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Hartford: It's A Parking Place


November 22, 2009

For the past half-century, city leaders in Hartford have worked hard to satisfy what they deemed to be a critical need the need for more parking, so that downtown Hartford could compete with suburban office parks and shopping centers.

This summer the Center for Transportation and Urban Planning at the University of Connecticut conducted a detailed study of the cumulative effect on the city of 50 years of providing parking. What we found was startling: Since 1960, the number of parking spaces in downtown Hartford increased by more that 300 percent from 15,000 to 46,000 spaces. This change has had a profound and devastating effect on the structure and function of the city (see accompanying maps) as one historic building after another was demolished.

And what did the city gain from this assiduous drive to provide sufficient parking? Was it able to grow more prosperous by providing more jobs and housing for more people? If this was the desired outcome, we can consider the past 50 years to have been an abysmal failure. Over the period that parking was being increased by more than 300 percent, downtown was losing more than 60 percent of its residential population, and the city as a whole lost 40,000 people and 7,000 jobs.

Yet the perception of Hartford as a city perennially short of parking and in need of more parking has never slackened. How could this be?

Well, the simple answer is that parking and transportation policy in Hartford has had the perverse effect of inducing an unending cycle of more demand for parking. Like a dog chasing its tail, the city is constantly playing catch-up the more parking provided, the more parking is needed.

Over the years, some have sensed the problem, have questioned the wisdom of dismantling so much of the city to provide more parking. For example, in 1962, a city planning commission stated that:

"The extremely limited land-area of the 'The City of Hartford' requires careful, intensive study of the impact of highway takings and parking facilities if these takings are not to result in strangulation of the City."

They were right: the city has been effectively strangled by highways and parking.

In 1973 the city council went on record saying that:

"Grade level parking lots and multi-storied parking garages in the CBD (central business district) encourage the use of motor vehicles by employees which conflicts with the City's mass transit and clean air goals."

Once again they were right; in 1960 only 50 percent of Hartford residents drove to work; by 2000 that number had increased to 72 percent.

In 1978 the city council went further in expressing its strong support for a moratorium on construction of parking garages in the central business district. But we were able to find no evidence that any such forward-looking idea was ever actually implemented in Hartford. Fortunately, there are some clear lessons from a handful of cities nationwide that did understand the price of destroying value to accommodate parking. These cities embraced ideas to curb the voracious appetite of the automobile for space. Cities including Cambridge, Mass., Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C., and Seattle developed policies to limit the amount of parking, to re-convert parking land to productive use, and to increase walking, biking and transit use for people going to work.

The contrast between, Say, Portland and Hartford is stark in terms of economic vibrancy and social vitality. Hartford looks more like the hundreds of other American cities that have hollowed out their core to accommodate automobiles.

With more that 700 parking spaces for every 1,000 employees, Hartford has the dubious distinction of being near the top of the list for parking up there with cities such as Detroit and Buffalo.

In contrast, more vibrant cities like Washington get by with much less parking (250 parking spaces for every 1,000 employees). The need for so much more parking for each job in Hartford compared with more competitive cities is a significant physical and financial drag, limiting the potential for growth in the city.

In fact, the financial penalty is so great that over the past decade a number of companies in Hartford have take steps on their own to reduce their use of parking in downtown Hartford.

The most successful of these is Travelers and, to a lesser extent, Aetna. Travelers provides parking for only about 50 percent of its workers and subsidizes transit use. The result is that 30 percent of Travelers' employees get to work by transit, walking or biking. This might not seem like much, but it is twice the percentage for city employees and three times that for state employees.

In contrast to Travelers, state government provides parking for more than 90 percent of its employees in Hartford. The result is that less than 10 percent of state employees in the city travel to work by transit, walking or biking.

Thus, the state ties up some of what is potentially the most valuable land in the city in parking, costing the city and the state millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Worse, the wasteland of parking that it own on the edge of the downtown degrades both downtown and the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Around the country, such close-in residential neighborhoods, with their rich architecture places like The Ghent in Norfolk, Va., and Cheeseman Park in Denver are increasingly the most sought-after places to live.

If Travelers adopted the same approach to parking as did the state, it would cost the company almost $10 million more each year to own and operate the additional parking that would be needed. The good news for Hartford is that the business community is way ahead of the public sector in recognizing that we cannot continue to perpetuate the failed parking and transportation policies of the past 50 years. The cost to the bottom line, and more important, to the health of the city is too devastating and can no longer be ignored.

Both Travelers and Aetna point the way forward with modest programs that have helped to reduce both parking demand and highway congestion. There is simply no longer any excuse for state and city governments to perpetuate policies that have had such a devastating effect on the city while wasting so much of the taxpayers' money.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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