MML #1: We Need More Parking! But do we Really?

MML #1: We Need More Parking! But do we Really?

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 1, 2018)

Grand Rapids, MI- Does our downtown need more parking? That’s a question that brought dozens of administrators and elected officials to a presentation on this hot topic at the recent Michigan Municipal League Annual Convention in Grand Rapids.

Oftentimes people, particularly business owners in bustling suburban downtowns, think the answer is yes.

But in reality, about 90% of the time the answer is actually no.

Tom Brown of Nelson/Nygaard and Bradley Strader of MKSK joined Traverse City Downtown Development Authority Manager Nicole VanNess to share their experiences working with communities to access parking needs and come up with solutions that address not only parking problems, but perception problems.

“Parking is really emotional,” VanNess said.  “People are really passionate about this topic.”

There are misconceptions that business owners and guests have.  Changing those can go a long way towards a better parking system.

But there is a key point to be made.  “Don’t blame people for their perceptions,” Brown said.  “When we say people won’t walk more than a block, it’s not their fault – it’s yours.  It’s your downtown, your environment.”

Changes discussed involve city leaders, residents and business owners working together for the greater good of the community.


No matter the city or type of business, proprietors often site lack of parking as a reason for slow sales. Strander showed a slide with a list of reasons why businesses fail, including e-commerce, prices, competition, poor service, poor selection and poor management.  “But if you ask them, it’s the parking,” he said.

While it may not be easy to get business owners to look at their individual challenges, it can be an opportunity to get them involved in making the parking system better.

The biggest area where businesses can make difference is committing not to parking in the prime spaces, and instructing employees not to as well.

Strander talked about ways to conduct parking studies, and one method is particularly good at determining if those spots are available for customers, or if they are being monopolized. By tracking the license plates in spots at various times of the day, over several days, it becomes clear who the shoppers and diners are compared to the owners and employees.

He said that in meetings business owners will swear they are not parking in the prime spaces, but then when the data from the studies is presented, they admit it.  Presenting this data in a way that demonstrates the problem and shows how it impacts businesses can be a good way to encourage behavior to change.

There are other ways to help reduce prime space parking by employees.  If a system has paid parking, the further away lots should be less expensive.  Employees can purchase, or be given, a pass to use in the further lots.

In Traverse City, the DDA is encouraging employees to use public transit by providing free bus passes.  245 employees signed up and there are approximately 60 bus trips each week which mean less vehicles taking up space in the downtown area.  They use DDA funds to cover the cost, which VanNess said is worth it because of the benefit those extra spaces provide.


In Chicago people will comfortably walk ten block to get from their car to their destination.  In Memphis the norm is 2-3 blocks.  But in the Metro Detroit Area, people don’t want to walk further than one block.

Simply telling people they should walk more may not get the best response, but making the area more welcoming for pedestrians can encourage it.

One example given was the fact that people will walk longer distances in big box store or mall parking lots.  That’s because there is a clear line of sight between them and their destination. If there are obstacles – visual, physical or perceived – it can make people feel less at ease with their walk.

They’ll also walk longer distances inside a mall because they are comfortable, they feel safe, and there is plenty to keep their eyes busy. They are so comfortable they don’t think about how far they are walking.

One way the consultants demonstrate the issue of distance is to overlay a map of a downtown with a map of a shopping center.  People often don’t realize how far they are walking, and this can be a powerful tool to help change public perception.

Creating the right kind of atmosphere for walking is essential.  This includes logistical aspects such as safe crosswalks and curbs, adequate lighting, as well as keeping walkways clear of snow and clutter.  But it also includes making the environment welcoming and interesting.


Encouraging people to travel by bicycle instead of car can make a difference.

For Traverse City investing in bicycle culture and infrastructure has been worthwhile.  “If 10% of people are interested in doing something different, it can make a difference,” VanNess said.  “What are the barriers to change?”

Bike racks help, but covered bike corrals are even better because people can feel sheltered and there is a perception that their bike is safer.  Fix it stations which include an air pump and basic tools can also help bicyclists feel welcome.

Promoting bicycling as a healthy activity and a way to avoid parking hassles is also effective. Some communities have bike share programs, and electric scooters also seem to be an incoming trend.

There can also be contests, promotions and events that encourage riding.  Community rides and Bike Rodeos are good warm-weather events. But prolonging the bicycling season by encouraging it in early spring, late fall, and even winter can also have an impact on parking needs.  In Traverse City a “Coldest Day” ride brings dozens of riders together donning hats, scarves and gloves to peddle through the downtown.


Bus passes are not just a great idea for employees, but for residents who come downtown as well.  Traverse City conducted a campaign to promote transit with a series of posters and social media posts.  Text on Your Trip.  Read on Your Ride.  Work on Your Way.  These slogans got people thinking about the benefit of letting the bus drivers do the driving.


One of the things that can cause the perception of a parking problem is congestion at the curbsides.  Communities with parking problems need to consider how their curbsides are being used.  Is on-street parking really the best use of space?  In some cases, it is.  But other possibilities include bike lanes and bike parking, covered transit shelters, loading and unloading areas, curbside pick-up services for customers of certain types of businesses, ride share services like Lyft and Uber, or valet.

For some communities having a free valet reduced the perception of a parking problem by reducing the number of cars circling around looking for prime spaces. 


An increasing number of cities use apps and signage to let visitors know where parking is available.  In Birmingham, for example, there is an app and signage that let drivers know how many spots are available in each parking deck.

Coordinating with the operators of privately owned lots can also help make sure that information is shared with the public in the most effective way possible.


The price of parking, and the publicizing of those price differences, is a great way to manage parking systems and turnover of spaces.  Prime parking spots should have limited hours and higher prices, while the less desirable lots should cost less.

Signage should also let visitors know where to find parking, and if there are less expensive lots available.

While those might seem like basic principles, a surprising number of communities don’t follow them, the consultants said.


It isn’t exactly clear how future technology and transit will impact the need for parking, but in general it is likely to decline.  Autonomous vehicles, ride share, scooters, and more investment in transit are coming.  “Uncertainty about the future is causing developers and public agencies to be less willing to fund new parking structures,” Strader said.  In some communities, there is a need.   Cities like Royal Oak, Birmingham, and Ferndale have been growing in usage and density and have done parking studies that show a definite need. In circumstances like those, many are looking at creating mixed-use developments so that downtowns can gain office, residential and retail spaces along with the parking use in the limited space they have. 

But in many communities, evaluating the parking and making the changes discussed in the presentation can have enough of an impact that businesses, employees and guests can feel more comfortable with parking and walking without having to make major infrastructure investments.

Some suggested resources:

ITE Parking Generation

The Dimension of Parking, Urban Land Institute

This article is a series based on presentations from the Michigan Municipal League (MML)/ Michigan Association of Planning Annual Convention held in Grand Rapids, MI Sept. 20-22, 2018.  For more MML-related stories click here.  For more on the Michigan Municipal League, visit their website

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