Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Parking and New Urbanism

Parking and new urbanism have an uneasy relationship.  But it’s really just a carryover of the uneasy relationship between parking and American cities.

It’s remarkable when one ponders it.   A hundred and twenty years ago, the street systems of American cities looked much as they do today, with streets sized for delivery wagons and sidewalks sized for pedestrians.  Little change was required when the automobile entered the picture, at least while they were moving.

But when the automobiles stopped moving, everything changed.  In place of livery stables, cities now had to accommodate two tons of stationary metal for every family who came to town.  Perhaps street-sweeping became easier, but many other aspects of municipal life became more complex.

To make the accommodation even more difficult, relatively inexpensive land at the urban fringes allowed shopping centers, office parks, schools, and most every land use to provide vast areas of free paved parking.  Added to the mobility created by a good road network and relatively affordable gasoline, much of the public soon came to expect that they had a right to free parking.

As Americans flocked to the outlying acres of free parking, they abandoned the downtowns with their often hard-to-find curbside parking and parking meters.  Downtowns fought back, often working with city governments to build parking garages.  (Another bastion of Robert Moses’ empire was building parking garages for the cars that his expressways were delivering into Manhattan.)  But if downtown parking was to be free, then the construction and maintenance costs of the parking garages had to be borne by the city, another difficult priority to balance when revenues became tight.  Even when the parking wasn’t free, it often wasn’t priced high enough to cover the costs.

And then new urbanism arrived on the scene, offering a lifestyle that required less daily use of cars.  It would have seemed to offer a ray of hope.  But many early residents in new urbanist communities weren’t, and still aren’t, ready to surrender their cars.  Nor is there is the critical mass of many new urbanism communities in place to deliver on the full promise of new urbanism.  So, the early residents desire to keep their cars, often two or more cars per household, at least for awhile.  But parking those cars takes up space, reducing density and making it harder to fulfill the promise of new urbanism.  It’s the perfect chicken-and-egg scenario.

In one blog post, I can barely begin to describe a rational approach to parking for new urbanism, if indeed I have one.  But I’ll often return to the subject, building on the conversation begun here.  There are people thinking about parking in remarkably creative ways.  There are concepts to be explored and perhaps embraced.  Solving new urbanism parking would be a major step toward the success of new urbanism.

In my next few posts, I’ll look at some of the rules governing parking and at some recent downtown parking issues in Santa Rosa and Petaluma.  Neither of the latter two is necessarily a new urbanism issue, but both illustrate the complexities of the politics of parking in downtowns.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment