Solving parking, transportation problems requires “out-of-the-car thinking”

In his City Talk column in Sunday’s Savannah Morning News, Bill Dawers reports a common refrain from his readers: They’d come downtown more often if there was only more parking.

I have news for these folks: There’s never going to be enough parking to satisfy them. Never. Unless we are willing to destroy the very thing that makes Savannah a destination that’s worth the drive.

We’ve spent half a century and mountains of money trying to undo Gen. Oglethorpe’s masterful city plan and it make more convenient for cars. In the process we’ve come very close to turning the Historic District into a place that few people would go out of their way to visit, even with plentiful parking.

I generally agree with Dawers, who has a keen understanding of what makes cities work. His is an important and informed voice on critical community issues. However, I could not disagree with him more when he writes this:

“The reluctance to use garages is one of many reasons I’ve long advocated maximizing the number of on-street parking spaces.”

Let me get this straight. We spend millions and millions of public dollars and tear great big holes in the urban fabric to build parking garages, yet we should devote even more of our precious public space to accommodate people who refuse to use them? Talk about rewarding bad behavior.

Instead of making more room on the street for idle cars, we should be making room for more people. We should reclaim space  to stroll, shop, sit and socialize. For instance, imagine what would happen if we doubled the width of the sidewalks in front of Gallery Espresso or Six Pence Pub, where there’s usually vigorous competition for seats at sidewalk tables. Imagine how many people could use the space required to store just one automobile. Imagine how much money they would spend. On Sept. 8, people all over the world will demonstrate the possibilities. I hope someone will do so here.

Next, Dawers offers a misguided idea from a reader:

“Yet another reader suggested that a dramatic reduction or even elimination of downtown parking fees would ultimately lead to vast increases in economic activity.”

For this reader I prescribe Chapter One of “The High Cost of Free Parking,” by UCLA economist Donald Shoup. It can be downloaded (for free) in .pdf format here. Dawers characterizes this free parking scheme as “out-of-the-box thinking” and I suppose I’d have to agree. Suggesting that the cure for parking scarcity lies in encouraging more people to drive downtown (and thus increasing demand for parking) certainly represents an unorthodox approach.

Late in his column, Dawers makes this observation:

“In all this talk of transit and parking, it’s interesting that I did not hear any suggestions related to public buses or trolleys, bicycles, or any other alternate modes of transportation that could allow greater access to downtown.”

While Dawers finds it “interesting,” I think “tragic” is a better word. Our unrelenting fixation on cheap and easy driving has blinded us from recognizing this simple fact: More than five decades spent adding capacity is proof that increasing the parking supply will not solve the problem. We have to decrease demand.

Finally, Dawers acknowledges the difficulty of transportation planning and laments the fact that driving is the only easy option for many:

“I think such considerations are vital for the long-term, but in the short run we’re still dealing with a simple reality. Many area residents simply have no way of getting downtown easily other than their cars.”

While this is undoubtedly true, I would offer a trio of responses:

1. While there are residents who have no way of getting downtown easily other than by car, there are plenty of others who have other options. They just choose not to use them. Why should we incentivize the choice to drive by providing more and cheaper parking?

2. Many area residents have economic, medical or other issues that prevent them from driving downtown or anywhere else. While we’ve spent significant time and treasure making driving easier, we’ve failed to provide adequate transit and infrastructure for those who can’t drive. These are the people who deserve our sympathy and support. In the case of pedestrians and cyclists, our neglect of their needs has too often produced deadly results.

3. Dawers suggests that encouraging transit use, walking and bicycling are “vital for the long-term” and I agree. However, every moment and every penny we spend in the “short run” trying to sustain the unsustainable are minutes and money we will never get back. That’s the simple reality that confronts us. Short-term fixes that keep us car dependent move us further away from the long-term goal of viable transportation options.

Unfortunately we’ve come to regard suburban retail developments, with their acres of parking lots, as the norm. As a result, we insist that a convenient parking place should be waiting for us at the end of every car trip. How much longer will we try to satisfy such an unrealistic expectation? How much are we willing to sacrifice to perpetuate this fantasy? When will we realize how much we’ve already lost in this foolish pursuit?

This entry was posted in Economics, Government, Land Use, Neighborhoods, Planning, Public Space, Transportation on by .

About John Bennett

Transportation, land use, local farming and green building are all potential topics for Sustainable Savannah. The goal is to aggregate content about local events and projects, so there will be a central place to review everything that’s happening. The site is aimed at encouraging collaboration and information sharing between groups and individuals currently engaged in sustainability efforts. The site can also provide a snapshot of Savannah for green-minded people who are considering visiting or moving to the area.

4 thoughts on “Solving parking, transportation problems requires “out-of-the-car thinking”

  1. Kelly

    Well put Mr. Bennett!!

    I agree with Dawers most of the time as well, but we really need to focus on long term solutions yesterday, not tomorrow.

    Since the present is all we have- let’s hop to it!!

  2. MikeB

    What’s peculiar, to me at least, is that on those occasions when I do drive downtown I never have any problem finding a parking space. Not going to work, just going in the evening or the weekend. Adding parking won’t help because its a problem of perception. I couldn’t agree more that wider sidewalks would make downtown far more attractive.

  3. Dave Reid

    Great article. This very topic comes up in city after city. There is the perception of a lack of parking when in truth there’s significantly more than enough parking. Cities should work on making places better for people, not cars.

  4. Frank Fitz

    There will always be a shortage of FREE parking that’s CLOSE to a popular destination. Cars owners have to carry their load. Garages cost money, so be willing to pay up….or start walking.

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