Thursday, January 3, 2019

Time to have that uncomfortable talk. I mean about parking.

A Walmart in east Charlotte offers a gracious plenty of parking. Photo: Google Maps satellite view
It’s a question without easy answers. But that just makes it even more important to confront, and find a guiding strategy. It’s time for Charlotte to talk about parking.

Parking is both blessing and curse for any city built – as Charlotte mostly was – around private automobile use.

There’s a lot to curse. An admittedly incomplete list of problems parking lots cause would include the way they devour valuable land space that could hold housing, stores, workplaces, parks, community gardens, tree canopy, pretty much any use valued by city residents. (See below for a short list of what could go into one parking space.) They send storm water runoff cascading into local surface waters (i.e. creeks), polluting them and causing more frequent flooding onto the floodplains where foolish development was allowed. Remember Hurricane Florence in September? Get used to it, as climate change brings more heavy rainstorms. They add to the urban heat island effect, pushing the rising summer temperatures even higher. And the need to provide parking creates significant headaches for small businesses.

And finally this: With so much parking both “free” and available, we almost always hop into the car instead of asking, could we walk? Bicycle? Take a bus or light rail?

But parking lots can also be a blessing in a city built to make driving the automatic choice for almost all of us. For most residents here, any alternatives to private automobile travel – walking, bicycling, scootering, transit or ride-shares – aren’t available or competitive in terms of time, hassle and cost. And when we drive, we need temporary lodging for our vehicles.

I was reminded of this late last month. Rain was pelting the asphalt as I wheeled into what looked like the last available parking spot at Cotswold shopping center, then sloshed across the asphalt for last-minute Christmas shopping. I was glad to find even that terrible parking place.

But should two weeks in December really determine the size of parking lots year-round? It’s January now, and across
most of Charlotte those huge lots at our shopping centers revert to their 50-other-weeks-a year condition: plenty of open, “free” spaces.

It’s time for Charlotte policy-makers to figure out how to get a handle on parking. How can we encourage smarter use of our land while admitting cars will be with us, even if, we hope, in smaller numbers? Can we acknowledge the social inequities embedded in our autopilot acquiescence to providing all the parking anyone needs for the Saturday before Christmas? Can we ask:

• How much parking should be required? How much should be allowed?

• Why isn’t more parking shared between day- and night-time uses, and how can the city encourage more sharing?

• Why should churches, schools and other institutions get a free pass to expand surface parking lots into nearby neighborhoods almost without limit?

• How in terms of parking regulations, do we treat places differently, since places in the city are different? Ballantyne is not NoDa, and University City is not Myers Park.

• Can the city lead on this issue? Could it assist with financing private, shared parking decks, more space-efficient and environmentally prudent but more expensive to build?

• Couldn’t some parking lot and meter revenue help fund something helpful?

City planners are rewriting ordinances governing development in light rail station areas, called Transit Oriented Development (TOD) zoning. They propose eliminating any required minimum number of parking spots except for restaurants within 200 feet of single-family homes. They believe (with reason) that providing easy, “free” parking close to light rail stops encourages people to drive when they could walk, cycle or take transit.

The problem, of course, is that not offering easy parking doesn’t stop people from driving in from areas where transit isn’t readily available and walking isn’t safe or efficient. Yes, I personally will sometimes drive 15 minutes to get to a light rail station where I can “park for free”* and then ride to South End or NoDa, but I am not a typical Charlottean. Example: For me to leave home and arrive at the Evening Muse in NoDa for an 8 p.m. event would be a one-hour transit trip, and that’s with a bus stop a quick, 5-minute walk from our house. Driving is 15-20 minutes.

Further, developers will tell you that lenders require a certain amount of parking, even if the city doesn’t. Yes, easing the TOD parking requirement may well be a smart thing, but it’s no silver bullet that kills the parking monster.

Just imagine what could go in one 220-square-foot parking space: room for 10 bicycles, space for lunch with 15 friends, 3 office work spaces, or one small studio in Paris. That fun factoid comes courtesy of author Taras Grescoe (@Grescoe on Twitter) and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York (@ITDP_HQ on Twitter).

So as Charlotte dives into a new comprehensive plan, Charlotte Future 2040, can we please take a harder look at parking? We’re going to need some of that space for other things.


* Why is “free” in quote marks? Because parking is never really free. The cost is embedded in rents you pay, the cost of goods you buy from merchants who must build those parking lots or pay the cost in their leases.

Planner and author Daniel Shoup studies parking and believes it’s been subsidized in a way that’s inequitable. “Wherever you go – a grocery store, say – a little bit of the money you pay for products is siphoned away to pay for parking," Shoup says (as quoted in this 2014 article in Vox). "My idea is simple: if somebody doesn't have a car, they shouldn't have to pay for parking.”

Shoup estimates the national tally for public subsidies for parking at $127 billion.

Apparently Google's Satellite View camera did not take the photo of this south Charlotte church lot on a Sunday morning.