Parading Cars, Parking, Pedestrians, and Public Space

State Street Garage, One Thousand Four Hundred and Ninety Seven Spaces Waiting for You
Walnut Street Garage Construction, Knoxville, Winter 2015

In the very early days of this website, I wrote an article on parking. I can’t remember the specific issue or the stance I assumed, but I do remember a conversation with then Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett. He smiled knowingly, wished me good luck, and assured me the topic would never be exhausted. He knew what he was talking about, of course. Speaking ill of our country’s beloved automobiles remains a perilous enterprise a decade or more after that conversation.

So, let’s go at it, again.

There are about 2,000,000,000 (that’s billion for those counting zeros) parking spaces in the U.S., or about enough to cover the entire state of Connecticut. Many parking lots are larger than the buildings they serve, and they were often required as a part of the permit for the building. This force drives the suburbanization of the U.S., with segregated office buildings, strip malls and stores each presiding over their generally unshared parking fiefdoms.

The consequences of this choice in our country spirals out in numerous directions. Concerned about traffic congestion? Making driving a car the easiest, most convenient mode of transportation results in more people taking that choice over public transit, ridesharing, or car-pooling. We get more congestion. More pollution. More heat islands emanating from parking lots and garages. More carbon emissions.

And less housing — affordable or otherwise. Housing occupies a major space in our national and local conversation. We don’t have enough at every level. The result is rapidly escalating prices leaving many people unable to comfortably afford a home. While the causes for the housing crisis remain numerous, requirements for parking lots and spaces contribute to the issue in a major way. Every project with required parking must divide the cost for parking, including the land and construction, between each of the residents, whether they own a car or not. If instead that land was used to build more units, costs for purchase or rent would drop.

Of course, with more cars in congested downtown areas, also comes other issues. Noise is a major issue in downtown Knoxville, with booming sound systems and unmuffled cars making Gay Street a very unpleasant cruising zone some nights. And then there is the danger to pedestrians. I routinely see cars move straight through stop signs and red lights or making turns, seemingly unaware that pedestrians have the right-of-way. Distraction is the more likely culprit than intentional disregard of traffic laws, but the behavior is just as potentially deadly no matter the cause.

2020s Downtown Knoxville Density with Buildings, Parking Garages, Parking Lots, New Buildings (since 2014) and Proposed Buildings

Yet, with an ocean of parking pocking cityscapes, including our own, the perception persists that parking is difficult to find and there simply isn’t enough. Why is that? In a recent article, Slate posited a few possible explanations. They noted that:

A study of 27 mixed-use U.S. neighborhoods concluded that parking was, at peak times, oversupplied by 65 percent. Among neighborhoods with self-proclaimed “parking shortages,” the oversupply was still 45 percent.

One possible explanation for why we think a parking shortage exists where there is none, they suggest, is that we quickly forget the easy parking experiences, but the memory of not finding a space or of getting a ticket lingers. Also, the frustration that many trips to downtown using GPS bring us to a location, but not necessarily parking for the location, leaving us with an unpleasant, perhaps confusing, end to the trip. They conclude:

Perhaps both these frustrations can be folded into a bigger idea, which is simply that we have absurdly high expectations for parking. We expect it to be very convenient, immediately available, and free. It would be unimaginable to hold any other good or service to this standard.

That last point is one many in our area don’t want to hear: Free parking is a problem, not a wonderful amenity. Building parking spaces and garages is extremely expensive. Giving away parking in a place like downtown Knoxville when very few people were interested in visiting may have been a good idea ten years ago, but its time has passed. Name a city where parking is free in their downtown area and you are probably naming a place with little appeal to visitors. From Slate:

The consequences of this curious situation—parking, parking, everywhere, but not a spot for me—have been disastrous for American cities. More parking encourages more driving, by incentivizing car ownership, pushing locations farther apart, and impairing the creation of safe, efficient infrastructure for transit, bikes, and pedestrians. So, adding parking supply doesn’t necessarily make it easier to park, especially when that parking remains free, divided between uses, and hard to find. Until you build so much parking that there’s no longer anything worth driving to.

Parking Lot at the Corner of Summit Hill and South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2019 (Now being converted to a building.)

So, what to do? How do we provide enough parking, or if the parking is adequate, educate the public to its location and availability? How do we make our downtown safer for pedestrians as larger and larger crowds continue to arrive to stay in hotels, eat out, attend concerts, and generally enjoy the parts of downtown not covered in parking lots and garages?

Cities are trying several things. New York has finally, after literally decades of discussion, gotten approval for a congestion pricing plan that they hope to implement next year to regulate the levels of traffic in Manhattan south of 60th Street. A recent New York Times article on the topic included several interesting points. First, it’s helped in cities like London and Singapore, seeing “benefits like the opportunity to speed traffic, clean the air and raise money for mass transit . . .”

Part of what is fueling the conversation in New York and other cities is the increasing question of who owns the streets. “The public right of way can occupy as much as one-third of the land in big U.S. cities, and various residents have begun to ask if there might be better things to do with all that territory than moving and storing cars. In New York City, where space is at a particular premium, the possibilities of reusing street space have fueled recent policy debates over outdoor dining, bus lanes, trash pickup, public space and street vendors.”

A few cities, including New York City, are learning that they can close spaces to traffic or remove parking from streets. If you visited Times Square before it became pedestrian-only and after, you can see the impact. Atlanta has reclaimed a large swath of downtown roadway for “a 12-foot-wide, two-way protected bike lane right through downtown. Cincinnati used Covid recovery money to close streets and help scores of businesses open outdoor dining patios. San Francisco held a citywide vote to close Golden Gate Park’s main road to cars. And Washington, D.C., is preparing to redesign one of the country’s most iconic thoroughfares, the eight-lane Pennsylvania Avenue, with more trees, wider sidewalks and potentially no private car traffic at all.”

Our own city has made significant moves in recent years to alleviate any shortage of parking and even the perception of a shortage. In 2013, a pedestrian bridge was added from State Street Garage to Gay Street and a level was added in 2013, providing an additional 260 spaces at a total cost of $6.1 million. Two more floors and $9 million in 2018 added another 560 spaces. The garage, which held about 700 cars in 2012, now includes about 1,600 spaces. A garage was built on Walnut Street in 2015 offering another 1100 spaces.

Beyond building new spaces, other efforts have been made, including adding sensors starting in 2017 to give numbers of available parking spots at any given moment, allowing for more informed choices on parking. Downtown Knoxville added a great parking map with all the garages and lots, with details. Parkopedia (or its mobile app) lists all the parking options with availability included for some, and the app gives one-click directions to the garage of your choice. The city metered spaces to allow for turnover every two hours and added fifteen-minute “flasher” spaces to allow for bring in groceries or picking up food or a quick item from a store.

Most recently, the city has commissioned a study of parking, driven perhaps by general persistent complaints about parking availability and public anxiety over parking once the stadium construction is complete. The study should be completed early next year and, in the meantime, you might expect opportunities for public input, including an online survey.

As someone who has driven downtown in the 1980s and 1990s, heavily in the early 2,000s, and has lived (and parked) downtown since 2009, I have personal opinions on the topic. People love downtown for its old buildings and places of interest. More parking means less of that.

Also, I can’t always find a perfect parking spot and I think, if we’re honest, that is what drives a lot of the unhappiness. We want free parking adjacent our destination. But that’s not how cities work. While we fume about Market Square Garage being filled, the Coliseum Garage and the Dwight Kessel Garages sit nearly empty most evenings. Even the State Street Garage and Prominade Garage, in the center of downtown, (both of which I watch every day) are virtually never filled.

Screenshot of Downtown Parking from Parkopedia

So, what would I do if I were Parking King of the Greater Downtown Area? Probably some things that would make some of you depose me immediately and have others call for my head.

I would love to see our city consider some bold moves like:

  • Remove parking from Gay Street. Leave fifteen-minute spaces, allow for deliveries certain early-morning hours, and include a handicapped space or two for each block (time limited). Expand restaurant seating area or bike lanes into the newly freed space.
  • Close Gay Street Friday and Saturday nights starting at 5:00 pm and Old City Streets after 10:00 pm on weekends. It is a dangerous mess out there. Imagine more space for everyone without the danger, fumes, and noise from cars. It would be a festival with no effort required. No garage parking access in the downtown area would be impacted.
    • At the very least, police the cars on Gay Street on Friday and Saturday nights. Two police officers stationed on each side could ticket the cruisers who are congesting the street and the cars (and motorcycles) that are flouting the noise ordinance.
  • Price Market Square and State Street Garages commensurate with their proximity to Market Square and Gay Street. Make the other garages less expensive. Walk more, pay less. We are going to have to accept the fact that we are a growing city and in a larger city you walk further from your car.

There’s more, but that should be enough to make the lynch mob form. Do we have the political will to make our wonderful city a greater place? Comment below. Give your ideas. Do you want more parking or more downtown buildings, housing, and businesses? Do you think we deserve a parking space a very short walk from our destination? Comments are open, but please don’t decapitate me.

Park(ing) Day, South Gay Street, Knoxville, September 2022

Today is Park(ing) Day in Knoxville. You’ll find a few spaces on Gay Street devoted to other uses from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm today. Gay Street will be open to the normal flow of traffic, but along the sides you’ll find comfy spaces to lounge or to pause for a few moments’ entertainment. The idea is to bring attention to how much space we devote to cars and what might happen if we re-imagined that space. Take a minute wherever you park your car today to look around you and ponder the possibilities.