I spent some time watching Monday evening’s presentation of the results of the Greenfield downtown parking study:
This study was funded with $25k from the state and the idea was to gather data about parking resources and utilization in downtown Greenfield. It was run by Stantec (an external consultant) and work kicked off this past winter.
Data-gathering ran through April of this year and involved a lot of on-the-ground observation and counting of cars in spaces at different times of day and days of the week, as well as analysis of violation data, permit and parking pricing, and locations of lots and spaces.
The goal of the study was to provide data that would give us a better picture of actual parking utilization downtown, especially as new projects like the library, the skate park, and the Wilson’s redevelopment move along. The hope is that findings will provide some ground to the often contentious public discourse around town regarding downtown parking and help to inform the Main Street Redesign project that is currently in its early design phase.
There are currently around 3000 parking spaces in the downtown Greenfield area which, for the purposes of this study, runs west to east from Conway Street to High Street. It is bounded on its north side by Devens and Church Streets, with and Prospect Street and the railroad tracks south of Main Street marking the south boundary, plus the short dog-leg of Hope Street down to Russell hanging off the bottom.
Of those 3000 parking spaces, about 80% are restricted—either in private lots or otherwise restricted (e.g., “For customers only,” like the Greenfield Savings Bank lot).
The average peak time for parking utilization in the downtown area is Thursday morning at 10AM. Even at this time, total utilization of the spaces across the downtown area was just 55%
For the core downtown parking areas—the on-street spaces on and just off Main Street—the peak usage time is 6PM on Thursdays. Saturday mid-morning is a similarly busy time for this subset of spots. However, during both of these times, all the rest of the parking in the downtown area is only 34% utilized. So, Main Street itself feels very busy and it is hard to find a spot there during these windows, but there is plenty of parking only a few minutes' walk away.
Stantec also noted that while the cost of parking varies by location, it is static over time—except for being free on evenings and weekends. Our parking rates are quite low, as are our fines for parking violations.
3000 downtown parking spots is, according to the Stantec folks, “a lot” for a town the size of Greenfield. Otherwise, there is not anything unique or particularly special about our situation.
Aside from the on-street parking during the off-hours (Thursday evening, Saturday morning/mid-day, etc.), downtown parking is largely underutilized. Across the walkable downtown area, Greenfield actual has much more parking than it needs, although a lot of it is currently restricted by private ownership.
The sense that there is a parking problem in Greenfield is mostly due to the difficulty of finding an on-street spot along Main Street during the peak core utilization hours. However, those times—evenings and weekends—are when parking is free. In other words, the price of parking is not responding to demand. There is plenty of parking during these times of perceived congestion, but there is no incentive for people to find it, even if it would add just a minute or two to their walk.
Additionally, the most expensive parking in town is the Olive Street Garage at $1 per hour.1
Stantec also took a look at Main Street itself, including the intersection of Main and Federal and the various crosswalks. They found Main Street to be quite wide, leading to perilous and intimidating crossings, with long walk-times at the crosswalks.
Overall, their conclusion is that while Greenfield has plenty of parking in the downtown area—too much, in fact—we do a poor job of allocating it (via pricing) in a way that is responsive to demand. Free parking on evenings and weekends incentivizes people to grab all the available on-street spots on Main Street regardless of what their needs are, leading to the hyper-localized congestion issues we currently see.
Stantec had a number of recommendations to make based on the data they gathered and their analysis of that data. The biggest one is to adjust the pricing structure of parking downtown. Increase the cost of parking in the highest-demand spots—the on-street spot on Main—get rid of the free parking on evenings and weekends and make free parking available for longer-term needs off-street. They suggest that rates at the Olive Street Garage should be lowered to make that a more attractive option.
Another big recommendation is to eliminate the time limits on all parking spots in town. While the idea of time limits is to promote turnover of spots, the actual outcome is to make parking more annoying and to increase violations. Their experience in other municipalities is that turnover is better handled via pricing.
They note that much of the off-street parking in downtown is privately held and restricted in one way or another and that all of these lots sit largely empty most of the time. They suggest the city work with the owners and incentivizing them to make these space public, either via revenue-sharing or service-sharing (e.g., the DPW taking on the plowing of the lots, etc.)
More broadly, they recommend that since the data shows that downtown parking is vastly oversupplied (remember, it never gets up 55% full), we ought to look at zoning and other regulatory changes to encourage development of these open lots. Zoning in our downtown core does not require businesses to provide parking, but there are parking minimums around the edges of downtown. They suggest changing this zoning to eliminate these requirements.
Finally, they suggest that parking permit prices be increased (we are abnormally low there as well) and adjust the fees for violations. Currently, resident can only purchase parking permits annually; a monthly option would give people more flexibility and would allow better alignment of parking supply to demand. In terms of violations and fines, the recommendation is to back off on the ticket-writing but increase fines for repeat offenders. Eliminating time limits would help here, but they also suggest a warning for first-time offenders rather than a fine right off the bat.
The big message here is that Greenfield has a very walkable downtown with plenty of parking and that we would even likely see a benefit if we were to eliminate a non-trivial number of spaces. We certainly should not be talking about adding any parking downtown.
I think the tricky part here is that this kind of stuff tends to be counterintuitive for a lot of people. If it’s hard to find parking, the answer is to create more parking, right? No—just like adding more lanes to highways only makes traffic congestion worse, creating more parking or making the parking we have cheaper or free will only compound our problems.
The other problem is that while the answer may broadly be to reduce the number of parking spots and adjust pricing, that is a tough sell to the individual business owner who wants the spots in front of their shop to be free, or the resident who wants to be able park on the street in front of their house overnight.
In a larger city, these needs and demands tend to average out across the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of residents. In Greenfield, the one angry shop owner can harangue the Mayor’s office, and the resident who feels entitled to free parking anywhere in town because “I pay taxes” can post about it constantly on Facebook. It is challenging to get those two needs—efficiently allocating parking supply and meeting residents' needs—aligned.
Personally, I think all of these recommendations are spot on, and I don’t find the data all that surprising. My anecdotal experience the last fifteen years lines up with the data they present. Judging from the Q&A that followed the presentation, the people in the room were enthusiastic and supportive as well. However, I suspect it may have been a fairly self-selecting audience, and I imagine many of the recommendations will encounter moderate to stiff resistance as they trickle out into the public conversation around town.
As to where this analysis and recommendations go from here, I expect they will feed into the bigger Main Street Redesign project as it starts to spin up over the next few years. Of course, a lot of that will depend on how things may or may not shift in the Mayor’s office and on the City Council in the meantime.
It has been pointed out to me in the comments that that the parking garage is currently $1 per clock hour, not $1 per sixty minutes. My bad. ↩︎