Early in my time working in downtown Richmond, I got a ticket for parking my car in the garage with expired plates.
I’d been a little too busy starting a business and had neglected the renewal, so I came downtown the next day to the BMV branch located there to get new plates. I parked in the garage, and while I was in the BMV a few minutes later, I got a second ticket for parking with expired plates. Yeah. It was an expensive lesson in attention to such matters, but as someone otherwise trying to do the right thing and paying to park there, it also left me with a not so warm and fuzzy feeling about downtown parking.
Another time soon after I got a ticket for parking in the wrong part of the garage. Apparently the idea at the time was that some lower parts of the garage were free to park in for several hours, and upper parts were for people who worked downtown and parked all day. I called the City about this, noting that there wasn’t any info about this on/with the parking passes I bought, nor signage for vehicles pulling in to the garage that would have helped anyone avoid this infraction.
The person who answered the phone’s response was that the info was in the City’s municipal code, so if I’d just been more familiar with that document, I wouldn’t have gotten the ticket. Seriously! I’m not quite sure how she said that without laughing. (I pushed back on this line of thinking and they dropped the ticket, but signage still didn’t improve for many years after.)
Indeed, the question “what to do about parking downtown?” has been floating around as long as I’ve been in Richmond. It’s probably one that floats around most any place that is trying to grow by attracting people to spend time and money in some relatively dense urban area.
My experiences above were clearly from an “overly aggressive enforcement” period. The current concern is that there’s not enough enforcement. I suspect there’s no perfect balance of enforcement and convenience, and that someone will always feel like the parking situation isn’t going well.
The question of parking also relates to our world-views about planning and transportation.
If you believe that all urban planning should be 100% optimized for the most convenient human experience and that requires minimal physical exertion after leaving our personal vehicles, then you will probably always be frustrated if there’s not a free, empty parking spot right in front of your destination.
If you believe that humans have largely littered the planet and its environment with vehicles, roads and other transportation infrastructure and that we should pursue new opportunities to reduce that harm through mass transit, walkable/bike-able urban centers, and overall minimizing the number of times one person gets in a car by themselves to drive from point A to B, then you’re probably fine with parking quite a ways away from your final destination most of the time, or not driving at all.
And maybe if you believe something in between those views, you think there’s a balance to be found as we think about convenience, cost, environmental impact, good use of space, driver education, and long-term planning needs.
Maybe life in a relatively small town has trained most of us to think we deserve a simpler, more laid back approach to parking than we find elsewhere: always free, always easy. But this thinking can be taken to a costly extreme.
If we demand absolute convenience above all else, we end up with streetscapes dominated by cars, unfriendly to the people we want to wander in and out of our shopping and eating establishments. We spend precious taxpayer dollars on parking enforcement and infrastructure that subsidize automobile use above all other forms of transportation. We end up with a landscape covered with large, empty parking lots at bankrupt malls and abandoned big box stores. Sometimes we stop bothering to put sidewalks in. The search for a car parking paradise is an arms race, and the only people who win are parking meter manufacturers.
So what should we do about parking in Richmond? We already spent a bunch of time and money on a comprehensive plan that gives us some answers to that, and we need to implement them (with appropriate updates to incorporate more recent “complete streets” efforts). It says we need more spaces, yes, but that we have to be very careful how we add them. A few highlights from the Downtown section:
- “it should not detract from the intrinsic qualities, like a pedestrian-friendly environment and a unique sense of place. Parking should be viewed as a supportive tool to help make downtown attractions easier to access.”
- “create additional parking facilities in the Downtown area…It is crucial that all new parking facilities be designed and located so that they do not adversely impact Richmond’s traditional downtown character”
- “The City and owners of the few significant private parking lots in the Downtown should improve the efficiency of existing parking areas in order to optimize the use of the offstreet parking that exists at present”
- “small, well-designed lots will actually make Richmond more pedestrian-friendly by improving the quality of the walking environment”
- “off-street parking lots and structures should not be located on major downtown commercial streets, in the middle of clusters of storefronts, at peak land value intersections, or along primary pedestrian corridors. These locations disrupt continuous pedestrian flow, decreasing the potential volume of pedestrians passing in front of businesses. Moreover, they can reduce densities and render the downtown less walkable”
Again, I’m not sure we’re ever going to find the perfect parking situation. But most places we think of as desirable destinations aren’t known for their great parking experiences. When I have a good trip to a place like downtown Chicago, it’s not the parking part that will stand out as the most fun or easy. We jump through those hoops because the overall experience is worth it.
We should fix the parking situation as much as we can with existing resources. We should educate people who might be abusing the current system, and hold them accountable if they don’t respond. But we should focus most of our efforts on making a visit to downtown Richmond worth it enough that people will choose a bit of parking inconvenience to have the overall experience.