Parking Availability: How Far Will You Walk?

Eds Note: In my “Shifting Sands of Time” post I briefly mentioned our “car-centric” culture.  Craig comes in this week with a key question in looking at that particular paradigm.

Craig StahlBy Craig Stahl

The threshold of parking availability is one local controversy that always comes up in every community no matter how large or small. That is, how far away is too far away when parking your car downtown? Of course mass transit systems like trains and buses can mitigate this problem, but there is always a tipping point where the time and efficiency costs of using mass transit outweigh the ability to use a personal car when driving to and from work/school/events. While the Wausau area employs a bus system, I think it is safe to say that most residents rely on personal vehicles if where they are going is too far to walk or ride a bike. Given that the situation is what it is, local government has to develop standards for parking availability whenever there is a new development.

For example, if I wanted to open a retail shop in downtown Wausau, I might need to provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces if the size of my business exceeds a given threshold (in this case 40,000 square feet in a B-4 Zoning District; add one space per additional 5,000 square feet). At some point though, if a large number of small businesses locate in the downtown, there is a point at which on-street parking will not accommodate all the need for parking and the City is forced to build a parking lot or structure of some sort.

There are a number of economic and political factors that go into placing a parking lot or ramp, but I would like to bypass those and ask a more basic question: physical disabilities notwithstanding, how far do you think is acceptable for a resident to walk from where they park their car? 2 blocks? 10? Right out front?

I bring this up because years ago when I was doing some planning work for a small community of about 8,000, I found they had a very different perception of what was acceptable than what I was used to. For them, walking more than half a block in their town square was unacceptable and warranted the need for a parking ramp. Once a year they had a big festival wherein people came from a multi-state region to participate, but even then you could still park within 2-3 blocks of where you wanted to go downtown. I had recently moved to this community from a University town where I generally walked 5 to 8 blocks to get downtown (but that was because I was a cheap college student who wanted to avoid the expensive parking ramp fees that would have put me within 1 to 3 blocks of where I was going). So it was obviously all a matter of perspective and what people are used to. As a planner, I felt it was not my job to impose my judgements on what was too far, I only needed to faciltate the debate to allow elected leaders to make a sound decision.

So, what’s Wausau’s threshold? I’m curious about people’s own threshold as well as what you think the general Wausau resident believes to be “too far”.

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4 responses to “Parking Availability: How Far Will You Walk?

  1. I would think that downtown probably has a 3-4 block threshold.

    Downtown is not for everyone, and many people prefer the Rib Mountain situation where they park close to a store, then get in the car, drive half a block, and park at a different store.

    Some people will probably drive 2-3 miles in a single parking lot waiting for that perfect spot to open up. I have actually parked at the back of the lot, went to a store, got what I needed, and come back to see the same car still hunting.

    Those people who prefer the downtown to the rib mtn situation are more likely to be willing to park farther away. However, if the goal is to compete for some of those rib mtn shoppers, then gotta have it close.

  2. You correctly point out that there is a physical aspect to this question as well as an issue of perception, which is invariably the greater issue. Expectations play a big role. (You couldn’t pay me to drive to Times Square or the Eiffel Tower, but I love them both.)

    Having a compelling environment for people to traverse is very important and it changes the distances that many people are willing to travel on foot. Connectivity and continuous corridors play a huge role and that is why things like incorporating ground level retail in the Jefferson Street ramp are so critical. It’s important to be judicious with things like skywalks (which take pedestrian traffic off the street and can work to sterilize things that way if they are overdone.)

    At this particular point in time, there is plenty of parking available in downtown Wausau, but it could change with some of the developments underway and we will need to stay current with the situation as the dynamics change.

  3. One of the most useful public transit systems I have ever seen is in Grays Harbor County, Washington. For no more than a dollar you can hop on a bus in Aberdeen and end up in Quinault, Shelton, even Olympia. Can it be denied that availability of quality public transportation is inextricably linked with downtown planning for a community with limited parking areas? Downtown Wausau is already hard to navigate by car and so may not be very attractive to tourists looking for a place to eat or shop because these features are not well presented on the loop around the Mall. The Rib Mountain area, though sometimes spoken of as ‘Big Box’ retail, offers tourists something familiar and something that feels safe in a suburban sort of way. Advertising the Downtown as a great place to take the bus too, coordinated with routes that make that possible for tourists, might give the more transient elements of the local population an easy way to see what’s going on down there. And that of course begs the question of what is going on Downtown and where the current vision for downtown development takes us. Growth in the area in the next decade will be shaped by several factors, some big and some small. I would argue that these are among them: completion of the Highway 53/29 bypass, closer cooperation between public transit and downtown development officials, and a focus on tourism as a growth industry. The northwoods ethic does not have to be lost as Wausau moves closer to metropolis. Fearing change? But change always comes. Trust the advice of well trained and principled men and women who will foster a vision for the community that is inclusive and embraces change in the context of proven planning methods. In the midst of all of these hearty debates we must still remember that community sustains our right to have them. When community gives way to private interests no matter how well meaning some part of the community suffers. We need balance and transparency, to know that despite being embedded in the northwoods, only the best notions of what that means will be accepted in our midst. The public must be allowed to have it’s say in matters that affect the public.

  4. A good downtown bus network is a nice addition to any densely populated area. However, Marsdon’s idea that Tourism is affected seems to be a stretch. Most tourists don’t take the bus – they arrive here in their own car and stick with it. People who live downtown would find a thorough and consistent bus system to be a great help and there is no doubt that there are envirinmental perks but there are a few problems with that idea. It’s pricey and someone has to pay for it. A bussing system needs to cater to its riders and may find itself limited to just those who live and work within the downtown area as everyone else will need to use a car anyway. The primary factor that I feel is the key to a successful metropolitan bus system is the population density. The reason bus networks work so well in cities is because you have an obsene amount of people in a relatively small space and almost everything a person would need or want is within a few miles. There are enough folks that will use the system and a limited amount of distance and destinations – the winning formula…

    Personally, I think a fleet of busses would be nice but I can’t give up my car right now so I wouldn’t want to see my tax money go there. If some private enterprise type wants to do it, then woo hoo but I don’t see that happening.

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