attractions.
Parking is a utility. Think about a restaurant owner, a table is a means of getting your product to the customer. If the restaurant isn’t doing well, adding more tables won’t do a damn thing, except add more costs. The restaurant would instead focus on service, on ingredients, on marketing, on ambiance, they would fix all these other issues before adding tables. Also, a good restaurant owner will want to turn over tables as often as possible. This is the reason for parking meters. More visitors means more revenue for businesses.
Parking does not drive business. Good business owners drive business. You can drop a successfully run business nearly anywhere and it can find a way to thrive. Good business owners don’t complain about parking on Facebook, they focus on making their businesses better. People do not let parking keep them from visiting the businesses they want to visit. They will walk, they will bike, they will park farther away…people will find a way to get to those businesses. Businesses with no marketing budget, selling DVD’s and Hummel figurines are the ones complaining about parking.
People will find a place to park. The easiest way to punch a hole in this idea is to walk around your downtown during a big event. If thousands of people managed to find a way to get to your event, it’s pretty safe to say, parking isn’t your problem. When people want to visit something, they will. A lack of parking is not a deterrent, it’s an excuse.
Parking ruins places. The simple fact is, people are drawn to attractive buildings filled with interesting businesses. Parking is the antithesis of this and comes at the expense of these other things. No one is drawn to parking and it detracts from vibrant places. The more parking a district has, the less enticing it becomes. The simple addition of parking lots and decks make it inferior. Even worse, some cities have removed beautiful buildings to add parking. They are literally making their place worse in hopes of accommodating more cars.
People need less parking. Humans have multiple means with which to travel and more than ever they are exercising options other than the car. First off, not everyone has a car. Children don’t drive, lots of old people can’t drive, plenty of people just don’t want to drive. A mall is built in such a way as to require everyone to drive. Your downtown is not a mall, it was not and should not be built for a car. It should be built for people. People like to walk, people like to bike, people like to take public transportation. People will find ways to visit a vibrant district. Less people own cars today and the trend is increasing. As Uber and autonomous vehicles continue to have a larger effect, the need to accommodate individual drivers is decreasing. Stop wrecking cities to accommodate a shrinking need.
Abundant parking sucks. Districts with abundant parking are not great places. I can’t think of any district that is simultaneously a pleasure to visit and also allows me to pull up right in front of any business I want. These two concepts are incompatible. The best districts across the country do not provide adequate parking. I love to visit Savanah and Charleston and the French Quarter and the East Village and German Village and Lawrenceville and Wrigleyville and Over-the-Rhine and on and on. All of these districts are wildly successful and all of them do not provide abundant parking, nor should they. It is the lack of parking which makes them great. It is because these places cannot accommodate masses of automobiles that they are fun and inviting. It is the very reason why you go to them and walk around all day and enjoy the hell out of yourself. If they provided enough parking to satisfy what most people think is needed, they would cease to be worth a damn in the first place.
Parking isn’t the solution to your downtown problem, but it could be the cause. Or to say it another way, you do have a parking problem, but not the one you think. You would be much better off to have too little parking than too much. An over abundance of parking is destroying walkable historic districts by prioritizing personal car storage over people. The time to put this argument to rest is now.
We have spent decades complaining about this, I still go into community meetings and have to argue about this. I am not doing it anymore. Nor should anyone in this field have to. If you are going to be willfully ignorant of the facts, we are not obligated to convince you of the truth. I think of the countless hours wasted debating these nonsense issues while buildings are allowed to sit vacant and further decline. I think of the millions wasted on parking decks that could have gone to incentivizing local real estate developers and entrepreneurs. The cost of one space in a parking structure could cover the equity most banks would seek to provide financing for a downtown renovation project. ONE SPACE! Every third person in your city could have their own building and business downtown with the money we have thrown at parking. The amount of time and money we have spent on parking could have been used to achieve unimaginable good in the downtowns across this country. But sure, let me listen to Karen complain about how a lack of parking has really hurt her Beanie Baby business.