Many people from small towns are baffled by certain aspects of the transportation system when they travel to a large urban area. The levels of congestion routinely experienced in the suburbs and major cities of the United States would be intolerable in rural areas. The traffic control systems in place that limit auto movements as required for the local/collector/arterial traffic framework are also not a routine part of the culture. The idea of paying for parking is considered obscene.
There have been some good studies that have demonstrated the obvious: free parking is not free. These studies largely focus on the costs of parking in urban and suburban areas. For small towns, the up-front monetary costs are often hidden in one of the Mechanisms of Growth, usually projects funded by intergovernmental transfers. Other thoughts are often never considered or understood.
The following is a writeup I prepared for the Walker Comprehensive Plan update. Parking is a sensitive subject there. We'll see if this sidebar brief survives the editing process.
Is there enough parking in Walker?
The answer to that question depends largely on the expectation of whoever answers it.
Many local residents expect to travel to their destination and be able to park within a few parking spaces of the entrance. There are three principle factors that have created this expectation. First, parking is generally abundant. For at least nine months of the year, a convenient spot can always be found. Second, Walker has largely been reconfigured to prioritize travel by automobile over any other method of travel. If you can’t walk, you expect driving and parking to be ultra-convenient. Finally, destinations have been dispersed over the past two decades and so most trips require an automobile and a parking spot.
Visitors often have different expectations. Many come from areas where walking between three and ten blocks to a destination is routine. Even where the public realm is not great for pedestrians, a person can walk from one side of Walker’s commercial area to another in just a few minutes. The adjacent residential areas, where on-street parking is abundant, are also very close to the downtown. Even though visitors to Walker are often here during times of peak parking demand, they are the most likely to think Walker has enough parking.
The City of Walker pays an enormous amount of money to meet the parking expectations that exist. The costs are not just the monetary cost of acquiring the land and building the spaces. It also includes the massive amount of lost opportunity (tax base, jobs, enhanced destination) that devoting so much of Walker’s valuable commercial area to parking involves. Since cars and pedestrians don’t mix well, a diminished public realm is another significant cost for a parking-centric economic development strategy.
The better question is: How much does the City of Walker want to give up for the convenience of meeting local parking expectations?