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We think each day about parking our cars.  We assume there will be ample parking where we are going, but how often have you worried about actually finding parking?  There is the frustration of driving up and down streets or around parking lots to find a spot.  There may be the cost of paying at a parking meter or in a parking lot/garage.  There is anger when someone cuts in front of us to steal a spot.  How often have you seen people illegally use a handicapped parking spot or create their own space when there is no other place to park? 

Wherever we go, our towns are built with cars in mind: streets, driveways, signs, and parking.  In fact, the presence or lack of parking can be a major factor that either promotes or hinders the local economies of the businesses, jobs, and tourism of any city or region, even here in the Quiet Corner. Parking needs a place in our towns because the use of our cars is so commonplace in our communities.  None of us walks instead of drives all of the time (although my wife would be happy to see me get such daily exercise!). 

Your planning and zoning commissions think about parking not just because it is a type of land use activity, but also because it is integral to planning for the overall growth and development of our towns and local economies. 

Sounds simple?  Not really. 

Before establishing parking regulations and guidelines, municipal governments should look at parking supply and demand from the “macro” (entire town) and the “micro” (individual streets and buildings) perspectives.  A survey can determine how much public and private parking exists and whether it is adequate, accessible, and affordable to meet current and projected future use.  A survey also can assess how parking is used.  Customers look for short-term parking where stores and services are located, but employees look for long-term parking where their employers are located. 

An important factor is when parking is used.  It is often times designed large enough to accommodate the highest peak parking volume.  But, when is the peak need for parking?  For office buildings, it is during the day for employees and customers.  It could be the evening for restaurants.  For stores, which create the largest parking lots, it may be during certain times of the year, such as the Thanksgiving Day through New Year’s Day shopping period.  Having large capacity parking for such infrequent peak use leaves a lot of unused space throughout the year.  This unused space causes unnecessary land development and excess paved surfaces that contribute to stormwater runoff and pollution.   

Where parking is located is another key concern.  On-street parking provides limited spaces and can lead to traffic congestion.  Off-street parking lots and garages provide more spots, but need to be located near where people want to go.  Commonly, stores and offices have their own parking lots.  We are familiar with seeing them in front of or next to buildings.  By moving such parking (and even drive-thrus) to the rear of a building where it is not readily seen or to the side where landscaping can soften its hardscape, allows the functionality of parking to be guided better into the rural character of a street or neighborhood.  If parking can be shared among nearby businesses, then less excess parking needs to be built for any individual building since all can share in the parking, peak or off-peak times.  This also allows for common driveways to the parking lots, lessening the need for multiple access points on the streets, which can contribute to traffic congestion. 

When planning and zoning for parking, additional design details include the size of each individual parking spot; the number of handicap-accessible spaces; the flow of traffic in the lot; landscaping (both functional to incorporate low impact development [see my September 30th article] and aesthetic to improve the visual appeal from the street and to serve as buffering for neighbors); lighting (how much will the ground versus the night time sky be lit up); and pedestrian access and safety within the lot and on the sidewalks in all types of weather that occur in New England. 

Municipal government itself is a provider of parking when it allows parking on streets or builds lots in business areas.  It also is a player in the demand for parking by what it offers (or is able to offer) regarding public transportation (an important concept in cities and large suburbs).  How such parking and pubic transportation are paid for is a topic all unto itself. 

When a municipality sets out to write its parking regulations (or update them on a continuous basis to better the regulations relevant with what is happening or may happen in a community), all of the above items are fundamental.  What needs to happen concurrently is a reminder of what are the goals of parking regulations.  Such goals may not be the same from place to place, just as various towns and cities are different from each other.  Knowing why zoning regulations are being created is a necessity if any regulation is to make common sense and to have a practical, durable end result.  For parking, regulations serve a community by matching the availability of parking with the needs for parking; by minimizing how much land is used to create it; by designing it in a way that maintains public safety, decreases traffic congestion, and lessens stormwater runoff; and enhances our towns’ local economies and our own daily activities and travels to and from work, stores, services, etc… 

So, something as apparently mundane as parking is a complex, dynamic challenge faced by planning and zoning commissions in your town.  The next time you are driving, take a look around at the parking venues.  You may be surprised as to what you see now that you know more about it.

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