Government Opinion The Center

Op-Ed: Parking is Destiny and We Are Blowing It

Looking east on Farmington Avenue from the intersection with LaSalle Road in West Hartford Center. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

West Hartford resident Jason Wang believes that West Hartford is missing out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild the town center for the needs of humans.

By Jason Wang

We have something truly special in West Hartford Center.

It is easily the most vibrant walkable downtown in central Connecticut (sorry Glastonbury, but you are a glorified strip mall), and ranks among the best in the entire state. It is a place full of delight and charm. It gives us a place to build relationships. It is a place where our children can grow up and spread their wings, from the library toddler playroom to their first date at the movie theater. It is one of the greatest contributors to our sense of community and our sense of place. It is an incredible economic powerhouse that draws in millions of dollars of investment, and simultaneously elevates property values of residents lucky enough to live nearby.

What makes West Hartford Center special? And who is it for: humans or cars?

We have a critical, once-in-a-generation opportunity to answer these questions, rediscover our town center, and rebuild it for the next several decades. Over the last few months, it’s become clear that the design of our treasured Center is being dictated not by the needs of humans, but by parking – more specifically by a very small number of on-street parking spaces.

We are blowing this opportunity in an excruciating, spectacular, highly public manner. Nearly 20 years ago, Professor Donald Shoup at UCLA published the seminal work “The High Cost of Free Parking.” In this book, Shoup detailed all of the ways parking rules our lives and our wallets. He wrote about how free or underpriced parking, especially street parking which is on extraordinarily valuable public land, creates massive distortions of both economic principles and land use patterns.

I will reiterate for emphasis: Street space is (1) extraordinarily valuable, and (2) it is public land.

Shoup presented detailed mathematical models to show that in nearly all circumstances, a perceived lack of parking is due to mis-pricing, and not due to a true lack of space. He showed that the optimal way to manage street parking is to price it such that approximately 15% of spots are free at any given time, so that those who need street parking can always find a spot when they want. Dynamic pricing can be utilized to further manage demand in a smart way.

Correctly priced street parking does not just ensure availability. Right-pricing also ensures turnover, which is crucial for businesses, and dramatically reduces congestion and pollution caused by people cruising for street parking spots. On the other hand, if parking is underpriced, there will always be a perceived shortage of parking unless we build Walmart-sized lots.

Make no mistake: if we bicker over a few parking spots here and there but do not address the market economics of parking, we are giving up hugely valuable public land and will still perceive a street parking shortage after all is said and done. Shoup’s book came out in 2005 and changed the game for planning policy. His insights should not be ignored in 2025 when we break ground on our $10 million town redesign.

New York City has been a leader in the transformation of the public land resource known as streets. In her book “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution,” former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan wrote about the fundamental unfairness of how much land was devoted to a relatively small number of cars, while pedestrians and cyclists were relegated to a tiny sliver of the public domain.

Insightfully, she wrote about how seeking perfect consensus would have been impossible and led to total paralysis. Instead, she and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to quickly and cheaply reconfigure the streets to be more human-centric and let the results speak for themselves. In the most visible example, perennially traffic-choked Times Square was redesigned so that Broadway became dedicated to pedestrians while traffic was streamlined down 7th Ave and side streets. Traffic and pedestrian injuries fell by 63%, traffic speeds actually improved, and businesses became massively more profitable.

It wasn’t rocket science. Making the public space more hospitable to humans meant humans spent more time (and money) there.

Misuse of extraordinarily valuable public land is all too clear in West Hartford Center, and we are about to perpetuate it for another generation. Stantec has already presented on numerous occasions that our thousands of parking spaces are actually extremely underutilized, even at peak hours. The logical, evidence-based, resource-conscious way forward is clearly to prioritize street space as public space, price the remaining street spots to maintain an approximately 15% vacancy rate, and encourage all other drivers to use our plentiful garage and surface lot space.

Towns and cities across the nation have used Shoup’s data to reshape their public streetscapes for a more people focused future. West Hartford prides itself on being an educated, creative, progressive community. Do we really think the Center is special because of easy car access? If businesses prioritize car access above human access, why are they not renting much cheaper space in a strip mall?

The automobile isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and I myself am an incurable lifelong car lover. But must we give the automobile 90-plus percent of our public domain and leave only the scraps for actual humans? What if we moved that needle over ever so slightly more towards people? It’s embarrassing that we are clinging to a 1950s paradigm of car-oriented development as we try to reimagine our Center, while other progressive communities are creating the streets of the future.

What does it mean to prioritize street space as public space for citizens? I think that is still subject to a healthy debate, but I would argue it involves maximizing amenities for human beings such as shade trees, places to sit, pocket parks, and expanded outdoor dining. Our Center desperately needs more public noncommercial space, such as space for children to play.

In all of the debate about where to put cars, we seem to have completely forgotten about space for our children to play. Even the area of four or five parking spaces could be enough for a delightful pocket park for children. Can you imagine? What if we had some small green pocket parks with big rocks or playscapes for kids to climb on, surrounded by shade trees and benches for the parents to enjoy a coffee and chat? Is that perhaps a better use of public space than four or five more parking spaces in a Center that has over five thousand? Check out the crowded library play area on any given Saturday, and you can see the latent demand in our community for public play space.

Protected bike paths are another extremely important use of public street space otherwise devoted to parking. Others have written compellingly about the need for bicycle facilities.  My only additional contribution is that if we are to spend the money and political will on protected bicycle lanes in town, we must ensure connectivity with the Trout Brook Trail at minimum. A beautiful but disconnected bike lane will not help anyone, but a connected bike path could be truly transformative.

Shoup, Sadik-Khan, and other visionaries like Jeff Speck have provided towns and cities a blueprint for the future. They have shown us alternatives to a car-dominated, unhealthy, and economically unsustainable way of development. They have revealed the incredible value of our public streets, which we often take for granted.

But they wrote their books in the pre-COVID era, and now we are dealing with another issue that the West Hartford Center redesign does not adequately address: rapidly rising traffic deaths.

First of all, I applaud the redesign for its safety improvements including improved crosswalks and slightly narrowed travel lanes. But the design does not go nearly far enough, and it comes back to parking yet again. Diagonal parking is dangerous, especially as cars become ever more gargantuan. No fancy backup cameras can fully compensate for the lack of rear-quarter visibility in many modern vehicles. Parallel parking is clearly the safer option and we should not wait for someone to be seriously injured before we realize this. Diagonal nose-in parking also has a severely chilling effect on biking – even many experienced cyclists in town do not feel comfortable biking next to this type of parking configuration. Our town has admirably committed to Vision Zero, but the redesign does not support that commitment enough.

Parking is destiny. Parking determines many aspects of our land use. We should not let a few parking spaces dictate the form of our vibrant downtown. We have fundamentally misunderstood the value of West Hartford Center if we are willing to sacrifice space for humans in exchange for a tiny increase in space for cars.

Here’s what I’m advocating for:

  1. Recognize the value of the street as more than a place to store private vehicles.
  2. Devote much more of the streetscape to human priorities such as greenery, outdoor dining, “pocket parks,” and a bicycle network (but not a disconnected path).
  3. Instead of fretting over a few parking spots, just price the spaces correctly and let the market sort out the rest.
  4. We need parallel, not diagonal parking.
  5. Recognize the obvious: West Hartford Center is economically productive not because of the ease of parking but because it is a vibrant human-centered community. The humans come first, and the economic benefit follows.

We are so lucky to have the Center, and to live in a civically engaged, responsive place. We are also not the only community having this debate. Due to climate change, rising automobile deaths, the rising cost of cars, the economic unsustainability of sprawl, and general changes in mobility preferences, towns and cities all around the country are having the same debate about cars versus humans, parking versus public space.

I would ask our town leaders to show courage and creativity so that we build a West Hartford Center for the future.

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  • Thank you, Jason, for this very informative and compelling letter! I completely agree that parking spaces take up entirely too much space. Your statements that “It’s embarrassing that we are clinging to a 1950s paradigm of car-oriented development as we try to re-imagine our Center, while other progressive communities are creating the streets of the future,” and “Misuse of extraordinarily valuable public land is all too clear in West Hartford Center, and we are about to perpetuate it for another generation” should shake the powers that be out of their 20th century comfort zone and help us move into the 21st century, using all the data you referenced. Making the streetscape safer and more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists will also back up West Hartford’s adoption of a clean energy plan and a climate emergency resolution. Without the right actions, adopting those measures is simply hollow words. Thank you.

  • Parking in the center is not properly priced according to basic economic theory. There are more than enough spaces. The price(s) need to be adjusted to move more of the cars to the garages.
    Something along these lines should do it:
    —>The parking fee and parking tickets for on street parking should vary with the day and time of day. Weekdays before 5 or so should be cheap, Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings dear. The rates for the highest usage times may need to be a lot higher than the current rates.
    —>Parking in the garages should be free. There should be signs throughout the center indicating this. Folks love free, this will induce many more to park in the garages.
    —>The price of parking the lots should be somewhere in between.

    Something along these lines will free up more than enough space for the bike lanes and pedestrians.

  • Thank you for writing this, Jason. It is indeed embarrassing that West Hartford continues to cater to cars. The plans are reminiscent of the imprudent, auto-oriented decision-making of the 20th century that brought us urban “renewal,” suburban sprawl, unwalkable communities, and other unfortunate habits that we should be trying to unlearn. Granted, habits are self-reinforcing and hard to break out of. The transportation system we build drives behavior, and travel behavior justifies the infrastructure we build. Build lots of roads with ample parking and people will drive, encouraging ever more vehicle infrastructure. This is the self-reinforcing loop that West Hartford finds itself in. Pricing parking can help to manage demand, which is one way to control the cycle. But to break out of the cycle we need to provide alternatives. Build bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure, and people will use them instead of driving.

    I’ll also point out that when the Town eliminated dozens of parking spaces in the Center to build steeteries during Covid, the transportation system did not fall apart. Just like how when we implement road diets, traffic doesn’t back up for miles.

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