Fort Collins has a parking problem and it’s evident every time you get in a car and hit the road. Although neighborhood streets aren’t so bad, once you hit an arterial, the congestion is noticeable. There are some streets in the City (I’m looking at you College, Shields, Harmony and Timberline.) that get so full up with cars that the absolute fastest you can drive is 10 mph under the speed limit. The subsidized, abundant availability of parking in Fort Collins has led to ever increasing amounts of congestion, even in areas that are relatively new to the city (and therefore should have theoretically been built to accommodate the volume of cars).
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Research published in November 2015 has shown that the more parking is available, especially “free” parking, the more people will choose to drive their cars. As parking becomes limited, people are more willing to consider carpooling or other types of transportation options such as walking, biking, public transit, or ride sharing. The study by Chris McCahill (from the University of Wisconsin) and Norman Garrick, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Adam Polinski (all from the University of Connecticut) used a combination of prior and original research to determine causality between the availability of parking and car use. What they found was a clear connection between the two — that parking led to increased car use, but increased car use did not necessarily lead to more parking.
We have several great examples of this effect that play out every summer in downtown Fort Collins. During most of the year, it’s fairly easy to find parking in Old Town. It might not be right smack in front of the place you want to visit, but then again, when you visit Walmart or Target, it’s pretty rare to get a spot right in front of the door there either. So you end up in a spot that’s nearby and you walk the remaining distance to the shop. But, in the summer when we have festivals such as New West Fest, when not only are several parking spots taken up with vendors booths, but also tens of thousands of people are flooding in from not only the farthest reaches of Fort Collins but from neighboring cities as well, that’s when suddenly the MAX rapid bus transit line, or the dusty bicycle hanging up in the garage, or carpooling with a bunch of friends, suddenly becomes a far better option than everyone hopping in their own car and circling the area for an hour trying to find a spot.
The irony is that this parking problem is only compounding another one of our local problems… affordable housing.
According to Pat Ferrier at the Coloradoan, building projects north of the Poudre river, in the East Larimer County (ELCO) Water District, are becoming increasingly expensive, in part due to the cost of the water rights. Connecting to Fort Collins Utilities’ water system is cheaper because the City holds more senior water rights. (If you’re interested in water issues in Fort Collins, you may want to check out this recent article I wrote for Forgotten Fort Collins entitled, Poudre River Water in Your Tap.)
So every development project that’s taking place within the Fort Collins Utilities water district has the advantage of tapping into a cheaper water supply system, making the overall cost of the project less expensive. But a lot of the available land within this water district is already taken up… quite a bit of it with vast, sprawling parking lots. And even new developments, such as Front Range Village at Harmony and Ziegler, opted for prodigious amounts of parking rather than mixed-use, dense development that would provide housing, office space and amenities in a walkable/bikeable people-friendly environment. (If you’ve ever tried walking from the Council Tree library to the Super Target, you’ve probably experienced first hand the car-oriented design of the “Village.”)
There are several reasons why development like this happens. For one thing, we’re used to it. It’s been happening ever since the 1950s when the automobile became the mediator of urban planning across the continent. Prior to that point in time, we saw commercial buildings that often included retail on the first floor and offices or residential units upstairs. (Take a look at almost any commercial building downtown built before the war and you’ll see what I mean.) After World War II, retail properties in particular expanded outward, but not upward, and they were built as islands in the midst of a sea of parking. After 65 years of this type of development, it’s come to feel normal for most people. It’s what we grew up with. We don’t think in terms of shopkeepers who live over their stores any more. Now our expectations revolve around big box stores with shareholders, not shopkeepers.
Zoning can also be a problem. When the JC Penney’s building (originally a Shopko) was built in 1994, parking minimums appear to have been pretty high (based on the aerial view shown above). I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the parking lot more than half full. Another classic example is the Target on W. Troutman with the parking lot that doesn’t even fill up all the way on Black Friday. (That Target was built in 1979, when parking minimums were at their maximum.) But the City of Fort Collins has taken great strides to reign in the parking minimums and has even created a Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) overlay zone that radically cuts into the parking requirements (as residents around The Summit on S. College discovered when residents started parking their cars in the nearby residential neighborhoods instead).
But probably the biggest reason of all has to do with the pushback from residents. As the problem at the Summit made clear, people aren’t going to pay to park their car somewhere when they can just drive out a little further and park it for free in front of someone else’s house. Why pay for parking when the local government is providing a subsidized benefit that simply requires walking a little further? The same kind of attitude rules in Old Town. With on street parking being free, people would rather circle the block than head to a parking structure (where parking is still very cheap).
But whether we use a car or not, we’re all paying for the “free” parking we have in Fort Collins. We pay in terms of higher taxes that are used to build and maintain public parking throughout town (in garages, in lots, and on the street). We pay at the checkout counter when we shop with a retailer that provides “free” parking, the cost of which has lead to increased rents or higher building costs, and which are being passed on to shoppers in the form of higher prices.
We also pay in other ways as well. We have reduced air quality, reduced quality of life (as a result of being stuck in traffic), and reduced housing availability as well as higher rent costs. And the icing on the cake is that the more cars there are on the street, the more deaths and injuries there are due to crashes. In other words, while most of us pay for this free parking in the form on higher taxes and retail costs, there are some who end up paying with their lives. Is free parking really worth that?
If we really want to tackle traffic congestion in Fort Collins, if we really want to reduce the amount of traffic violence, cap greenhouse emissions, and breath easier (literally), then one of the most effective steps we can take today is to reduce the amount of parking that’s being added to our city.
Ferrier, Pat. “Water Costs Drive NE Fort Collins Home Prices.” Coloradoan[Fort Collins] 28 Aug. 2015: n. pag. Coloradoan. Gannett, 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 18 July 2016.
McCahill, Chris, Norman Garrick, Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Adam Polinski. Effects of Parking Provision on Automobile Use in Cities: Inferring Causality. SFMTA: Municipal Transportation Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 July 2016.
Pearce, Matt. “Here’s Why More U.S. Drivers Are Dying in Crashes This Year.”Los Angeles Times. N.p., 11 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 July 2016.