City needs parking policy that promotes people-friendly streets

By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS: a Georgia Tech professor of architecture and planning who also served as the city of Atlanta’s commissioner of planning, development and neighborhood conservation from 1996 to 2002. Dobbins also is author of a new book: ‘Urban Design and People.

Parking is about a lot more than storing cars and generating revenue.

Parking, and in the current situation on-street parking, is about access and walkability, retail, restaurant and residential viability, and altogether the character – the attractiveness and functionality – of the more intense parts of town.

Various studies have confirmed the common sense that cars parked at on-street parking spaces provide a positive frame for a good quality pedestrian environment. They enable not just real and perceived access for car passengers but they also protect pedestrians, streetlights, trees, and sitting places from the rush of curbside traffic.

For retailers, restaurateurs, and other businesses, they provide the promise and often the reality of more convenient access from which their businesses benefit. For urban dwellers, they provide parking for residents and their visitors, conveniences that complement other amenities for those choosing to live in urban scale communities.

For those businesses, residents, and visitors who choose to imbibe in urban life, then, supporting that choice becomes an important policy matter for local government. Leading up to the Olympics and for the most part ever since Atlanta has retooled its policy mix to support and encourage those who want to make the urban choice, whether for locating the workplace or the home or for shopping, entertainment, or cultural and sporting events.

Zoning overhauls, development incentives, streetscape and wayfinding improvements, locating venues for broad audiences, and other initiatives have provided the base from which the city has stimulated its ongoing turnaround. It has attracted to its diversity of places the people, employers, and attractions that have lifted it out of its suburban-driven, white flight decades of decline.

To now make parking policy choices that reverse this progress, very likely for lack of understanding the larger implications, would be a significant setback. It would fly in the face of the policies that have made the city an ever-improving environment to attract the growing markets of seniors, empty-nesters, jaded suburbanites, and people moving from other places who are finding positive choices in the city.

Even so, the government — our representatives in our collective ownership of the city’s streets — is responsible for their management and collecting the revenue generated by the use of the streets for parking.
As many businesses have correctly pointed out, however, the current parking arrangement directly threatens their prospect for generating revenue, much of it taxable at one level or another.

The city has responded, wisely, by declaring a moratorium on the privatization agreement that they entered into last year, with a view toward reviewing and hopefully reworking that agreement.

At least two tracks should be taken in this review: 1) how to establish a parking policy that will reinforce, instead of threaten, its urban-friendly policies that have been successful from the mid-nineties; 2) generate a cost-benefit analysis of the current parking contract that takes into account not just the narrowly conceived parking revenue/enforcement arrangement but also estimates the certain declines in overall revenues that maintaining the current contract would cause.

It would appear that what happened is that the deal struck took into account neither of these lines of analysis. Instead, the machines and their two hour limit and 24/7 enforcement seem the simplest and most remunerative for the private partner. One size fits all, even though the streets and their use for parking are widely variable.

The city must see the people, the owners of its streets, as customers with varying needs and in the context of attracting ever more customers instead of closing the gate to them. Such a comprehensive analysis might lead to a whole different approach to the more complex problem.

For example, areas with substantial retail, restaurants, in-and-out businesses, and residential densities could use more on-street parking not less. This could be accomplished by opening up and metering “no parking” streets for parking during the off-peak hours that presently bar parking – even Peachtree Street.

Except during the peaks, there are few if any streets in the higher intensity parts of the city that have traffic congestion problems. Yet because of their very densities and diversity of activities, such streets could generate considerable parking revenue. To compensate for the heightened enforcement required during the peaks, the penalties could be more severe, using high fines and towing to cover the costs.

Regardless of the outcome of that idea, the 24/7 enforcement is a killer — the City should get rid of it, unequivocally. No one will come to eat, entertain, take in events, or even choose to live in an environment so draconian. It is killing the very street life that makes a city a city.

Surely the fancy new toll machines are sophisticated enough to program much more time-sensitive collection and recording apparatus to turn the whole of the parking enterprise into one that is sensible and welcoming, while still generating greater parking revenues than in the past.

The enforcement period should vary, like for peak hours, and its baseline should allow parking without fees from something like between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. For a city that wants to attract people, the goal should be to balance people’s access needs with legitimate and appropriate penalties for abuse of the access system.

Parking policy is vital to Atlanta’s future as a place of urban excellence.

4 replies
  1. Darin says:

    Free parking, even restricted to 7pm-7am, has no place in the urban core of a large city — particularly one with a mass transit systems that serves the urban core so well. There are plenty of suburban-style strip malls with free parking in Atlanta (Midtown Promenade, Ansley Mall, etc) for businesses and consumers who prefer that kind of car-centric development.

    The urban core of the city in Midtown and Downtown has catered too long and too heavily through the years to cars instead of people. Offering free parking in these areas would return the city to the relatively pedestrian-unfriendly scenario of recent decades instead of continuing to promote a walkable city with vibrant streets that are more inviting to people than cars.Report

  2. Lauren says:

    I agree with Darin. The average employed Atlantan drives 66 miles each day, Forbes ranks us the most “toxic city” in the country, and residents and business leaders recognize traffic congestion as one of the most significant challenges in our region. The last thing we need to do is make it easier for individuals to get in their car and park in the heart of our city.

    Curbside parking is some of the most valuable parking in any major metropolitan city. Adding meters and time limits charges those who choose to drive and park in this prime spot and also encourages turnover leading to more customers, not less.

    I do agree with Mr. Dobbins that there certainly should have been more thought and analysis put into the current parking management system. For example, there are literally 95,000 parking spaces downtown, 65,000 of which are available to the public. Was that taken into account when considering metered spots? Or what about retail that’s located closer to a MARTA station?

    And speaking of revenue – why don’t we set aside a certain percentage of that parking revenue to go directly back into streetscape improvements for the businesses who have meters out front. Money could go to improved sidewalks, bike lanes, tree plantings, etc. All things that would improve the pedestrian experience.

    We live in a city that still requires a minimum amount of parking spots for development and screams when we want to charge for prime parking in front of restaurants. Too bad those same people aren’t screaming as loudly at the public hearings for MARTA.

    Simply put, more parking reduces the cost of car use, which leads to more car use. This is not something we should be fighting for in Atlanta.Report

  3. Jared says:

    I agree fully with both posters above. While Mr. Dobbins’ suggestion that on-street parking benefits pedestrians in some ways may well be true, other, better solutions could have more beneficial effects. Trees, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks all protect pedestrians, do so better than parked cars, and help to decrease car-related congestion, pollution, and other risks. They also, quite obviously, improve the environment for all citizens, thus increasing their desire to spend time in such improved areas and spend those invaluable taxable dollars, too.

    Mr. Dobbins makes some good points, but like too many in Atlanta, he assumes that “the owners of our streets” are just drivers. Of course, many of us are cyclists and pedestrians, children and the elderly, and others whose use of the city is impeded by its focus on cars. Sadly, Atlanta does still need parking, but parking policy should be designed to minimize the use of cars and create incentives to use alternative forms of transportation. In the end, smart policies that achieve these goals will be best for all of us – even drivers.Report

  4. Darin says:

    Looks like your wish came true. Free parking from 7pm-7am is a reality as of this week. Score another victory for car-centricity in Atlanta — the city that continues to put the immediate needs of suburban commuters ahead of any interest in positive change in urban structure and connectivity for the future.Report


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