The Urban Destruction Caused by Parking

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re thinking about parking, thanks to a post from The Overhead Wire on the devastating effect that parking structures and highways can have on a city’s infrastructure:

More! That’s the scream of merchants and others who believe that a
downtown without an endless sea of parking is not worth going to. But
once the whole downtown turns into a parking lot it’s not really worth
much anymore, is it? Yet we still see the discussion of parking dominate
without an eye for the destruction that it can cause a downtown if left

To illustrate, The Overhead Wire’s Jeff Wood uses two aerial views of Hartford, Connecticut, pre- and post-interstate (the views were part of a presentation by Dr. Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut at a recent Congress for the New Urbanism transportation summit).

Hartford1.JPGHartford before the interstate…
Hartford2.JPG…and after. (Photos: via Dr. Norman Garrick)

And yet, as Urban Cincy wrote earlier this week, cities like Cincinnati are continuing the cycle. By underfunding transit systems, they make it impossible to get to downtown without a personal automobile — and create a situation that demands ever more productive municipal space be sacrificed to parking:

Metro, the non-profit that operates Cincinnati’s bus system, is facing a budget deficit of $16 million
in 2010. To preempt this crisis, officials in December elected to
reduce service on virtually every route, and eliminate some routes
entirely (new schedules).…

Metro’s important role in Cincinnati goes beyond the obvious. For example, there simply is not enough parking downtown to eliminate bus service. If Cincinnati were to eliminate Metro entirely, the city would need 127 acres of additional parking.

According to Carter Dawson, the group that is managing The Banks development on the riverfront, 85,000 people work in downtown Cincinnati, and according to Metro,
20 percent of them commute using the bus. Therefore, 17,000 people ride
to bus downtown to work each day. The amount of space needed for each
parking space is estimated at 325 square feet
after factoring in space needed for access lanes. As a result,
Cincinnati would need to add more than 5.5 million square feet of
additional parking space, or about 127 acres.

simply cannot afford to throw away 127 acres of prime real estate. Not
only does downtown hold some of the region’s most lucrative businesses
that would have to go elsewhere, but the tax revenue lost by this
displacement would be catastrophic as well. In addition, roadways would
need to be expanded to accommodate the increased traffic, stealing even
more valuable downtown space. Residents would also be displaced, taking
with them the income tax revenue on which the city relies. Cincinnati
cannot afford to eliminate Metro.

More from around the network: Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space on the long-term need to plan for transit "crush loads." Cyclosity on Baltimore’s utter failure to clear its bike paths after the snowstorms. And Tulsa Transportation Examiner on how a Texas town banned bikes because they can’t maintain their roads.

  • latron

    Having gone to school in Hartford, I can verify that the downtown is a wasteland, utterly destroyed by highways and parking lots. It’s tragic, because the city was once a lovely place. Great job, forward-thinking city fathers!

  • Dr Garrick is the MAN! Any contributions I make to the University of Connecticut are only going towards making sure his research gets funded.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Glad you covered these two towns gutted by limited access highways. Bridgeport is another good case in point but you have to throw in the demise of its industrial and railroad base as well since it is not the state capital. Cincinnati is sort of horrible, the sidewalk street life is so screwed up they have a Potemkin Village sort of elevated sidewalk that connects the “mall in a city” development in the center city. The suburbs poach what value remains to the down town economy after the endlessly sprawling, across the river, Kentucky McMansion vultures have picked it over. Great old train station “preserved” like a fucking museum.

  • latron

    Denver was also savaged — in the 1950s they dismantled what was then one of the largest streetcar systems in the United States, flattened entire swaths of downtown, and converted it to surface parking lots. Only now, after 60 years, are they starting to rebuild. And light rail’s even back!

  • Luckily Cincinnati has not taken this approach yet and has actually been removing surface lots in/around the urban core at a fairly good clip lately. With all the new investment though there is also a greater demand for parking since the city is not served by passenger rail.

    The problem is with Metro’s lack of a regional funding structure. The bus agency operates regionally, but collects about 80% of their operating funds solely from the City of Cincinnati through their income tax. With the bad economy of late this has caused major problems for Metro and has resulted in the reduction of service and increased fares. I just don’t think people realize sometimes that we are all impacted by transit in a positive way even if we don’t directly use the system.



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Streetsblog’s Parking Madness competition has highlighted the blight that results when large surface parking lots take over a city’s downtown. Even though Rochester, winner of 2014’s Golden Crater, certainly gains bragging rights, all of the competitors have something to worry about: Cumulatively, the past 50 years of building parking have had a debilitating effect on America’s downtowns. […]

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There may be nothing sadder than distressed cities trying to compete with the suburbs by adding more parking spaces. (We’re looking at you, Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo!) Chris McCahill and Norman Garrick recently wrote in Atlantic Cities about the failure of this approach: Cities that attempt to use parking as an economic development strategy actually undermine their […]

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Build parking spaces and they will come — in cars. New research presented this week at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board finds a direct, causal relationship between the amount of parking in cities and car commuting rates. University of Wisconsin researcher Chris McCahill and his team examined nine “medium-sized” cities — with relatively stable […]