Parking fewer cars is a key to Portland’s future

Photo: Mark Barnette

Research shows stretches of off-street surface parking deaden most critical elements of city vitality. Photo: Mark Barnette

If someone were to tell you that the future of Portland is tied to its willingness to restrict car storage downtown, would you believe her?

You should.

She’d be right.

Portland’s ability to grow its population and its tax base, the way the city will be redeveloped, the vibrancy of its street life, the number of new jobs and—especially—how much those new jobs will pay will all depend on what the city does about parking.

Why? The explanation begins with a look at how much area car parks take up now.

Is the heart of downtown Portland--the Civic Center is shown in light pink--fully developed? Or seriously underdeveloped?

Is the heart of downtown Portland–the Civic Center is shown in light pink–fully developed? Or seriously underdeveloped?

You may be among those who think that Portland’s peninsula—the city’s downtown—is fully developed, that it offers little opportunity for the city to grow in either population or tax base.

 Think again.

Off street parking occupies roughly 200 acres on the peninsula alone. That’s a lot. In absolute terms it’s 1/3 of a square mile.

Here's the same downtown area with surface parking shown in red. These areas could provide numerous jobs and apartments. Parking garages are outlined in black.

Here’s the same downtown area with surface parking shown in red. If developed, these areas could provide numerous jobs and apartments. (Parking garages are outlined in black.)

It’s hidden in plain sight. Look down Marginal Way. Look toward the harbor from Spring Street. Or look at an aerial map of the Peninsula.

In relative terms, the asphalt acreage Portland devotes to parking is much greater than many other cities. The other Portland, in Oregon, with more than eight times our population has less than half our area –less than 100 acres—devoted to parking lots.

The scaled black square shows the city area devoted to offstreet parking superimposed on a two-mile width of downtown.

The scaled black square shows the city area devoted to offstreet parking superimposed on a two-mile width of downtown.

Portland, Oregon, with more than 8 times our population devotes about half our area to offstreet parking, due in large part to fine-grained networks of rapid transit.

Portland, Oregon, with more than 8 times our population devotes about half our area to offstreet parking, due in large part to fine-grained networks of rapid transit.

Even that area is huge compared to well integrated European cities. Stockholm, with nearly 1 million people, has a tiny area –eight acres—devoted to offstreet parking.

Meanwhile, Stockholm with more than 800,000 people has dedicated only 8 acres to offstreet parking. (Graphics by Jake Owen and  Zack Barowitz)

Meanwhile, Stockholm with more than 800,000 people has dedicated only 8 acres to offstreet parking. (Graphics by Jake Owen and Zack Barowitz)

What does all that area for parking cost our city?

The costs are numerous, some obvious, some hidden, but almost all undermine a livable city. Here’s a partial list. Offstreet parking prompts:

  • Loss of much needed tax revenue compared with developed land.
  • Horizontal sprawl or taller, more costly buildings.
  • Overuse of cars and underuse of transit.
  • Dead spots in center city.
  • Fewer new jobs in the city, and, perhaps most surprising,
  • Significantly lower average salaries.

These several significant, avoidable negative impacts on city life and city residents are either obvious, well documented, or both. In coming posts we will discuss them all.

For now, a new reality is setting in for cities and cars: both are at watershed moments in their development or devolution, and they are related. In general, cities are on the way up, cars on the way down.

Cities are increasingly popular. For the first time in human history more than 50 per cent of all men, women and children are living in cities, and that percentage is growing. More than 70 percent of the planet’s population is expected to live in cities within 35 years.

But individual cities are also becoming expendable. While living in cities is becoming more desirable in general, living in any particular city is optional. People have choices, and vote with their feet. Consider Detroit.

The factors that cause cities to attract new residents are well known, and they do not center on automobile accessibility, but on its opposite: pedestrian friendliness. People in cars buy little besides hamburgers and milkshakes and interact silently and occasionally ragefully. People on foot buy everything, and interact with each other verbally and courteously and attract more people onto city streets and plazas while doing so.

Car ownership and car use are on the decline, nationally in the US, regionally in Maine, and locally in Portland and its suburbs. The decline is greatest in the 25 to 34 year old age group, so we can expect a future increasingly less car dependent.

As car use declines, cities are refashioning themselves to take advantage of the new reality that people want to live in attractive downtowns.

London has shown how to transform a formerly congested, unpleasant downtown into a mecca for bikers and walkers.

London has shown how to transform a formerly congested, unpleasant downtown into a mecca for bikers and walkers.

Consider London.

In less than a decade it has instituted a congestion fee for driving private cares in the central core, built a network of bike lanes on travel lanes no longer gridlocked with cars, and put out 8000 rental bikes in 600 stations two blocks apart across the city.

The result? It’s as though everyone in downtown London is on foot, on bike, in the Tube or in a bus. Walking down a tree-lined Southampton Row is like walking in a park. It’s so quiet!

The transition from car-dependent to pedestrian-focused downtowns rarely lacks friction. You can hear the disagreements at almost any meeting in Portland focused on a new building or a street redesign. A building filling a former parking lot either has either a floor or more of parking spaces (“Who’s paying the $30,000 per stall to build them?”) or has fewer car spots (“Where are we going to park after it’s built?”)

Parking lots, often relatively empty, tend to cost cities their futures, including Portland's.

Parking lots, empty or full, stymy the economic development of city centers, including Portland’s.

Studies showing that cars hinder downtown economies unfortunately are still less than fully believed. Suburbanites continue to demand their office side or in-building parking stall, for a nickel or a nothing. But the results are in, the research is all but indisputable.

Still, the fight over cars vs. livability and cars vs. more, better paying jobs will continue to play out day to day, month to month in Portland.

But for the sake of the city, its future residents and its future good jobs, the changes must come, and they must focus on reducing the prime development acreage downtown given over to vacant lots for dead car storage.

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