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.
By 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”.