A version of the following piece was originally published in the Triangle-based Indy in response to an article about the downtown Durham parking “crisis”. The article mentions that the city of Durham will soon begin charging for on-street parking and that local leaders are debating whether to use two county-owned downtown parcels for parking or affordable housing.
The assumption that plenty of parking should be easily available to all who wish to park downtown is deeply flawed.The fact that there is more demand for parking than spaces is an indicator of a healthy downtown and a downtown with employment and desirable destinations. Most large and thriving cities do not come close to meeting the demand for parking, and many have stopped trying with good reason.
More driving, more traffic, and more car-oriented development are the result of free and/or cheap parking. These effects bring negative social, health, and environmental impacts. If parking is easy and readily available, people will choose to drive individually to work or to eat or shop. If a city wants to encourage the use of public transportation, walking, biking, and carpooling, there is no better way than restricting the overall number of parking spaces or charging for access to those spaces. Doing so encourages people to make healthier and more environmentally-friendly travel choices such as biking or taking transit.
Attempting to meet the ever-growing demand for parking leads cities to cede valuable downtown real estate to one of the least productive uses of land: parking. Parking decks and parking lots require large amounts of space and are generally dead zones in the urban landscape. Whether it’s a surface lot or parking decks, these features kill the pedestrian vitality of an urban space. People tend to find walking by a parking lot or a massive parking deck unpleasant, and parking creates areas that people generally avoid at night. Ultimately, placing a priority on parking prioritizes space in the city for cars over space in the city for people and precludes the use of those spaces for other more economically or socially beneficial uses that could enhance the city’s vitality.
Ultimately, placing a priority on parking prioritizes space in the city for cars over space in the city for people and precludes the use of those spaces for other more economically or socially beneficial uses that could enhance the city’s vitality.
Durham has a far greater need for transit improvements, bike lanes, sidewalks, and affordable housing than for additional parking. Many bus stops in Durham have no bus shelter, no sidewalks, and no safe places to cross the street. I have seen unfortunate bus riders who presumably have no other choice, standing by a sign along a highway with no sidewalks on a muddy patch of ground in the rain waiting on the bus. I have seen pregnant women with small children hurrying across multiple lanes of traffic from a bus stop where there is no safe place for them to cross. Or consider the state of Durham’s streets for cyclists or pedestrians. Many of our streets are dangerous spaces for the people who, whether out of choice or out of necessity, are making the most socially and environmentally responsible choices on how to travel. For every worker who feels entitled to a parking space downtown, there is somebody who is deserving of the dignity of having a proper bus shelter, or a cyclist who deserves the safety of a bike lane, or a walker who deserves quality sidewalks and safe crossings.
Let’s also not forget that just a few decades ago, Durham destroyed much of its urban form by constructing highways through the heart of the city in the name of convenience for automobile users, decimating and dividing communities of color and contributing to the city’s precipitous decline. Urban renewal highway projects like the Downtown Loop are now widely accepted as major planning blunders and the tragedy that befell the Hayti neighborhood when the Durham Freeway was built on top of it is infamous. Let’s not repeat these mistakes by putting cars before people once again.
Let’s not repeat these mistakes by putting cars before people once again.
I understand that with the growth of both population and businesses in downtown Durham there will be a desire for greater access to parking. This is particularly understandable when quality alternatives to driving are often unavailable. If the city of Durham is serious about being a great city, it must invest in transit, it must invest in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and it must invest in affordable housing. Quite simply, the progressive and thriving cities of the future are not prioritizing parking; instead, they’re investing in transit and in pedestrian and bicycle improvements, all of which are measures that the city of Durham should take more seriously.
William Moose is a graduate of the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC, Class of 2016. His specialization was transportation and he is currently working at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. When not railing against parking, he enjoys playing the guitar, listening to music, studying languages, traveling, and cooking.