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Unpacking the Parking Debate: Why Infrastructure, Not Parking, Is Key to Walkable Cities

Introduction to the Debate

About a month ago an article came out quoting the Parking Reform Network (no relation to my company, The Parking Network, more commonly known as TPN consulting), published in the Houston Chronicle written by a staff writer Yilun Cheng. The Parking Reform Network is a group whose goal is a more walkable city and to accomplish their mission they want to remove the Privately Owned Vehicle (POV) in the U.S.


The Article's Main Points

The article is titled “Report: Parking Takes up a Quarter of Downtown” and takes the position that Houston and another 50 cities in the U.S. are not considered walkable because they have too much parking. The article leads with “Too much parking is bad for cities, but how can we make it better? Learn from parking policy experts and get access to research and materials, Parking policy advocates.” The article makes the following statement citing surveys without publishing the surveys. It states that Houston dedicates more than 20 percent of its land to parking, a car-centric downtown often leads to a less pedestrian-friendly environment and typically results in a significant decrease in walkability. In making this statement, Parking Reform Network never makes the case for what “pedestrian friendly” really means.


The Economic Consequences of Removing POVs

They report removing the POV may create whatever their definition of a walkable city might be, but fail to mention it may in turn create a non-business-friendly city. Let’s see: A non-business-friendly city means developers don’t build, so fewer people work downtown, with fewer workers and visitors come fewer cars and fewer pedestrians. The financial failure of the downtown.


Infrastructure is the Issue, not Parking

I have been in parking for 43 years and from Day One I knew the reason we have a lot of surface area parking. Surface parking is really land-banked land. This land was not built for parking and parking was never intended to be its long-term use. Surface parking was and is simply land that did not at that moment have a higher and best use. Owners of surface parking, with the exception of on-street parking, did not have an income-producing user that could generate income to pay property taxes. Parking operators came along and leased the land for parking because they were made for cars. The land provides income to the owners and a place for the downtown buildings to park overflow cars until a developer comes along and decides to purchase the land and build a $200,000,000.00 building. The $200 million dollar 1 million square foot building just removed 200 parking spaces from the downtown inventory and added the demand for 3 per thousand parking spaces for a net increase of 3,200 parking space demand. The building will likely, especially if regulations do not allow for the building of additional parking, need 3,000 of their tenant’s employees and visitors to find parking in the attached garage or on surface lots. There is an alternative. Houston could build the infrastructure to support a mass transit system that moves people from their homes to downtown, to work, to shop, go to restaurants that support the population of the 9,444 square miles of the Houston SMA, for a development cost of around $30 billion dollars. Downtown Houston cannot survive and grow on just the income generated by the people who live within the three square miles of the loosely configured downtown area. In reviewing Parking Reform Network’s position, it seems they are just taking a swipe at cars with the statement “walkable city.” The group is forgetting to discuss the really big issue of Houston and the other 50 cities labeled “not walkable” without discussing solutions like transportation infrastructure.


What Does “Walkable” Mean?

Before we move forward, let’s try to understand their key point. Does it mean that if you remove cars, it is safer for people to walk down the sidewalk? This statement does not sound like an argument that has a lot of data to back it up. See, one important fact that Parking Reform Network failed to mention is that Houston has seven miles of underground pedestrian walkways that are cleaner than you can imagine and full of restaurants and shopping and connect the whole downtown. When my office was in downtown Houston, I never went outside and used the sidewalks to walk to a meeting. I used the underground pedestrian system. I parked 2 blocks from my office and used the underground system to get to the office. If I was meeting someone for lunch, I used the pedestrian walkway to get to lunch. So, as far as safety and convenience, there is nothing more walkable than downtown Houston. The article tries to make it sound as though removing parking means removing those terrible POVs so you have a more walkable city. However, after continuing to bash parking you get to the end of the article and you find what is possibly the undeveloped explanation of what is meant by a “walkable city.” Actually, the POV has nothing to do with it except that it takes up space.


Community vs. City Dynamics

This appears to be a misunderstanding of the terms “community” and “city or downtown.” In a smaller community, and if you don’t mind living in a high-density area, the concept of having everything within walking distance, such as groceries, drug stores, light retail, restaurants and entertainment, can be very appealing. A city, on the other hand, is a collection of communities that shares resources requiring transportation to be successful. A downtown is a much larger community made of business that requires, at least in the U.S., the ability to drive cars and with cars comes parking.


Looking Ahead

Stay tuned for the next article that will go into the next point from the Parking Reform Network. In the following articles we will discuss more of the Parking Reform Network’s concepts. Then we will gather as an industry and work together to do what we should be doing, discuss “Our Industry,” how it works, why it works, and what we can do to improve. From this point forward, we will focus on “Our Industry,” so when city councils and other parking generators question you about the bad POVs you will have the information to answer their questions.

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