It’s Time to Relinquish the Preciousness of the Parking Space
The Dockless Conundrum
From Charleston, SC to New York and San Francisco, cities are experiencing what can kindly be referred to as ‘growing pains‘ with the various forms of transit.
A lot of the angst currently centers around the ‘littering’ of dockless transit around communities. While some of the community is completely correct to point out our blindness to the same issue with trucks and other vehicles clogging up our pedestrian pathways, there are laws on the books in most cities that prevent illegal parking, even if they aren’t alway enforced.
At the same time, dockless infrastructure has a great potential to help make transportation easier for millions of those without access to a reliable automobile. However, to make this happen, we need to start dismantling the America’s continuous demand for parking at the front door.
I’ve been present for conversations about Downtowns in many cities, most of which are in the 10,000-50,000 population range. Just like their ‘big siblings’, the primary request heard is that everyone wants more parking, even when many of their parking lots are rarely at capacity, as they try to meet the demand of the 90% use case scenario.
Instead, I believe municipalities need to think more like librarians (or Steve Jobs if you prefer) and not just ask what they want (‘more parking’) but delve into the ‘why’ behind the request (“I don’t find being downtown a pleasant experience, so I want to get in and out of the one store I need as quickly as possible”). By making the downtown core more friendly for pedestrians, bicycles, ride sharing, buses, and even scooters we produce a desirable experience.
The first step to making downtown more desirable is to slow down the experience, and not just through speed limit changes. High speeds increase the unsafe feelings for pedestrians and other human-powered transportation. If you still have more than two lanes of traffic downtown, you can take advantage of that space to expand sidewalk space for outdoor eateries, or a center greenway. Narrowing of lanes also help drivers to psychologically be more engaged with their surroundings and be more engaged. Placement of planters and use of traffic tape can allow a city to cheaply and quickly experiment with different configurations before making them permanent.
Skip the Bike Lane
While this may seem counter-intuitive, studies have shown the safest streets are those where traffic is co-mingled, as it forces drives to be more engaged with the rest of their surroundings. Bike Lanes are very useful tools outside the downtown core, where you’re trying to make safe throughways alongside higher-speed auto corridor. In downtowns they just make one more obstacle that a pedestrian needs to navigate and decreases the bikers need for awareness.
Educate the Driver
I’m continually amazed how simple traffic calming and rule-reinforcement signage actually works. The common ‘Yield to pedestrian in crosswalk’ signs, couple with the ‘Your speed’ digital signage above speed limit signs work and need to be part of every downtown area. We’ve been living in a car-centered culture for 100 years now; you need to help drivers learn new habits.
‘Human Powered’ Parking
Placing Availability On-par with the Auto…
As dockless scooters and bikes proliferate, municipalities should plan for their usage and encourage them in addition to citizen-owned transportation. A regular parking space can easily handle 8-10 bikes and 30-50 scooters, greatly easing downtown parking needs. Cities need to provide places to park these items securely in a way that doesn’t impact the pedestrian walkways. Minneapolis is experimenting with carving out public spaces to address this. In small-to-midsized downtowns, the availability of parking already in place gives them the opportunity to showcase their availability by converting ‘Main Street’ sidewalk parking into ‘Human Powered’ parking spaces. By experimenting with converting one space every 1-2 blocks, bikes and scooters now have a convenient place to be stored and easily found.
…and expanding that capability City-Wide
The creation of similar parking spaces outside the parking-intensive downtown core is relatively easier to produce. By couple parking areas with public transportation stops, Cities have an opportunity to help address the ‘last-mile’ issues seen in many communities and make public transportation more effective.
…as well as Enforcement
With a safe space to park their vehicles, dockless vehicle parking can then also be enforced, helping communities avoid the issues seen in communities of scooters and bikes dropped in unattractive or hazardous locations. Cities can impound illegally parked vehicles and charge a $5 fee to release them. If the impound area is in walking distance to the downtown core, private vehicles can easily be recovered and driven back home at the end of the day. By sharing legal parking locations through GIS layers to dockless companies, riders can be warned that they may be charged a recovery fee if they leave a dockless vehicle outside a parking location and it is impounded, putting the onus on the user of the vehicle to park it correctly.
Implement Dockless Infrastructure Fees
Since dockless bikes and scooters are using the public space for storage and placement, and there is a public cost to provide for those spaces within a municipality, it makes sense that a per-vehicle annual fee be levied for each dockless vehicle to pay for the costs of maintaining and enforcing those spaces. Those vehicles properly registered could in turn would avoid an escalating fee for repeat-impoundments, allowing the city to have funding for creation of dockless parking while at the same time allowing dockless systems to reasonably control costs.
Coordinate Parking with Dockless
With a level of infrastructure in place, municipalities could more easily manage ‘parking events’ by coordinating with dockless companies to relieve congestion. Additional ‘person-powered’ parking could be reserved in the front row near downtown festivals. Streets connecting parking that’s further afield could be reserved for human-power use and additional dockless vehicles placed at that parking, transforming a perceived inconvenience into a pleasant experience.
With the advent of dockless vehicles, forward-thinking municipalities have an opportunity to proactively manage this opportunity and enhance the quality of life of the citizens while also making it an opportunity to enhance the commercial activity of their downtown core. Experimentation along with careful tweaks to existing business license and/or property tax legislation would allow a municipality to productively embrace the new dockless reality.
Also published on Medium.