By David Burr
“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” – Yogi Berra
The traditional behavior of automobile drivers heading into the city center and finding parking has led to an untenable level of traffic and congestion in many cities. Urban roadways are at or beyond capacity and, as cities become denser and populations increase, this problem will only get worse. Anyone who has driven in a dense urban environment is aware of this, yet still they come, despite knowing the headaches and the hassles of driving and parking in these urban areas. The solution, of course, is not fewer people, but fewer vehicles.
To achieve this decreased use of individual cars within city centers, cities need to ask themselves what motivates drivers to continue this behavior, and then tailor alternative transportation solutions that accommodate these needs when possible. By developing programs and policies that encourage pedestrianism and the use of alternative transportation, as well as accommodating bicycle and scooter traffic as supplementary forms of transit, cities can begin to get closer to reducing urban vehicle traffic while not impairing use and access, but rather enhancing it.
A natural consequence of striving for this solution is that transportation, particularly as people move in and out of metropolitan corridors on daily commutes, is becoming more intermodal. In order to operate efficiently and accommodate the needs of people traveling into and around dense urban areas, and back out to less dense suburban areas, transportation systems also need to offer options and fully leverage the various forms of existing infrastructure and high density transit options available to them.
To drive adoption and increase the use of these various forms of transport, it is important to understand them functioning not individually, but rather as separate links in a greater transportation “chain”. A chain that takes advantage of the characteristics and benefits of each mode, and that incorporates existing user behaviours into the chain in a way that makes adoption and behavior change that makes sense from financial, convenience and time saving perspectives.
The Promise of Transportation Linkage
For many cities, the answer can be found in transportation linkage. The idea of transportation linkage is to replace the traditional placement of parking resources close to city center destinations with a carefully planned urban transportation chain. Each mode of transportation—pedestrian, bicycle access, scooter sharing, automobile routes, buses, and transit—is connected and serves as a link in the transportation chain. Planners create an urban grid in which neighborhoods or networks are connected by a variety of different transportation resources. When completed successfully, transportation linkage can help create pleasant, walkable cities where it is convenient and easy to live, work, and play. It can also reduce roadway congestion and help promote mobility.
Walkability is an important goal in the development of a linkage program. Planners must understand pedestrian behaviors when deciding where to locate public transportation resources and parking facilities for drivers. As a rule, people are willing to walk anywhere from 100 to 200 meters, which is roughly the equivalent of four to six city blocks. Therefore, planners should generally try to locate some mode of transportation within that distance from parking.
Of course, every city is different, and pedestrian behavior is impacted by unique circumstances, such as the mix of land-use types, weather, and the nature of their trip. Therefore, every city must develop a linkage plan around its own unique challenges and characteristics.
For instance, people tend to be more willing to walk longer distances in more dense environments, such as downtown areas in larger cities, because there is more visual interest along the way. It is much more interesting (and distracting) to peruse storefronts and other points of interest than to only have empty lots to look at while walking.
The Role of Parking
Yet, as creative as many cities are, one area in which they often come up short is parking. They often miss the natural link between parking and transportation, and as a result they don’t take a strategic approach to parking.
One of the primary goals of linkage is to encourage people to walk or use public transportation. If an excess of parking is provided downtown, people are more likely to drive their cars into city centers. People will often drive as a matter of habit to parkades that are close to their ultimate destinations, even if traffic congestion makes the trip longer and less convenient than relying on public transportation. Planners have often sought to address the traffic congestion from people seeking parking by building more parking. That’s why parking must be planned and managed in such a way that it helps change drivers’ habits.
Another thing to consider is that termination points of public transit often do not extend to a reasonable walking distance for suburban commuters. Therefore, providing accommodating parking that is in accordance with desired volumes of public transit use is key to adoption and to encouraging and supporting the choice to use public and alternative transit. It’s reasonable to see that if drivers are unable to acquire convenient parking near a train or bus station, they might choose to forego public transport all together and simply drive into the city. If parking is already a challenge at the suburban bus or train station, and they would be faced with the same challenge downtown, why not just drive to my destination and avoid the added (perceived) inconvenience of public transportation.
Parking is Not Just a Link, It’s the Anchor
To counter this tendency toward circumvention, parking must be treated as the anchor of any linkage program. Convenient and affordable parking should be offered at the outskirts of city neighborhoods, and it should provide handy access to public transportation at appropriate levels of cost and frequency to change behaviors. Many cities take this concept a step further by developing multi-modal parking structures in which bus and/or subway service is also located. With these facilities, drivers need only park their vehicles and get into an elevator to reach public transportation.
In recent years, many cities have begun to loosen parking development requirements and promote shared parking. With shared parking, a parking facility that’s predominantly occupied during the day, such as a commercial or retail business garage, makes its parking available to users who need overnight parking. This is an important planning strategy because it reduces the amount of land that’s required for parking development and frees that land for other uses, such as green space. However, it doesn’t impact transportation linkage because it doesn’t reduce the amount of traffic in a city center and, ultimately, that’s a primary goal of linkage.
Obviously, cities can’t eliminate parking from city centers. Some people are unable to use public transportation because of disabilities or other factors. Others will have a different purpose for coming into the city center where the use of alternative transportation is not feasible. These people should be accommodated with convenient downtown parking. However, planners should take the necessary steps, such as pricing anchor parking more competitively than downtown parking, to encourage long-term parkers to use facilities located on the outskirts of the neighborhood or municipality and take public transportation or walk to their ultimate destination.
A Vital First Step in Promoting Mobility
The challenges facing 21st Century municipal planners are much different from those of the past. No longer are we merely adapting to evolving demographics and non-stop growth. And as our cities evolve into smart cities, planners must find ways to promote curb management and mobility. The first step is to reduce congestion on downtown roadways.
Transportation linkage can play an important role in achieving these goals. By developing city-wide programs that link parking, public transportation, and pedestrian wayfinding, we can reduce traffic, make it more convenient for people to reach their ultimate destinations, and facilitate curb management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Burr is a parking planner with Rich and Associates, the oldest firm in North America dedicated solely to parking design, planning, and management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.