With transit holding steady and cycling surging, cities find themselves in an interesting position. They’d like to encourage more of this kind of “mode shift”—but how? Inevitably, the stickiest of all wickets is parking.
Cities large and small are being advised to place parking within a larger conversation. Like Cleveland’s University Circle district, which conducted a detailed parking study in coordination with Case Western Reserve University, which renewed its commitment to pedestrians and a walkable campus, in its upcoming master plan.
It all fits into a wonky bucket called Transportation Demand Management (TDM) or how do you manage the demand for space when cars take up so much. TDM is forward leaning; it is programmatic investment to encourage people to live close by and walk, bike or take transit. University Circle already functions like the walkable district it aspires to be: with less than half of the employees who live and work in the district driving to work alone.
"TDM is important because Cleveland is an automobile dominated city," says University Circle, Inc, transportation program manager, Annie Pease. "That has serious environmental, social and land use consequences. We’ve dedicated a lot of urban land to wide roads and surface parking. TDM typically adjusts the incentives we provide people to encourage non-SOV trips."
In University Circle, several employers have gotten ahead on TDM. Many organizations charge their employees to park at work. That’s a starting point, Pease adds. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has a parking cash-out program where employees can receive up to $50 a month in lieu of a parking space. The Veterans Affairs Medical Center subsidizes employee vanpool and transit passes. University Hospitals ties mode choice to the amount employees pay towards their health care premiums. However, addressing environmental and land use issues requires broad collaboration and sweeping change in our thinking on transportation.
"Cleveland stands to gain the most by coordinating and mainstreaming these one off good ideas into something highly visible and accessible to all—not just a fraction of—urban employees."
The hope is to redeploy the most valuable land into higher and better uses than babysitting thousands of 3-ton steel machines. Cities across the land are acting on the precepts of TDM.
Columbus made headlines last week when its downtown business improvement district (BID), Capital Crossroads, announced plans to offer all 40,000 downtown workers free transit passes. They told the media that the goal is to not build more expensive parking garages downtown. The big announcement followed a yearlong pilot project where the Columbus BID worked with companies located downtown to offer a group (884) of employees free bus passes; transit use increased from 6 to 12 percent, they reported.
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. is preparing to take it a step further. The city announced last week that it will seek equal treatment for those who prefer to take transit, walk or bike to work. A new law would require any company offering free parking to provide an equal monetary benefit to those who choose an alternative to driving. It could include a “parking cash out” program that supplies cash in equal amount to the benefit foregone from “free” parking.
Parking has a monetary value that includes the cost of the land, its construction, maintenance, and clean up of the environment from encouraging driving. (Transportation accounts for 28% of Northeast Ohio’s carbon footprint. Our region averages 24 tons of carbon dioxide per capita.)
Not every city is there yet. When the City of Sandusky, Ohio released a plan to convert a giant parking lot at the lakefront into a pedestrian-only boardwalk, it caused waves.
How much parking is an important conversation every city needs to have. So say urban planners like Jeff Speck and Donald Shoup. They have spent their careers collecting data to support arguments about how deadly parking can be to cities hoping to spark revitalization efforts. To some, parking will not go away easily (and to what end does it serve to scoff at the idea that some will drive to a pier’s end to enjoy a view of Lake Erie).
Still, cities are forging ahead.
Last year, the City of Buffalo, New York decided that parking minimums were not pro-market enough and did away with them citywide.
A few years ago, Cleveland Heights and the City of Euclid hired a parking consultant to help them move away from a cookie cutter approach to parking. They revised parking requirements using a more flexible approach that includes shared parking (counting the same parking spot twice - depending on the time of day) and by counting spots on a bike parking rack or a transit stop as an “offset” for car parking.
Where there is higher than average growth in walking and biking, it may not be a stretch to shift parking to other uses. It could help reset the economics on hard to pencil development deals—like Cleveland Heights’ Top of the Hill or University Circle’s Centric site next to the Little Italy Rapid Station—both are wrestling with how much parking to include. The cities of Cleveland Heights and Cleveland are expected to provide giant subsidies for parking (in the University Circle site, The Port Authority approved a $60 million bond to finance part of the cost for a parking deck).
Parking spaces can cost as much as a few thousands of dollars a year to own and maintain, considering construction and land costs, says Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt.
At an Urban Land Institute symposium on form-based code, City of Cleveland Planning Director, Freddie Collier, said the city would consider removing zoning codes that require parking minimums.
Currently, parking minimums do not apply in Cleveland’s central business district, but putting that into practice is a deep challenge. Developers contend with outside forces, notably, lenders.
At a conference at Cleveland State University on form-based code, University Circle, Inc. President Chris Ronayne lamented the financial institution that balked at a residential development that did not include off-street parking. While the bank later acquiesced, Ronayne’s comments match the experience of other developers working in Cleveland who have shared that lenders often push for the most parking (i.e. a spot per bedroom or minimums per square foot) to “protect” their investment.
From a supply side economics point of view, Cleveland undervalued its land when it cleared buildings downtown and replaced them with parking lots. Now that land speculation is underway downtown and in booming areas like Ohio City and Tremont, finding the right price for parking is key to managing equitable redevelopment (too much parking can inflate housing prices).
“(Experts) say street parking is the right price if each block is 85% occupied at peak times,” says Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog, adding that the rule of thumb is no one had to circle looking for parking. “If prices are a little higher in high demand areas, it's better for businesses because it discourages people from hogging a parking place all day.”
Pease at University Circle, Inc. notes the 800 pound gorilla of parking is setting the price. "Pricing parking is not popular. The most efficient parking leaves one or two spots available at all times which requires performance pricing."
That means, the price should be higher during peak times in areas where people want to go, she explains.
"Without doing this, you’ll constantly have a shortage of parking during periods of high demand."
The same principle applies for shifting minds—and butts—out of cars and onto transit or a bike seat.
Other cities have found small incentives—like offering employees payments as low as $75 a year—can encourage people not to drive, Schmitt says. “That would lead to big savings for a lot of organizations.”
Cleveland could help build a robust system of alternatives to driving. Alex Baca, General Manager of Cleveland’s brand new bikeshare system, UHBikes, hopes the city increases financial support for “more bikeshare stations in more places that people need to connect to.” Of equal importance is a “thoughtful investment in protected bike infrastructure.”
“The world is really Cleveland's oyster with TDM,” she adds. “If we wanted to, we have the physical space and the talent to really take the lead on implementing some of those strategies.”
The connection between parking and TDM is that free or subsidized parking is an additional incentive (on top of artificially inexpensive gas and free roads) to drive, Pease concludes.
"Everyone wants free parking (including me when I drive), so it’s hard for an employer who may be competing with suburban campuses for employees to choose to charge for parking.
"The point is that there are choices on both sides. Employees choose how they get to work, and employers who own their parking facilities choose whether or not to provide the additional incentive for driving."