The pandemic invites cities to rethink parking

Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, have been thinking about what to do with parking for almost a decade, says Ross Appel, city council member and land use lawyer. In January, council voted to use its emergency powers to eliminate minimum parking policies on its historic King Street for 60 days. The policy aims to help businesses rent vacant storefronts during an economic downtown.

“The minimum parking requirements are sometimes a very expensive, risky and complicated barrier to opening new businesses,” says Appel. In addition, policies link land use to cars. “It’s like a baked subsidy that perpetuates an automotive standard,” he says. Two companies accepted the city’s offer and the council discussed making the change permanent.

Breaking standards aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Historically, playing around with parking can make business owners nervous. In many cities, business owners have opposed parking changes, fearing that potential customers will stop to shop if they can’t park. But the pandemic has changed the way many make money and changed their opinion of how the curb is used.

“Businesses have turned into a pickup and drop-off, and kind of a hybrid between the internet and the physical,” says Vineet Gupta, director of planning in the Boston Department of Transportation. So the city has reserved spaces for pickup and drop-off, for food deliveries, ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft, and for merchandise deliveries from companies like Amazon. “Businesses understand that the way we think about our code has to change as well,” he says.

Adam Baru’s two restaurants, Mani Osteria and Isalita Cantina, operate in the same building in downtown Ann Arbor. Together they have access to up to eight parking spaces under the new city policy. Restaurants were using the places to eat out – they can seat almost 100 people – and to reserve space for those picking up take-out. Parking is usually expensive in the city center, but for now Baru credits the programs, along with the creativity of his team and a timely PPP loan, for the survival of his restaurants. “It’s not like we’re making a lot of money. But at least we were able to keep people working, ”he says.

Now that the initial pandemic panic has passed, cities are left with a pressing question: If the streets aren’t warehouses for private vehicles, what exactly are they for? who are they for? In Oakland, the city’s swift response to Covid allowed businesses to use parking spaces as parklets and freed up space on the street for recreation instead of cars. But the programs facing repression in the city’s Deep East neighborhood, home to a predominantly black population. Some felt they had not been consulted before the city changed its transportation systems and that the changes were part of a decades-old effort to expel black residents from the city.

The answer made sense to Warren Logan, the director of mobility policy in the mayor’s office in Oakland. “It’s not unreasonable that black people who have been pushed to the ends of town feel like every little thing is going to be the last drop that breaks the back of the camel,” he said. “It’s a historic traumatic response to systemic racism.” Now officials are reassessing.

Officials asked community members in East Oakland what they want and need from a transportation overhaul; community members insisted on greater road safety. The city will now spend $ 17 million in newly won grants on street design changes to slow down local traffic. Oakland officials have learned a lot about how to implement big changes quickly, Logan says. But the ideas have been the same since the start of the pandemic. “There is this idea that public parking is the paradigm for the use of public space,” he says. “And that’s crap.”

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