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Study: some towns have too many parking spaces

by Michael Kirk - December 12, 2005

Some Connecticut towns’ shopping areas have too many parking spaces, according to a new study by UConn researchers.

Local rules governing the number of parking spaces required for buildings in Connecticut call for more spaces than are needed, with many remaining unused even during the busy holiday shopping period, the study says. According to the researchers, the overabundance of asphalt saps the vibrancy of shopping areas and wastes valuable space.

“This is indicative of the overly cautious approach that Connecticut cities have adopted in providing for parking,” says Norman Garrick, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering affiliated with UConn’s Connecticut Transportation Institute (CTI), the study’s lead researcher. “Connecticut towns are demanding far too much parking, thus increasing development costs, wasting land, deadening our urban centers, discouraging walking and riding, and adding to the runoff into our streams and rivers.”

The two-year study examined parking at six different sites throughout New England. Three were so-called ‘traditional’ downtown areas in small cities: West Hartford Center; Northampton, Mass.; and Brattleboro, Vt. The three other sites, in suburban towns, have more conventional layouts: Somerset Square in Glastonbury; Glastonbury Center; and Avon Center.

Of the sites studied, researchers found that the average local requirement for parking spaces – about 5.5 spaces for 1,000 square feet of retail floor area – is more than 2.5 times the amount of parking that is actually used, even during peak shopping times. It found that, on average, the peak parking use (generally during the holiday shopping period) in the Glastonbury and Avon sites was about 2.3 spaces per 1,000 square feet of store space.

The study also shows that the small-city sites – West Hartford Center, Northampton, and Brattleboro – use much less parking and use the parking more efficiently than did the suburban, conventional developments.

“This lower demand for parking in downtown areas is noteworthy when one considers the fact that the West Hartford, Northampton, and Brattleboro sites were much more vibrant in terms of the number of people actually on site,” says Garrick.

“The main factor accounting for this difference was the large number of people that access the mixed-use study sites by foot, bicycle, and public transit.”

In terms of efficiency of use, less than 50 percent of the parking spaces at the conventional sites were filled during the peak shopping period, versus 80 percent occupancy at the small-city downtown study sites.

This means the amount of parking provided at the Glastonbury and Avon sites was more than twice that required even during the peak shopping period.

“This is a tremendous waste of land and is also environmentally unsound, as it means that a significant amount of unnecessary impervious surface is to be found at these developments,” Garrick says.

“It is essentially a double whammy, since parking itself is a negative in terms of attracting human activity and, at the same time, parking takes up land that could be put to more productive use.”

Garrick outlined several suggestions that could improve parking situations in cities and towns:

  • Reduce minimum parking requirements. “Most developments could get by with less than three spaces per square foot of building, depending on the level of activity expected,” he says. Even at this lower level, peak occupancy would still be only about 80 percent.
  • Encourage connected, mixed-use development: “We stress the point that these mixed-use places must be connected by walkable streets to residential areas in order to accrue the full advantage in terms of reducing parking demand,” Garrick says.
  • Reinstate on-street parking: The study showed that on-street parking was the most valued by customers and often the most convenient. In addition, on-street parking cuts down on the size of the off-street lot that is needed, thus reducing development costs as well as the amount of impervious surface. In the interest of efficient traffic flow, many towns have eliminated on-street parking and do not provide on-street parking in new developments. On-street parking, Garrick says, “clearly delineates the street as a place, rather than just a conduit for traffic.”
  • Consider shared municipal lots. “Lots shared between different types of businesses are used much more efficiently and do not have as many hours where they sit empty,” he says. “In addition, consolidated municipal parking promotes a ‘park once’ mindset, which benefits all the businesses in a center.”

Few cities and towns in Connecticut “have a comprehensive plan for the provision of parking in their commercial centers,” says Garrick. “However, we believe many town centers could benefit immeasurably from having a considered and coordinated approach to managing parking demand. The good news is that our study shows that relatively small changes, such as improving pedestrian connections, can go a long way in reducing the amount of resources that are devoted to parking, and in creating more vibrant centers.”

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