Parking and urban vitality: a tale of two cities

Issue: 4/1/2010
Issue Date: Thu, 2010-04-01
Page Number: 12


A study of Hartford, Connecticut, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, finds that if employers subsidized transit and charged for parking, demand for parking spaces might fall by a fifth.

How has Cambridge, Massachusetts, managed to remain intact and appealing over the past 50 years while Hartford, Connecticut, has seen its center hollow out and its vibrancy decline? Why are there such stark disparities between two New England cities of almost identical age?

A new study by Christopher T. McCahill and Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut traces some of the divergence to the ways the two cities have handled parking and highways.
Comparisons presented by Garrick during a March conference of 1000 Friends of Connecticut reveal these trends in the two cities:

• Hartford, a 17.3-square-mile municipality that currently has about 121,000 inhabitants, had land area exclusively devoted to parking facilities (not counting on-street parking spaces and private driveways) nearly triple in extent, from 0.54 square miles to 1.45 square miles, between 1960 and 2000. The proportion of the city’s land covered by parking jumped from 3.1 percent in 1960 to 8.4 percent in 2000.

Downtown Hartford was refashioned with automobiles in mind. Parking in the downtown, including on-street spaces, surface lots, and structures, tripled, from 15,000 spaces covering 7.5 percent of downtown’s land in 1960 to 46,000 spaces covering 22 percent of its land in 2000. Much of downtown has lost its street life and is hard pressed to support retailing.

• Cambridge, a 6.4-square-mile city with a current population of about 105,000, saw the land area occupied solely by parking double, from 0.24 to .51 square miles, in the same time span. The volume of land dedicated to parking rose citywide, but at a slightly lower pace than in Hartford. Cambridge went from 3.8 percent to 7.9 percent of its land serving as parking.

“In both cities, large parking facilities were built in areas of new strip development to the north and south,” McCahill and Garrick note in a report that has been accepted by the Transportation Research Board. A chief difference is that the dense urban core in Cambridge, including the area around Harvard Square that functions as the city’s commercial center, “was left virtually unchanged, whereas, in downtown Hartford, entire blocks were converted to parking.”

Connecticut built Interstates 91 and 84 through downtown Hartford, and urban renewal helped generate modernist skyscrapers in the Connecticut capital. Downtown Hartford became “isolated from the residential district of the city by acres of surface parking.” In Cambridge, by contrast, concerned citizens “blocked the construction of major highways and urban renewal efforts.”

It would be a mistake to call Cambridge anti-automobile; in 40 years, its land area devoted to parking increased by 104 percent. “Officials in Cambridge have devoted their efforts to resident parking in the city, ensuring that most residents can have a car if they chose,” McCahill and Garrick say.
“However,” the researchers say, “by limiting the amount of public and commercial parking … [Cambridge authorities] may have reinforced the notion that the cars should be used with restraint and that other modes of travel are viable options.”

Among the policies and programs that the researchers believe have served Cambridge well are these:

• A vehicle trip-reduction ordinance and a parking and transportation management plan were introduced beginning in the early 1990s. They helped to cut auto use by 9 percent by 2000 and by another 11 percent by 2007. While the share of Hartford residents commuting by car rose from 53 percent in 1960 to 73 percent in 2007, the proportion of Cambridge residents commuting by car actually fell —from 42 percent to 38 percent.

• A zoning ordinance in 1981 established maximum parking limits (parking caps) for the first time. “Today these maximum standards are often less than or close to the minimum standards of many cities and suburbs.”

• A parking and transportation demand management (PTDM) plan was introduced in 1998. When a business expands or builds parking, it must file a plan to reduce single-occupant vehicle trips.

• A “super crosswalk” project set out to make streets in the Harvard Square business district more comfortable for pedestrians. The city started retrofitting its streets for bicycles in 1995. Since then, more than 35 miles of two-way bicycle facilities have been constructed, including contra-flow bike lanes on streets that are one-way for motor vehicles.

Among the results: Walking is more than twice as prevalent in Cambridge as in Hartford. Cambridge has double the proportion of cyclists than Hartford. “Cambridge has the highest share of commuters walking, biking, and using public transit of any city of its size in the country.”

While certainly there are other factors involved in Hartford’s decline and Cambridge’s advance — including the presence of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge — the role of parking and roads should not be overlooked. Cambridge is now a much wealthier city than Hartford, which historically was called “the insurance capital of the world.”

As McCahill and Garrick see it, Cambridge owes a sizable measure of its good fortune to the way the city balanced the needs of pedestrians and dense, walkable districts against the demands of the automobile.

Charge for parking
“Citywide parking policy,” McCahill and Garrick argue, “may ultimately be one of the most important considerations in terms of successfully reducing automobile travel and greenhouse gas emissions at large scales.”

In a separate paper for CNU 18, McCahill and Garrick say the experience of The Travelers Companies in Hartford shows that if employers charge for parking and offer to subsidize employees’ transit use, they can significantly reduce the rate of driving and number of parking spaces used. Travelers charges employees $70 to $125 a month for parking. Largely as a result, only 71 percent of Travelers employees drive alone to work, versus 83 to 95 percent at businesses that provide free and ample parking.

If all employers followed Travelers’ example, demand for surface parking could fall by a fifth, he estimates. “This would enable great swaths of parking to be replaced with compact development that encourages economic development and alternative modes of travel.”