How does a neighborhood node like Candler Park manage to function with such a greatly reduced amount of parking below the legal requirements? How does the world not end there from a daily influx of cars? Several reasons. First, by being compact and situated in the middle of the neighborhood, it is easily walkable and bikable to many who live in the surrounding blocks. Good sidewalk connectivity is part of this. This reduces the amount of people that have to drive to the location. There is also the ability to park once and visit multiple stores. If our family chooses to drive instead of walk, we often park, have dinner, walk next door for a cup of hot chocolate for one daughter, and across the street for an ice cream cone for the other daughter. While only using one parking space.
This sharing of parking is an important aspect of great places. It’s not necessarily an absence of parking spaces, but having the least amount of parking possible, and using those spaces as much as possible. Donald Shoup targets the optimal use of on-street parking spaces as being 85% occupied. This translates into generally have a few spaces being free at any given time, but not too many. I would contend this goal could apply to offsite spaces as well. This optimization also runs across time of day. Having parking that can be used by a break/lunch spot in the morning, by a grocery for folks on the way home from work, and for a restaurant for later in the evening, and even possibly by residents at night squeezes out the maximum value of each individual piece of asphalt. If you see more than a handful of empty parking spaces in a parking lot in town, that should make you sad. It is doing little good to any of us.
The other big component that is important to understand is the importance and benefit of on-street parking. This is a critical public resource. It provides the ability for folks to choose to drive to a compact neighborhood node, park, and walk to all the goods and services. This should be supported and expanded. There are some in town streets wide enough to support on street parking on both sides of the street that prohibit parking on one side. We engage our city leaders (Councilpersons) to push Public Works to expand on street parking as much as possible. But doesn’t having parking on both sides of the street make it dangerous to drive on you may ask? No, it is a cheap, useful form of traffic calming. What is does do is to force drivers to pay more attention to their surroundings. This has the direct effect of also encouraging drivers to drive slower. It also provides a buffer between traffic and pedestrians, making for a safer and more enjoyable walking experience. This on street parking is part of the secret sauce that allows neighborhood centers to function without having all the supposedly necessary parking at each site. Seeing streets that unnecessarily have no parking signs up should make you upset, as it is an unnecessary prohibition on a public resource.
So what about Virginia Highlands, where there is such demand for on street parking on neighborhood streets during the evenings? This is where the question of price for on street parking comes into play. If a good is free, there is no market for it. Free on street parking provides a disincentive for people to pay to park in private parking lots. This leads to unnecessary congestion as folks continue to circle a block looking for free parking. But everyone loves free parking, no one loves to pay to park, and everyone really hates Park Atlanta. The most politically successful way to approach paying for parking is to create a ‘parking district’ where all or most of the revenue from the paid parking stays in the district. This money should be used for infrastructure improvements that benefit the community. Streetscape improvements, park improvements, etc., whatever is most appropriate for that particular district. Imagine as a home-owner if you saw the visitor paying to park on your street as directly helping to fund playground improvements down the street. It does change the dynamic.
The more connected and walkable a place is or has the potential to be, the lower the on site parking requirements should be. Where is the most logical spot to reconsider parking requirements as a walk to promote dense, walkable nodes of redevelopment? The Beltline, the Beltline, the Beltline. Reducing parking requirements in this area is a critical component to promoting positive places through the entire circumference. Some locations such as Inman Park have the economic vibrancy to afford significant new construction and the expense of private parking decks to permit that to happen. So many stretches of the Beltline just will not have the economics (for a while) to support such costly endeavors. There are a slew of wonderful old buildings across the entire southwest stretch of the project that scream for re-use. Make it simpler to happen. Let’s greatly reduce the parking requirements for all areas in the Beltline so that it can be a wonderful walkable, bikable ring that people can live at and flock to. And let’s get some transit on the Beltline as fast as possible.
Now, here is where it gets a little tricky. It is not that I am against parking per se. Some parking is required for a city or neighborhood to function well. I am against legally mandated on site parking requirements. What this means is that a building owner can make the best decision as to how much parking they should provide. Many owners expect that providing onsite parking is a worthwhile investment. The rub is that there currently is little choice should an owner feel they would be better served not paying for the parking lot and passing those lower overhead costs to the consumer. This tends not to play out in big box type savings passed on, but in allowing small businesses to better be able to open their doors in communities. Removing legal limits also allows more flexibility for multiple owners to craft leases to share parking.
I’ve seen many comments to an article talking about parking. Being entitled to free parking is a god given American right. Talking about limiting parking is some form of a government socialist plot. Guess what, government mandates requiring private entities to provide a public service is very socialistic. Allowing the market to decide an appropriate response is a basic conservative American principle. It is amazing to see how often conservatives tend to take a socialistic view and liberals a more conservative outlook on this issue.
Wonderful, walkable neighborhoods are something everyone should be able to enjoy. This is critical to keeping Atlanta competitive in the new world economy and attracting the best and brightest to come to our city. There is a great interview with the Mayor of Phoenix proudly talking about his city’s accomplishments in recent years. The article clearly states what is needed to have a great urban experience in the 21st century. I am to some degree excited about the recent negative statistics coming out that shows Atlanta has lost favor with the creative class. This is a call to action that we need to rise up and respond to. We need city leaders and our fellow citizens to actively, actively look to tackle these issues to propel Atlanta to best in class for years to come.
These ideas are not mine alone by any stretch. I am repeating amazing insights from Donald Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking. Unraveling the DNA of quality urban places is also amazingly well spelled out in Kaid Benfield’s book, People Habitat. Understanding how walkability works is greatly presented in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. If you really want to get to the bottom of the negative effects driving has on our well-being, please read Charles Montgomery’s Happy City.