May 2, 2005

When Parking Is The Problem … But Not What You Think

"Lack of parking" does not necessarily kill neighborhoods or business districts. In fact, requirement too MUCH parking can cause as many problems as too LITTLE, a number of planners argue.

Onsite parking requirements—currently under attack by UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup and the Victoria Transportation Institute among others—have, for now at least, sealed the fate of older communities like Sunland-Tujunga [Calif.] They have made it practically illegal to introduce pedestrian-oriented uses that don’t resemble the convenience retail or auto repair shops that have come to characterize commercial boulevards throughout the city.

So writes Mott Smith, a planner and "in-field" developer, in The Planning Report". Residents of that Sunland-Tunjunga L.A. neighborhood "must drive no less than 20 minutes to Glendale, Pasadena or Burbank just to be able to do some shopping on foot in a pleasant commercial district."

Sound familiar, suburbanites?

Demands that every enterprise have its own on-site parking, regardless of neighborhood circumstances, "seem designed with sprawl as the objective."

The answer is not to eliminate parking. Most suburbs won't have dense enough development to support thriving downtowns that a critical mass of people can reach by foot, bike or public transit anytime soon. I'm a realist. We're not going to wean American suburbanites off the convenience of the passenger automobile (although those who prefer non-auto-centric living should have options outside America's 10 largest cities).

The answer IS to design communities where you can park once, leave the car, and then enjoy walking around a pedestrian-appealing streetscape that has been designed with the ambiance and needs of walkers in mind. It's the "sweet spot" middle ground between ugly suburban sprawl that's designed solely for the automobile, and downtowns that lost out to malls 40 years ago because they couldn't provide enough convenient parking.

Smith urges development of "community parking," so people can leave there cars in unobtrusive yet convenient municipal lots.

It's not rocket science; well-designed communities have done this for decades. Concord, Mass. has some community parking, downtown Waltham's successful revitalization has it.... the key is have enough of it, well designed, so it's convenient and attractive for people to leave their cars there and then walk to an appealing business area.

It could have worked along Rte. 9. It would have transformed Rte. 30 in Framingham, had all the retail and commercial buildings been built at the street with parking in the rear, wide beautifully landscaped sidewalks installed, a truly attractive median strip been installed, crosswalks that actually allowed people to walk across the street on foot without constant fear been included, Panera's cafe been part of sidewalk activity instead of fronting a huge parking lot.... what an opportunity lost.

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