As in other parts of the country, Connecticut towns and cities are struggling to revitalize their downtowns. Some of the planning and design decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s make this goal more difficult. One such decision is the elimination of street parking from many of our town centers.
Although this practice of not accommodating street parking is now routine, there has been little research done to assess its impact on urban centers. However, a growing number of urban planners have pointed out that centers that have retained street parking, along with other compatible features of pre-1950s town centers, are some of the most successful downtowns in the country.
In order to address this dichotomy between conventional practice and emerging urban theory, we at the University of Connecticut designed two studies of on-street parking and its impact on downtowns. One was based upon case studies of six New England town centers (West Hartford; Northampton, Mass.; Brattleboro, Vt.; Avon Center; Glastonbury Center and Somerset Square in Glastonbury). In the second study, we investigated how street design affected vehicle speeds and safety, based on a study of more than 250 Connecticut roads.
What we found through these studies was that on-street parking plays a crucial role in benefiting activity centers on numerous levels. Here are some of the main benefits.
• Higher efficiency: Users of the downtowns consistently selected on-street parking spaces over off-street surface lots and garage parking. The on-street spaces experienced the most use and the highest turnover.
• Better land use: Using the curbside for parking saves considerable amounts of land from life as an off-street surface parking lot. Medium-sized town centers can save an average of more than two acres of land by providing street parking. This efficiency can allow for much higher-density commercial development than is possible if the center relies solely on off-street surface lots.
• Increased safety: We showed conclusively that drivers tended to travel at significantly slower speeds in the presence of features such as on-street parking and small building setbacks. Slower vehicle speeds provide pedestrians, cyclists and drivers more time to react, and when a crash does occur, the chance of it being life-threatening is greatly reduced. In short, on-street parking can help to create a safer environment.
• Better pedestrian environment: Our study results showed that centers with on-street parking and other compatible characteristics such as generous sidewalks, mixed land uses, and higher densities recorded more than five times the number of pedestrians walking in these areas compared with the control sites, which lack these traits.
Nearly every town in the state has the street space available that could be used for on-street parking. Town leaders should consider it. Our results suggest that on-street parking is a tool that can help create a vibrant and safe town center environment.
Norman W. Garrick is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Transportation and Urban Planning at the University of Connecticut. Wesley Marshall is a doctoral candidate in transportation engineering and urban planning at UConn.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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