The Downtown Parking Fallacy

Via CEOs for Cities, the Hartford Courant tells a sad story of what's happened to their downtown in the past few decades.
Since 1960, the number of parking spaces in downtown Hartford increased by more that 300 percent — from 15,000 to 46,000 spaces. This change has had a profound and devastating effect on the structure and function of the city... as one historic building after another was demolished. And what did the city gain from this assiduous drive to provide sufficient parking? Was it able to grow more prosperous by providing more jobs and housing for more people? If this was the desired outcome, we can consider the past 50 years to have been an abysmal failure. Over the period that parking was being increased by more than 300 percent, downtown was losing more than 60 percent of its residential population, and the city as a whole lost 40,000 people and 7,000 jobs.
The question is: what sparked all of this? At some point in time, there must have been a demand for downtown parking, obviously. Why was there a demand? Because downtowns are historically the places that people go to work, shop, eat, drink, etc. They are the lifeblood of the city. They are a place people want to spend their time.

The problem with the argument that we ought to go ahead and supply parking spaces to meet hypothetical parking demand is that it suffers from a statistical modeling error: when you change some variable (like the amount of parking) all other variables remain constant. There is no reason to believe this is the case.

Downtowns were great places long before many cities went on a rampage to install new parking facilities. Imagine a hypothetical city with 10,000 parking spaces downtown. It's a vibrant core, with pedestrians, street-level storefronts, buses, streetcars, and trolleys. It's the kind of place where people like to go. Now imagine the city proclaims it a goal to triple the number of spaces over the next decade. Obviously, they need space, so buildings get demolished or renovated. These new lots create "dead zones" where pedestrians feel less safe walking the streets, so storefronts lose business, some fail, causing still fewer pedestrians to want to venture out. Meanwhile more cars means more traffic and fewer transit riders. Eventually the trolley and streetcars stop making runs entirely. And this is all happening as the new supply of parking is being created.

(from flickr user pinprick)

If you survey people in cities and ask if they'd like to see more parking downtown; most will probably answer yes, because in their mind, parking will be added, but not at the expense of the things that make the downtown great as it is; they imagine being able to experience downtown in its current state, but a little more conveniently.

Unfortunately, this usually isn't how it plays out. Downtown cores weaken, and the people who said they would prefer the new parking decide don't want to go downtown, claiming there is "nothing to do downtown anymore". It's actually telling that the cities with some of the most expensive downtown parking are also the most vibrant urban cores. It reminds me of the Yogi Berra quote: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded". In this case, it would go something like: "Nobody wants to go downtown and park their car, all the spaces are taken and they're really expensive."


    And it doesn't help that parking can be added the other way around: a building falls into a state of disrepair and when it gets demoed, they pave the site for parking as a so-called temporary use. Next thing you know, it's 10 years later and it is still a parking lot.

    I personally hate the giant parking lots between Public Square and West 6th... what a disgusting hole in the urban fabric.

    (Unrelated, but the word verification for this comment was "cycling." Haha!)