Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parking Wars in Downtown Missoula

Missoula's downtown faces many of the same problems that most downtowns in America face. One of those problems is dealing with parking. Our cities long term planning envisions big growth for our little city over the next 20 years, especially in our urban core (seen above) where a lot more people will not only come to shop and eat lunch, but also increasingly come to live. To deal with this growth and the subsequent need to accommodate more cars downtown, Missoula's Downtown Master Plan calls for the building of seven new publicly owned multi-story parking structures at the cost of tens of millions of dollars to tax payers and using up precious real estate for the storage of our communities vehicles.

Recently this issue came up in Missoula's city council and discussed further in a great local list serve updated by one of our council members to keep Missoula citizens informed. A possible update to Missoula's parking meter system erupted into the biggest debate I have yet to witness occur over the email list serve. Over 30 emails went back and forth detailing almost all points of view people have on parking downtown.

Friend and colleague Jordan Hess made some very succinct point about the absurdity of spending public money to subsidize parking downtown. Jordan had this too say:

There is no such thing as free parking. Ever. Even the parking at Walmart is highly
subsidized in the form of infrastructure improvements the the city has to foot the bill for (such
as the idea of adding a second left turn lane from Reserve to Mullan).

If parking in the urban core is free, than it will be taken up by people parking for a long period
of time, such as employees or area residents and it won't be available for customers of
downtown businesses or for folks stopping by government offices. There are many ways to
properly price downtown parking to make it hassle-free and affordable. If parking were free, I
believe it would actually be a strain on downtown businesses because less would be available
to their customers. It would certainly be a strain on city budgets.

Building new parking structures is far more expensive than providing premier transit. At
$50,000+ per space
(I've seen figures more in line with $15,000 - $30,000 per space),
parking structures are an extremely expensive way to get people downtown. It is absurd to
imply that Missoula can't have a good transit system because we are not a large city full of
wealthy people. There are solutions for our size of community.

I'm going to use the University (of Montana) as an example, because I am more familiar with
it than with downtown in terms of parking and transportation, but the two function similarly in
these regards. On campus, ASUM spends about $0.65 per ride provided on the Park and Ride.
While this may seem like a lot, in order to provide parking for the same amount of money, a
parking space would have to turn over more than 5 times a day, 365 days a year for 40 years
(a rather generous lifespan for a parking garage). This doesn't take into account the cost of
maintaining the garage (about $1,000 per space per year).

Consider this: paying for one person to NOT use a parking space is the exact same thing as
building one new parking space. If by providing better bus service, I opt not to use an
on-campus parking space, it is functionally identical to the university building one additional
parking space, but the difference is that it cost the university a fraction of the cost.

We need to use this model downtown. Do not build any additional parking. Instead, spend this
money on increasing transit into downtown. This WILL free up parking used by people who
find the current level of transit service to be inconvenient. This newly available parking can be
used by folks who cannot or simply choose not to ride transit.

I couldn't agree more. Providing alternatives to driving and parking is a much more cost effective way to use a communities limited resources. Missoula's zoning regulations allow for business to replace one parking spot with 8 bike parking spots. Even if you figure that surface parking costs between $5,000 - $10,000 per spot then exchanging one parking space for 8 is a great value. Not only does a developer save money, but the city saves from reduced impacts on city streets from encouraging people to ride bicycles, and everyone wins when congestion is reduced. Eight bicycle parking spots would probably cost between $500 - $800 while an equivalent number of surface parking spots for vehicles would cost at least $40,000. Big difference.

Planners and urban design theorists are starting to come around to the idea that "if you build it, they will come." One commenter on the list serve said
so long as personal vehicles remain the preferred and affordable means for people to go to and from Downtown, it is necessary to accommodate vehicles. This is the standard argument used for everything from road expansion to our current federal transportation spending.

If you build a large 6 lane expressway, it will encourage people to drive and if you design cities to sprawl and build large box stores with large parking lots then people will largely be forced to drive. Building more roads will not reduce traffic and building more parking spaces will not reduce parking problems, but in fact induce people to drive and use those extra spaces. This situation is called the Jevons Paradox in which gains in efficiency actually encourages more consumption. Homes built today are more energy efficient than those built 40 years ago, but they are also so much bigger to the point that the average house uses more energy than 40 years ago.

This works just as well in reverse. If you reduce road capacities, congestion is actually reduced as people find better and easier ways to get around that doesn't require driving. At the same time, if bicycle infrastructure is invested in and mass transit increased this will induce demand for these services as it becomes more convenient. Not only does a community spend less money to accommodate locally focused transportation but it frees up real estate when fewer roads need to be expanded and fewer parking structures built. This extra real estate can be invested in, creating wealth and jobs in the local community rather than creating a larger tax bill for city residents.

Fewer roads and parking spaces and more transit, bicycle infrastructure, and buildable real estate = lower tax payer costs, more wealth, more investment, more jobs, and a more vibrant, resilient, and livable community.


Alex B. said...

I'm not familiar with Missoula, but it often is a good thing for non-motorized street users for a city to have plenty of off-street parking so there is no longer an argument to take up all the road space with on-street parking. It would be insane not to charge for it though.

Anonymous said...

You should import Dr. Donald Shoup to Missoula to talk about this very problem. He is THE guru of parking in the U.S., and proposes that parking be managed by price LONG BEFORE massive amounts of public money are spent on additional parking spaces. His ideas have been successful in a number of places, including Pasadena, Redwood City, Berkley and San Francisco in CA alone.

His website is

BTW, if they really want to build nearly another 8,000 spaces as mentioned in the Downtown Plan, that "investment" is sufficient to build an electric railroad from downtown Missoula all the way to Hamilton, including a short 1/4 mile tunnel spur into UM.

Larry Hogue said...

The two years I spent in Missoula in the mid 90s were some of the happiest and most car-free of my life. I thought the transit system was great. If there's any city that could support truly smart growth without a huge increase in driving, parking, traffic jams, etc., I think Missoula would be it. Unlike the clusterbleep of suburban cul de sacs we have here in San Diego, or even the mess that was going on down in the Bitterroot Valley when I was in Montana.

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