"OMG! There is NO parking!" - Concerned Citizen

I wish I had a bus ticket for every time I heard someone say this. Unless you're Manhattan or San Francisco, it is fair to say you don't have a parking problem. I take that back. You do have a parking problem -- there's too much of it.

Here is a quick how-to guide on dealing with those who claim your city or town lacks adequate parking.

Step 1. Understand perception

The easiest and most time-effective way of convincing your opposition is to have them acknowledge that the perception of parking availability is different than the reality. People come to the conclusion of parking scarcity for a good reason; many live elsewhere and only visit the city during peak periods or special events.

The mindset is beautifully captured by a recent Twitter exchange. I asserted that our downtown does not have a parking problem, and a person responded by complaining that parking for his dinner at an upscale restaurant was an unreasonable $20 (the timing coincided with a professional baseball game on a beautiful weekend night). He was forced to choose between paying $20 or walking from somewhere near the interstate (which happens to be about 5 blocks).

This person likely visits from the suburbs once every other month, and each visit is likely for an event or dinner on a weekend night. They are not present when spaces sit vacant 90 percent of the time. When someone complains there's no parking in your neigbhorhood, I recommend politely asking them if they'd be willing to drive and park on a Sunday afternoon, Tuesday evening or Friday morning.

Now, before you start rapidly Tweeting links about Donald Shoup (such as this, this and this), I recommend the next step ...

Step 2. Map parking supply

Load up Google Maps in your favorite web browser, search for your local area, and do a screen capture. Paste the image into MS Paint or a similar program. Start highlighting the open surface parking lots and parking garage structures. I recommend downloading Google Earth for this task.

Don't spend a lot of time doing this. If you know your downtown, it should be straight-forward. Be honest, but don't nit-pick; This isn't a scientific peer-reviewed study. Here is a map of downtown St. Paul (created in 2013, slightly outdated):

Creating a visual can be shocking. The above blue spaces represents only off-street surface parking lots and parking garages; but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking. There are a few more small parking lots but Google limited me to 75 shapes per map.

Make this map and share it on social media and e-mail it to your local Council Member.

Step 3. Document unused supply

Walk around your selected area during normal conditions and take photos. And by normal conditions, I mean you shouldn't document supply during a Rolling Stones concert, nor should you snap photos at 4 a.m. on Monday morning.

I did this in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. I decided upon an early Thursday evening and a Saturday mid-afternoon. I figured these times would capture both commuter parking during the weekday and out-of-town visitors on the weekend (photo collage available here).

Optional upgrade: convert images into black and white to maximize effect. However, most American downtowns don't need the extra help. Here is an example from June of 2015:

It is at this point where you may be called out as cherry-picking locations. Hence, I encourage you to be fair and also document areas that have cars parked, such as this.

As a final bit of advice, make sure to also snap photos of people out and about. Here is a block of sidewalk cafes during the same time frame, such as this photo taken on Saturday afternoon.

Step 4. Use yourself as a case study

Do it yourself advocacy is as simple as parking. I recommend getting a cheap dashboard camera (or mounting your phone) and recording yourself trying to park. I did this and here are the results on YouTube. I called it a challenge. It was anything but. As expected, parking was simple.

The rules: Drive to the contested area, take the same route everyday, park as close as possible to most congested spot, and park for free (yes, $0).

To quickly summarize, my findings for the "Challenge":

  • Furthest distance: 610 feet away
  • Closest distance: During three of the trips, I found a spot directly on the park
  • Cost: I never once paid for parking (note: I did pay for gas)
  • Shortest time spent finding a spot: 2 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Longest time spent finding a spot: 3 minutes and 41 seconds

All of the times included waiting at stop lights. To enhance enjoyment, I added a soundtrack and sped up the video to 2x. Now, this is not an academic study. I merely sought out to prove that, under current conditions, a person can drive into Lowertown and park with relative ease and do it for free. I also wanted to mention that I'm keenly aware of the limitations of this challenge (e.g.; time of day, workweek, etc.).

Follow these three easy steps (and one difficult, time-consuming step involving video) to start combating the perception of a shortage of parking supply in your downtown or neighborhood. These won't solve anything overnight, but act as a visual display of advocacy that people can relate to.

Good luck!

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