In Growing Cities, Parking Challenges Require Creative Solutions

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As a new wave of people flood cities to live, work and play, many arrive on four wheels — cars, which are creating massive headaches for city planners and drivers.

Smart cities are looking into reducing parking issues that cause street congestion and wasted time for drivers searching for spaces. Off-street parking isn’t a solution: it is costly to build and takes space that could be used for other, more interesting uses.

While some cities are looking into solutions such as parking prices that fluctuate based on demand to ensure a space is always available, others are revamping parking permit policies and updating zoning laws to allow for transit-oriented developments.

Cities that aren’t moving fast enough may soon be left in park.

Here’s a look at four cities in the Issue Media Group network that are in the pilot stages of their approaches to mitigating traffic congestion, pricing and overall parking accessibility.

DC navigates curbside demand

During last summer in Washington, D.C, if you were going to the Verizon Center for a Wizards game on a Friday night, there was a chance you’d pay a little more to get a curbside parking space steps away from the venue. If you were willing to walk a little farther, you could pay a cheaper rate.

This was part of the pilot program ParkDC, which addresses issues of traffic congestion in the city’s Chinatown/Penn Quarter area.

“Cruising around the block to find an open parking space can contribute to as much as twenty-five percent of the congestion, so there is recognition now that if you manage your curb space more efficiently, then you’ll manage your street congestion more efficiently,” says Soumya S. Dey, director of research and technology transfer at the District Department of Transportation (DDOT).

Chinatown is one of DC’s most congested neighborhoods. Jason Meredith via Flickr

One of the busiest parts of town, the adjacent Chinatown and Penn Quarter corridors are frequented by sports fans, foodies, retail junkies and theater-goers, all within a few blocks. ParkDC’s plan will adjust prices of 1,300 parking meters through a demand-based strategy that will consider location, time of day and other factors that dictate how busy the area is at any given time. In other words, the more people who want to park on a given block, the more expensive it will be.

In researching solutions to parking problems across the country, D.C. turned to Seattle’s performance-based parking program. Launched in 2011, Seattle’s Department of Transportation varied metered parking rates from $1.00 per hour to $4.00 per hour, in twenty-three areas throughout the city. After an evaluation period, the city saw outcomes that reflected one of its main goals — to always have at least two parking spaces available per block.

In 2012, Los Angeles launched a similar program to reduce traffic congestion, lower air pollution and make commuting more efficient. LA Express Park covers 6,000 metered parking spots and 7,500 city-owned lot spaces. While prices range from $1 to $6 per hour, the average is $1.76 per hour, which is lower than the $1.95 per hour the city charged before the program launched. With its success, the program is expanding to Westwood Village, with plans to extend to Hollywood in 2015, according to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

As D.C. gives demand based pricing a shot, perhaps it will lead to its removal fromNerdWallet’s Top Ten Worst Cities for Parking your Car, which based rankings on high parking prices and theft rates.

Over the past few months, there’s been a significant push to get the word out about D.C.’s new program.

“We want to give people information of where available parking spaces are and once they have that information, they don’t have to circle around the block to find an open space,” says Dey, explaining an interactive app, currently under development, which will help drivers understand parking trends to help their search and estimate how much they would to pay for curbside parking.

For the next three years, Chinatown and Penn Quarter will be laboratories to test technology and concepts for parking in the city before moving forward to other neighborhoods.

St. Paul strives to meet leisure and amenity needs

As its population surges past 300,000 for the first time in years, St. Paul is also embracing a demand-based parking system — in the downtown core, at least. Earlier this year, the final draft of St. Paul’s Downtown Parking Study revealed a average surplus of 7,500 downtown parking spaces in the evening and overnight hours, when street parking is free.

Most of those open spaces are in parking ramps, which charge for after-hours parking, suggesting that downtown residents are taking advantage of free street parking overnight. A similar problem occurs on weekends, when there’s less activity in many parts of downtown.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman responded with a plan to extend paid street parking hours and create a variable demand system to capture more revenue during peak usage hours. Under the plan, weekday daytime rates (which vary from $1 per hour to more than $2 per hour, depending on location) would remain in effect an extra hour, until 6 p.m. From 6 to 10 p.m., they’d ease to $1 per hour. Rates would be even higher around major events, like concerts at RiverCentre, Minnesota Wild clashes at the Xcel Energy Center and St. Paul Saints baseball games at CHS Field.

Meters would also operate on Saturday, when on-street parking is currently free, at demand-based rates. Charging for weekend parking is a nod to downtown St. Paul’s growing leisure and amenity menu: CHS Field’s 2015 opening dramatically raised local parking demand on warm-season afternoons, increasingly plentiful breweries and restaurants are keeping people in town after work, and multiplying retail options (including the Lunds & Byerlys in the Penfield building) draw visitors from surrounding neighborhoods.

If implemented as planned, the new downtown St. Paul street parking scheme is projected to raise $1.6 million in its first full year of operation — a nice boost to the city’s $550 million annual budget.

Meanwhile, downtown St. Paul’s parking supply is set to tighten a bit. The recently approved St. Paul Bicycle Plan lays out an ambitious vision for a separated “bike oval” that could remove 150 or more downtown street parking spaces by the end of the decade. Business owners aren’t happy with the plan, which envisions Jackson Street and other yet-to-be-determined thoroughfares as part of a “hub and spoke” bikeway system. But given the existing downtown parking surplus — thousands of spaces strong — and the street-level safety enhancements outlined in the Bicycle Plan, any short-term inconveniences should be outweighed by improved multimodal access.

What works downtown, though, might not work in St. Paul’s neighborhoods. In late October, per the Pioneer Press, Coleman dropped a proposal to install parking meters on Grand Avenue between Ayd Mill Road and Dale Street. Fierce opposition from local business owners and residents, many of whom lack access to reliable off-street parking, scuttled the plan and shaved $400,000 from the mayor’s 2016 budget proposal. Grand Avenue parking is likely to remain free for the foreseeable future, though shared business parking arrangements — already common on Snelling Avenue, and likely to become more so after the A Line opens in 2016 — could mitigate congestion attributable to vehicles crawling about in search of free spaces.

Denver’s parking hits its limits

In 2014, Denver jumped from No. 16 to No. 6 on Forbes’ annual ranking of the 20 fastest growing cities in the nation. The Denver Regional Council of Governments projects a nearly 50 percent increase in residents from 2.6 million in 2005 to almost 3.9 million in 2030.

While an influx of residents will be a major boost for the city’s economy, it can be a nightmare for transportation officials. As development ensues, enticing more visitors to the region, there’s no way to create a parking space for each new person.

“We recognized early on that we only had a limited number of parking spaces on street and they can be programmed in a lot of different ways,” says Cindy Patton, principal transportation planner with Denver Public Works.

The agency’s Strategic Parking Plan provides a citywide framework for managing parking, to include five evaluators: demand, location, time, pricing and supply. “All of those things combined can be used to create an area management plan,” says Patton.

Denver's Baker neighborhood is one of the city's fastest-growing, which has led to parking headaches. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Denver’s Baker neighborhood is one of the city’s fastest-growing, which has led to parking headaches. Photo by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Area management plans are hyper-local initiatives that detail strategies to address the needs of specific neighborhoods. The Baker/Broadway area for instance, has been a commercial corridor for quite some time, with landmarks like The Mayan Theatre and Blue Bonnet Cafe, a 40-year-old Denver institution. In the past few years, the neighborhood has witnessed a resurgence with new nightspots, galleries, coffee houses and independent shops — in addition to newer condos to complement existing Victorian homes, bungalows and duplexes.

With all the new activity, there’s little consistency in parking guidelines. Hours and pricing of meters vary, but not in a strategic way.

This year, the first phase of the neighborhood’s area management plan launches to create more consistency in parking. All parking meter time limits will be adjusted to two hours (former conditions include a mix of one and two hour parking); hours of operation for parking meters will be standardized; parking meter rates will be adjusted to a consistent $1.00/hour; and loading zones will be strategically placed for easier maneuvering and less congestion on main roads. Lastly, short-term parking will be increased to support high-turnover businesses like coffee shops, convenience stores, etc.

In the end, planners hope to reduce tension between residents, employers and consumers battling for parking spaces — which can result in not only congestion, but frustration by drivers who may abandon the idea of visiting the neighborhood altogether.

Cleveland’s University Circle goes multi-modal

In Cleveland, the University Circle area has long been composed of institutions such as universities, medical centers and cultural venues. As an anchor district, the facilities have sustained the area because of their access to stable employment and creative opportunities.

In recent years, University Circle has emerged as an innovation district where collaboration exists for innovators and a slew of new retail, housing and entertainment options cater to residents and visitors.

Unlike in Denver, new developments haven’t reduced the number of parking spaces, but they have made the spaces more difficult to find.

“As you can imagine, when you take a very evident piece of surface parking on a main street and build a mixed-use apartment-retail building on top of it, it can be a little confusing for people who’ve known about that parking spot for the last ten years. So there has been a period of relearning for visitors, residents and workers,” says David Razum, communications manager at University Circle, Inc., a community service organization responsible for the growth of the neighborhood as a premier urban district.

To start, Razum says that placing appropriate signage on the main roads has been extremely effective. There’s also been a push for visitors to explore the area’s website as a tool to see what parking is available that might not be directly in front of the venue. Perhaps most importantly, the city has made key investments in transit, streetscapes, bike lanes and bike parking that make it even more attractive for employees not to drive their cars to work.

Razum also sees the new developments as an opportunity for residents to view the neighborhood in a new light. “We build towards what we call a complete neighborhood, where everything you need in day to day life is within a twenty minutes walk. I think it’s a convenient, healthy and really gets you outside of your car and makes you interact with your neighborhood a little more,” he says.

To alleviate parking problems, Cleveland is making it easier for people to leave their cars at home by investing in public transit and pedestrian avenue. Photo by Bob Perkoski.

To alleviate parking problems, Cleveland is making it easier for people to leave their cars at home by investing in public transit and pedestrian avenue. Photo by Bob Perkoski.

The city is also upgrading its public transit. A $200 million investment in the redesign of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue integrated the bus rapid transit system, which connects the business district with University Circle. After opening in 2008, the system “helped transform the neighborhood, restoring Euclid as Cleveland’s main street,” says Razum.

In August 2014, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the Cedar-University Rapid Station, an $18 million reconstruction project that revamped the station’s former grim facade. The new station “is more attractive, brighter and has helped improve connectivity with the neighborhood.”

And in 2016, the opening of Little Italy-University Circle Rapid Station, a $17.5 million project, should be completed as well. This station, which is being relocated to the edge of University Circle, “will encourage more visitors and workers to take the Redline to and from University Circle.”

If new transit opportunities are put to effective use, there will be less need to consider building more parking infrastructure like lots and garages — a route taken by the Cleveland Clinic area, just west of University Circle.

“A surface lot on a main street has a role, but I think that it can hurt a commercial or residential district because it’s kind of a dead area. I think that you can have surface lots and garages, but it has to be done right — they need to blend in with the rest of the landscape and be coherent rather than separating areas with big seas of surface parking,” says Razum.

Throughout Cleveland, parking is certainly on the radar of all neighborhoods, says Razum. To that end, demand-based parking strategies have been discussed at the city level for years, but so far there hasn’t been much forward momentum on this issue. However, University Circle seems to be setting the stage for creative solutions by putting more options on the table.

“We will certainly continue to explore any options in the future to improve access and connectivity — from apps, to maps, awareness campaigns—we are always looking to improve connectivity,” says Razum.

Christina Sturdivant lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about cultural, community and innovative trends in the city for Elevation DC and other local publications. Nationally, she has authored stories in HBCU Digest and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

For more stories of ideas, innovations, and solutions in cities, follow @Issue_Media and @TheLineMag on Twitter.

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