The Carrboro Board of Aldermen has pledged to take up downtown parking as one of their major issues to work on in 2014. Before they kick off this effort, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how to frame this issue in a way that leads to a larger toolbox of potential solutions to get more people and wallets downtown.
Why is Getting Parking Right in Downtown Carrboro Critical?
Carrboro values local businesses and a local living economy. There is a limited amount of land in our downtown core, where most businesses that come to Carrboro want to be – and every surface parking space we add in the downtown core is a lost opportunity to put a more compelling use on it- another local business, more residential units, or a community facility such as a library. If one of our homegrown businesses wants to expand, and we are locking up an increasing amount of land as parking, the likelihood that business will find a bigger space to move into in Downtown Carrboro is reduced. At a certain point, the degree to which we commit to adding parking puts a de facto upper bound on how big a local business sector we can develop in our downtown, and businesses that want to expand may have to move out of Carrboro altogether.
Nobody wants this to be the case. So what can we do?
Strategy #1: Put People First. Stop Defining Parking Spaces As A Goal, Start Defining Parking Spaces as One Way Among MANY to Provide ACCESS for People
There’s a section of the memo the Town Staff prepared for a meeting in May 2013 that I think is particularly well-put together. It states:
In, Parking Evaluation, Evaluating Parking Problems, Solutions, Costs, and Benefits, a publication from the Victoria Transport Institute, the author notes, “A problem correctly defined is a problem half solved.” As the Board continues to refine its overall parking objective–from the continuum of creating a greater number of parking spaces, to encouraging more consumers to the downtown, to reducing the number of existing parking spaces, to removing automobiles from the downtown and thereby reducing the Town’s carbon footprint—it may become easier to frame potential policy changes and LUO text amendments.
Some downtowns that are marginal business locations absolutely require free parking because they have no transit service, no arterial bike lanes and separated bike paths leading to the town center, no sidewalks to adjacent neighborhoods, and low residential densities immediately outside of downtown. They may also be located in communities that are not growing. If foot traffic is absent, then creating greater access for cars from greater distances is often perceived as critical. Frankly, this line of thinking often leads to the downtown being a bit of an old-timey sub-regional tourist destination with a proliferation of antique shops.
But the scenario in the prior paragraph is not Carrboro- in fact, Carrboro, the densest town in North Carolina, is in many ways the antithesis of this. Carrboro is a place people WANT to do business, and the numerous development proposals and construction downtown provide ample evidence this is true. Carrboro has excellent bicycle network connections to downtown, a decent sidewalk network, and a transit network that produces over 1000 weekday boardings in between Cliff’s Meat Market and Carrburrito’s.
The key point here is that if we want local business to thrive, we want more PEOPLE to walk through their doors. A person could arrive at a local business on foot, by bike, by bus, by skateboard, by taxi, or by personal car. We should focus most of all on increasing ACCESS to downtown for PEOPLE (who carry wallets/purses/cash/credit regardless of how they arrive). By doing so, we can help local business thrive and still accommodate additional growth downtown.
Strategy #2: Recognize That Not Every Access Strategy Needs to Be Used by Everyone In Order for Everyone to Experience Better Access
Pick up a Chapel Hill Transit map and you will see that all of the bus service in Carrboro is south of Homestead Rd. Now, so is most of the population of Carrboro, but still- if you live in Lake Hogan Farms and are thinking about downtown access, I think the following is a pretty rational point of view:
“Well, I’d love to get downtown without my car, but I can drive all the way to downtown much faster than I can walk 15 to 30 minutes to a bus stop and ride a bus that will take me another 8 to 10 minutes to get downtown. My time is valuable and driving downtown makes the most sense for where I live.”
But what about the much larger group of people who live within the area served by the CHT bus routes that touch downtown Carrboro? I think this is also a pretty rational point of view:
“Well, I’d love to get downtown without my car, but I’m going to a show at the ArtsCenter that probably ends around 10:00 – 10:30 pm and the last time the F bus leaves downtown is 9:20 pm, so I’ll drive even though I like using the F bus to go to UNC during the week.”
Adding one more parking space somewhere downtown adds storage space for one more car downtown, and adds access for one to perhaps a maximum of four or five other people in most cases.
Running a bus route later provides additional access to hundreds of people who live along the route. While not everyone in those neighborhoods will suddenly stop driving downtown and taking the F bus at night, in a town like Carrboro, more than a few of them will.
And the spaces that were used by those who are now taking the later bus- are freed up for the Lake Hogan Farm resident above who doesn’t have the same opportunity to use the F bus.
The same is true for biking and walking trips to downtown. The more people with cars who sometimes drive to downtown that we can help try walking or biking downtown, the more parking will be available for folks driving in from places where biking, walking, or using transit are not as easy.
Strategy #3: The People Who Drive Downtown Most Often (and Stay the Longest) Represent the Biggest Potential Pool of Parking Spaces to Free Up: Employees
When it comes to freeing up parking spaces in Downtown Carrboro, Annette Stone, the town’s Economic Development Director, recently noted:
“Then there are the unintended consequences of catching people in our enforcement net that we didn’t intend,” Stone said. “We are trying to prevent people from parking, riding and walking out of down town, [but] we are catching our employees that are down there. It just shined a big light in our face of what we have had to deal with.”
While this is a problem, it is also an opportunity, as people who come to downtown five times a week to work are the ones for whom a change in habits would have the most impact in freeing up parking for shoppers, diners, and show or concertgoers. So why might employees drive to downtown Carrboro despite having some alternatives to driving alone to get there? It’s fair to say that restaurants are one of our larger evening job categories. Here are the dinner hours for several downtown restaurants. See a pattern?
Sample of Restaurant Dinner Hours in Downtown Carrboro (Friday/Saturday nights)
- ACME: 5:30 – 9:30 pm
- Venable: 5:30 – 9:30 pm
- Tyler’s: 5:00 -9:00 pm
- Elmo’s: morning – 10:00 pm
- Carrboro Pizza Oven: lunch – 10:00 pm
- Amante Pizza: lunch – 11:00 pm
- Glass Half Full 5:00 pm – 10:00 pm
The last CW bus departs downtown Carrboro at 9:05 pm on weeknights, including Fridays. On Saturdays, the last CW leaves downtown at 5:48 pm. For the F bus, the last departure is at 9:20 on weekdays, and the bus does not run on Saturdays. The weekday J route has departures as late as 11:35 pm (GREAT!) but on weekends, the JN route does not touch downtown Carrboro.
The key point is that with most restaurants having shifts end somewhere between 9:15 pm and 10:30 pm, any employee that doesn’t live in a few select spots along the J route who might take the bus to work will not do so- because there is no bus to take them home. The town should work with Chapel Hill Transit to explore how any contemplated night and weekend service improvements that may be coming in the next few years could make sure this employment market is served by any schedule adjustments.
Of course, extending the service span (the total extent of hours covered during the day and evening) of the buses would be used by some diners as well. However, the reason why getting the employees to shift from driving to another mode is so powerful is that employees leave a car parked downtown for 4 to 8 hours at a time, whereas a diner/shopper may park for 1-3 hours and then turn over a parking space to someone else.
Something that can be done even faster is promoting ridesharing to work in downtown Carrboro among downtown employees. The ShareTheRideNC website provides an easy-to-use portal to help workers who may have similar schedules, work near each other, and live near each other- figure out how they could coordinate commuting to work together.
Strategy #4: Consider the Power of Many Small Changes
Finally, I think the most important thing to recognize is that improving access to downtown Carrboro will be most successful with several strategies all helping a little. Let’s consider a downtown employer with 10 employees, all of whom drive to work every day. Generally speaking, that employer will have a much easier time getting all ten of them to find a way to only drive 4 out of 5 days instead of getting two of them to stop driving downtown altogether. Either approach still reduces this group of ten’s collective demand for downtown parking by 20 percent. I doubt that there is any single strategy that will solve the downtown access issue, but a host of strategies that all temper parking demand by 3% here and 6% there can cumulatively have a big impact.
2014 should be an interesting year when it comes to this issue, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.