Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Chuck Banas: Putting Parking In Its Proper Place

A recent article in The Buffalo News, citing a study of downtown parking, offers some interesting blog fodder. The Desman Associates study asserts that the parking situation in Buffalo is a mess, and requires better management.

The report recommends hiring a “parking czar” at $140,000 salary to consolidate parking management. As I recall, Desman previously produced studies in 2001 and 2006 which basically said the same thing, minus the “parking czar” baloney. The Buffalo News’ take on the Desman study does get it generally right, however: “The dominant theme in the report is that too many entities are involved in city parking, creating ‘shortsighted’ and disjointed management.”

This much is true. But one quote in particular stands out: “‘Downtown can’t begin to compete with suburban office parks without convenient and affordable parking,’ said Schmand, whose nonprofit agency represents the interests of downtown stakeholders and residents.”

To the uninitiated, this may sound reasonable, except for one thing. Downtown can never compete with suburban office parks on the basis of convenient and affordable parking. To compete successfully on that basis would mean the destruction of all of downtown’s remaining (and emerging) value. 

By definition, downtown can never out-compete the suburbs on suburban, automobile-based terms. By necessity, parking takes up a tremendous amount of land, creating lots of dead, open space, which the suburbs have plenty of. In fact, that’s the suburbs’ main asset: lots of open space. A city’s main amenity is not open land, but density, walkability, a diverse mix of uses, and the quality of the streets and other public spaces. These are the areas in which the suburbs cannot out-compete downtown. These are things cities like Buffalo need to focus on to be successful.

So, if it is evident that an urban environment can never offer as good a “suburban product” as the suburbs can, then why do we continue to play that game? Clearly, the prevailing value system is upside-down. The city’s current strategy is irreconcilable with what downtown currently is, and what the community wants it to become. We’ve got to find a way to break out of this vicious cycle and change this self-defeating paradigm. This requires leadership.

If anything, this simply demonstrates how shortsighted and incoherent our public discussion has become on such issues. If city leaders think that parking is the main asset—and don’t recognize the many natural urban advantages downtown has over the suburbs—then the whole exercise is guaranteed to fail. This strategy will simply end-up undermining the value of the city, leading to a dead downtown like the one we’ve got. Like many other mangled cities, we’ve been trying this strategy for decades and failing, as the condition of our downtown attests. We can’t keep playing this self-defeating game. Who has the guts to finally stand up and stop this nonsense?

Also, there’s my old saying, which I’ve oft repeated: Like all cities, we really have one essential choice; we can have a vibrant downtown where everyone complains about parking, or we can have a dead downtown where everyone complains about parking. If you think about it, that’s the only choice. Really.

For years, I’ve been involved with The New Millennium Group, a local community activist organization dedicated to progressive planning, economic development, and revitalization. In 2003, NMG did a downtown parking survey that showed over 50% of the land area of downtown Buffalo dedicated to surface parking.

In the six years since, the city situation regarding parking, planning, and transportation hasn’t really changed. So to repeat NMG’s original take on the issue: Buffalo doesn’t have a parking problem, it has a parking management problem. (In truth, it’s a transportation management problem, but that’s a topic for another post.)

The fresh angle is this: the city doesn’t need to add another high-priced manager and yet another layer of bureaucracy. We can get much better management of downtown transportation/parking assets if we better utilize the resources we’ve already got. Private companies routinely reorganize management structures to adapt to changing conditions, so why can’t the city? We’ve already got a planning department that studies and understands these issues (and the many related issues, too) and has the expertise to effectively manage parking by putting it in its proper context—which is the problem to begin with.

Chuck Banas is an urban planning consultant and community activist in Buffalo, New York, and chairs the SmartCode Committee at the New Millennium Group of Western New York.

This post originally appeared at Joe the Planner. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability, Transportation
Cities: Buffalo

15 Responses to “Chuck Banas: Putting Parking In Its Proper Place”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    This reminds me of something the Buffalo city planners said to get people to accept freeway construction. As one arterial road’s traffic grew, the planner warned the city that unless it constructed a freeway to replace it, demolishing a whole swath of blocks along the way, it would become traffic-choked and be a “playground for the suburbs” (direct quote). The freeway was built and decades later, traffic increases never materialized, and the city became a playground for the suburbs anyway.

  2. cdc guy says:

    How many regular posters and readers on this blog have spoken out (at a neighborhood meeting, planning session, or zoning hearing) about a lack of parking in a neighborhood or business district in their city?

    How many use expressways for trips around town of less than 5-10 miles?

    How many drive miles past neighborhood shops to the megaboxes for those low, low prices?

    We have met the enemy, and they ‘r’ us.

    How many DO NOT own or regularly drive or ride in an automobile?

    How many drive or ride in an automobile less than 10,000 miles a year?

    How many have reduced the number of miles driven annually over the past five years?

    How many have eliminated vehicle trips (and roadway and parking demands) by combining errands and/or walking to nearby destinations?

    If you don’t fit one or more of these categories, start there.

    Buffalo (and every other city) doesn’t have any kind of a parking problem. It has a driving and parking mentality. City planners and government have limited ability to change this by fiat.

    Also, I am not suggesting that it is widely possible or desirable to live outside the largest few cities without an automobile today. I am suggesting that steady incremental change in the direction of less driving and parking is the way to reverse decades of steady incremental change in the direction of more driving and parking.

  3. In my experience people don’t complain about parking in vibrant downtowns. They accept it because they want to or have to go downtown. The only cities where I’ve heard complaints about parking is cities where there’s too much of it downtown.

    Christopher Leo, Ph.D.
    Professor, Department of Politics,
    University of Winnipeg,
    Winnipeg R3B 2E9.

    Adjunct Professor,
    Department of City Planning,
    University of Manitoba.

    Phone: 204.786.9396
    Fax: 204.774.4134

    Research-based blog: http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ChristopherLeo/

  4. John Morris says:

    Sort of looks like another case of mega sports stadiums bringing life to a downtown. Any chance now of dense development anywhere near these things? All I see is red around them.

    At least it doesn’t look like the Footbal Stadium is Downtown.

  5. DaveOf Richmond says:

    “At least it doesn’t look like the Football Stadium is Downtown.” Correct – the Bills play out in Orchard Park, which is way out in the suburbs. The hockey arena is near downtown, in fact it is the white oval at the bottom center of the map above. The baseball diamond in that map, a bit north of the hockey arena, is the minor league baseball stadium.

  6. John Morris says:

    I can see from looking closer that a huge highway seems to divide the Downtown from the Hockey Arena and no doubt this is what made it the spot chosen for the stadium.

    I don’t think these things wrecked the downtown which clearly had all kinds of problems. But now, the existence of major stadiums will make it pretty hard to do dense mixed use development anywhere near them. They will also make it really hard to tear down the highway.

  7. John Morris says:

    It was pretty obvious from the shapes exactly where the stadiums were. The shape is pretty distinctive, but the pure red parking footprints are what identifies them beyond a doubt.

    I wonder how much of the other downtown surface and other parking is justified by the need to use them at peak game times.

    As I said, thank god the Football stadium isn’t there. A barely used hole of that size with the kind of parking footprint it would need would kill off any hope for a revival of Buffalo’s downtown.

  8. I love Cities and places, and I love to visit many different kind of Cities and explore, to find out what is going on, to learn the issues, and to talk with the people who live there.

    In Buffalo, I must confess, I am still perplexed over the disconnect between the many “tribes” that try to co-habitat this small and shrinking area we call the City of Buffalo.

    The above quoted study should create a revolution, a Cry Out
    by concerned Citizens, why is it so silent about it?

    Thank you to the publisher of this blog, please, continue and hammer down the very obvious, who knows, maybe one day the many drops can make a hole in the stone…

    Till then, here’s is to common sense, sustainability, to walking instead of driving, to biking, to finally work to live, versus the opposite.

  9. David S says:

    If it is acceptable to disagree with a knowledgeable guest blogger, my experiences have been different.

    A key element of moderate sized and moderate density cities such as Waukegan IL (largest town on Chicago’s North Shore) and Ann Arbor MI has been their parking structures. Both have roughly 100,000 residents and a dense urban core that attract many visitors. For certain densities, parking structures are the best of both worlds. They allow walkable downtowns while allowing those living on the outskirts to enjoy the advantages of their car. (Yes I understand that some reading this blog have philosophical problems with cars or think that their days are numbered. However, in the meantime, cars are very practical for many Americans, even for those living in metropolitan areas.)

    Now parking structures will never be the answer for dense city like Chicago or New York, but most small cities are not that dense. I am not an expert on Buffalo. However, I suspect that the density of Buffalo is closer to that of Ann Arbor than to that of Chicago or New York.

    The alternative to driving is public transportation. Again, I do not know a lot about Buffalo’s public transportation, but I suspect it involves taking the bus – taking the bus in a poor city. There is nothing wrong with this. My friends and I used to take the bus too. Unlike other forms of public transportation which have very positive reputations, I never hear my friends saying “Boy, I still wish I was taking the bus!” (Except for Manhattan and CTA (Chicago) buses because they are part of a dense urban network.) I believe the current Buffalo alternatives to car travel will not be attractive to current car owners.

    According to Joel Garreau, as a rule of thumb, parking structures are ten times more expensive than a parking lot. Underground parking garages are ten times more expensive than parking structures and are best suited for dense urban environments. For places of moderate density or places where only certain districts are dense I think it pays for Buffalo to invest in additional parking structures.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Buffalo has a single light rail line from downtown to the university.

    The cities I’m familiar with that have extensive parking structures are in the opposite situation from Buffalo. Those are Monaco and Singapore: dense cities with natural constraints on outward growth, leading to very high land prices. At high land prices, it’s cheaper to build parking structures and even underground carparks than to build a parking lot. At low land prices, parking structures are too expensive. Surface lots are really unpleasant to walk by.

  11. John Morris says:

    Parking structures in the quantity one would need–especially if one loads in lots of stadiums and single use attractions, are both a very expensive load on the taxpayer or developer and not exactly pleasant to walk by or live near either.

    Both seriously undermine what should be the core goal which is to build up the actual number of people and businesses located in and near a downtown. Once you hit a certain level, taxi service becomes a viable local option. Free public transit near the downtown or near the core could also be a good idea.

    I guess a core question to ask is just how valuable is it for Buffalo to have suburban visitors if this is the cost.

    I was shocked to see just how small the actual city of Buffalo is in terms of land area.

  12. Lynn Stevens says:

    Like your quote Aaron. Here’s another:
    “Anyplace worth its salt has a ‘parking problem.'” James Castle

    David S: HALF the city is dedicated to parking. Why would it invest in more? The people in cars drive to a destination. And parking ain’t it. When’s the last time you heard someone say, hey, let’s drive down to check out that new parking lot?

  13. Lynn Stevens says:

    cdc guy: I’m not the one saying it — to the contary — but I do regularly hear neighborhood folks talking about a lack of parking, including (especially?) businesses and our local chamber of commerce. On a micro level in my neighborhood, the opposite is true. We have too much parking and ill-managed parking (e.g. residential permit restrictions during the day when street parking is 60% vacant), and I have evidence to back that up.

    How, though, to do a better job at educating people? countering their conventional wisdom?

  14. ws says:

    Thank you for posting about this. Often times cities destroy the very thing people come downtown for in the name of parking. It’s so contradictory.

    This is the best picture you can show anyone arguing you need more parking downtown, or at least more surface parking lots:


    (Houston in the 80s, I believe)

    People don’t come downtown to see parked cars. They come downtown to see people!

    The best thing Buffalo could do is:

    1) Ban all surface parking lots in downtown
    2) Allow parking garages only fronted by retail stores
    3) Also allow underground parking only
    4) Get more housing options in the downtown area
    5) Job concentration and tax incentives for companies to set up shop in downtown instead of an office park. Make the move to the city a no-brainer for companies.

    The only thing cities need to do that suburbs are doing is become more attractive to families and have better schools.

  15. Wad says:

    A read of Donald Shoup’s tome, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” shatters the parking shortage myth for good.

    He deals both with curbside parking and off-street parking.

    There is no parking shortage. In fact, there’s an oversupply of parking space because the science of parking management dictates that a space must be made available for every trip generated. This means that if a person has five errands in a single trip, five spaces must be provided for a single vehicle. A vehicle that is not doing anything.

    One big problem is that undesirable space is confused with a genuine shortage of space (no spots available anywhere). Chances are this Buffalo group is complaining that there aren’t enough parking spaces to minimize walking distance from the lot to the destination.

    The only shortage is caused by the early birds getting the worm and taking the choice spaces.

    There’s no cure to the shortage of desirable space.

    David S. has the right idea about parking structures but the driving vs. public transportation is a straw man.

    Paradoxically, the places where parking structures pencil out economically are simultaneously the places where public transportation usage is also high. This “paradox of plenty” means that driving vs. public transit isn’t a clear-cut zero-sum game.

    There are smaller cities that have poor public transit but are able to maintain walkable downtowns by constraining demand rather than by banishing cars.

    San Luis Obispo, Ca., is a good example. It uses a mix of time-limited street parking and longer-limit garages downtown in an effort to get people to park their cars once, walk around, then drive away when their business is complete. This helps boost pedestrian activity and allow space to be used for more valuable purposes than corraling idle cars.

    Buffalo needs to get rid of most of its parking spaces and give over more space to functional land uses. Buffalo needs a genuine parking shortage.

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