Urban Fabric

Posted on Thursday, January 12 2012 by Heather Brandon

In a brief 2010 paper titled “Losing Hartford: Transportation Policy and the Decline of an American City,” PhD candidate Christopher McCahill and UConn Associate Professor Norman Garrick assert that the city and state should both begin to charge their employees for the ample parking they use downtown. I agree—if enacted, I think such a policy would transform downtown more effectively and comprehensively than any other visionary project we have in the works. It bears reminding: we have too many parking facilities, and we need to fix this problem yesterday.

A great deal of city land was given over to parking between 1960 and 2000 (click to see larger images below), even while population decreased and its number of workers dropped. Most telling: downtown parking spaces during those decades more than tripled, covering 7.5 percent of the land in 1960, and 22 percent in 2000. This has done severe damage to the city’s “urban fabric,” along with the demolition of many buildings, the construction of major highways, and the companion increase of vacant lots and gloomy, unusable overpasses.

The paper’s authors tell how the city recognized the problem of increased auto dependence over the decades, even as it pushed for “immediate” and “essential” new parking facilities downtown, exacerbating the very auto dependence it deplored. By increasing that dependence, the city likewise killed incentives to walk, bike, or take the bus.

The problem is nicely summarized in these few sentences from McCahill and Garrick:

In the downtown, entire blocks have been turned from human-scale building fronts to expansive surface lots. Not only do these lots occupy land that could otherwise be used for housing or commercial development, but they create an environment that is hostile to pedestrians. Many employees are able to park near their place of work and walk very little, stifling potential economic activity in downtown shops and restaurants. Furthermore, the lack of housing opportunities in close proximity to the downtown has forced employees to live further away where driving is often their only reasonable transportation option, regardless of their preference.

People are simply walking less, and leaving downtown faster if they arrive at all, which means the unexpected interactions of genuine street life are fewer, and the city street is dull as burlap in long stretches. Dying connectedness defines Hartford’s downtown schools, businesses, parks, and arts institutions. Until the excessive number of parking lots is addressed, no attempt to connect and “knit together” the urban fabric is going to work quite right—it’s an adhesive bandage over a patchwork filled with holes. We absolutely must eliminate those holes to increase connection.

The model McCahill and Garrick urge the city and state to follow is that of The Travelers, which has successfully reduced auto dependency among its employees  compared to other employers, “without supportive regulation” of the government, the authors add, by adopting a couple of simple policies. The Travelers charges its employees for parking—between $70 and $125 per month—and allows carpools to park for free while also subsidizing public transit passes. The Travelers only provides enough parking space for half its employees.

As a result, only 71 percent of them drive alone to work, compared to 84 percent of Aetna, Inc.’s employees, who are also charged an undisclosed amount to park, but provides enough for 85 percent of them.

Of all the major employers surveyed that provide free and ample parking, between 83 and 95 percent of them drive alone to work: the Hartford Courant, Hartford Hospital, the City of Hartford, and (in my opinion the biggest offender) the State Department of Environmental Protection.

McCahill and Garrick argue that if all employees in Hartford imitated the pattern at The Travelers—71 percent driving alone, the rest using alternative means to get to work, including carpools—the city could reclaim 90 percent of the surface lots downtown, enough for 19,000 parked cars.

I urge the city and the state to lead the way by adopting a model where their employees are charged for parking. This would change more than the surface lots. It could free up space for construction to fill in the empty areas, which makes it increasingly more pleasant and practical to walk, bike, or use the bus. As the authors put it, “Hartford should build upon its urban fabric instead of dismantling it.”

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