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Some Things I'd Rather See in Garrahy Square Than a Parking Garage


Providence needs to start focusing on building places, not parking.

Garrahy Square is little more than a vacant lot right now, along what used to be I-195. Providence residents, most prominently Greater City Providence's Jef Nickerson and The Projo's Paul Grimaldi, have done a lot of work to bring attention to RIDOT's plans to build a publicly-funded parking garage in the square. The project would be a major fiasco. Advocates for transit now have to decide whether they'll accept a mediocre compromise that's being offered them in the form of a bus hub, or whether they'll steel themselves for the full fight to have livable spaces in Providence's downtown.

The fight to block public funding of a parking garage in the outskirts of the former interstate highway has made some headway. There's now a serious proposal on the table to have RIPTA put a bus hub on the first floor of the garage. A lot of people have flocked to this idea as the solution to the original car-centric garage. I think we're setting the bar too low.

Isn't a garage with buses included the kind of proposal that would bring balance to Providence's transportation design? Well, not really.

We're Not Playing With Monopoly Money

The first thing to keep in mind is just how expensive parking is. Parking structures per se are not a bad thing, and having a garage can be better than the sprawl of surface parking. The key is who pays for the garage, though. As I pointed out in a letter to the Audubon Society about the Rhode Island Statehouse parking, a garage goes from being an improvement to an outright hindrance to transit depending on whether drivers pay for the parking or someone else does. Garage parking runs around $50,000 a parking spot. Keep in mind, in certain neighborhoods of Providence, you can buy a house for the cost of one of those spots. Even in the East Side, stringing a handful of those parking spaces together and bringing them with you as collateral to a real estate auction would get you some nice digs to live in. If a private developer thinks they stand to make some money by building a parking garage and charging drivers to use it, then within reasonable limits there's no reason why some of that type of development can't happen in our downtown. But to have the state pay for the parking of private individuals when it can barely keep a functional school system going or offer a good tax climate for local businesses is ridiculous, especially since that spending will inevitably mean that poorer non-drivers have to pay for the life-style choices of wealthier car owners. Even if the garage parking doesn't end of being totally free, the fact that municipal or state government gave it access to special credit arrangements or grants means that the cost of building the structure will have been spread out to non-drivers.

Fixing surface parking by paying for garages is like fixing diabetes by creating a special slush fund for amputations. The root cause of diabetes is poor diet and lack of exercise. The root cause of parking lots everywhere is poor zoning and lack of transit. Providing a garage may treat the symptom of surface parking just as sawing off a person's leg may become necessary emergency treatment for a patient who hasn't managed their blood sugar, but everyone knows that in either case, dealing with the root problem will be cheaper for doctor and patient than letting things get out of hand, and slapping on sloppy last-minute solutions.

Density of Businesses and Residents--Not Cars

Then there's the question of what makes a transit hub successful. Transit needs people. It needs places to go to, that are walkable at wherever the bus lets you out.

There's very little likelihood that someone driving into the city in their car will park in a structure, get out, jump on a bus or streetcar, and go about their business as a non-driver the rest of the day. Once you've committed yourself to buying a car, paying for insurance, paying for whatever gas got you most of the way to your destination, and then (hopefully, if it's not free) paying for parking, you've got little reason to pay another $2 each direction in order to not drive the last half mile. So there's going to be little to no interaction between the garage part of the structure and the bus hub.

If you don't own a car and are being sent to this new hub instead of Kennedy Plaza, you've got to ask yourself what you're getting from the arrangement too. Is there anywhere to shop at the hub? (No. Want some parking?). Can I rent an apartment above the hub? (No, but we've got some parking for you!). I'm without a car and need to get some groceries on the way to or from work! (Eh. . . No, we can't offer that. We've got parking!). Providence Business News has already extensively written on the failure of free parking at Wickford Junction to encourage transit use. Transit advocates should block the same strategy for the Jewelry District even more ferociously, because Providence's downtown isn't some outer village of the state. It's the core.

People respond, "Well, it happens that there are lots of jobs with the state and at universities, either now or soon to develop. People will take transit to those jobs." Uh, well, maybe somewhat, but not as much as you might like to think. The jobs that already exist for the state are mostly 9-5 gigs, and on a slightly modified schedule it's more or less the same for universities. This means that we might get some really great "peaked" service from RIPTA at the hub to meet those needs. It also means that since no reasonable bus drivers would want to drag themselves out of bed to work a split shift for a couple hours at opposite ends of the day, that we'll have some crappy intermittent service that's infrequent and more expensive than necessary. Transit will essentially need a higher subsidy to exist if it ends up with a peaked schedule. Peaked schedules also mean that commuters that aren't sure about their schedule on a given day will be incentivized to drive. I occasionally commute to Boston by train, and if I miss a trip back, it can be a long time waiting in the station until the next departure (even worse if you happen to be a "reverse" commuter to Providence). In our downtown, we want to make sure that lower income people who tend to work inconvenient schedules have a way to get to work. We want to make sure that professionals who have the money to buy a car but want to be "green" can do so without worrying that they'll annoy their husband/wife/kids by being late to a family event. We want young people who went out drinking to know that they can get a bus conveniently at any hour in order to stop drunk driving. Peaked service ends up being economically inefficient and suboptimal for riders. Lose-lose. (But we've got parking, did I mention? Maybe you should drive to work instead. . . ).

Places That Work With Transit Instead of Against It

Lot of cities have public places that work. These places might have a place to park as an incidental aspect of the design, but the main features of what makes them successful is a lack of focus on cars. It makes the spaces cost effective. It makes them beautiful. It gives them mixed uses that bring a variety of people at all times of day, to allow for frequent, non-peaked transit service. Here are some places I'd rather see in Garrahy than a garage (bus hub or not).

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I grew up in Upper Darby and Sharon Hill, two lower-middle class streetcar suburbs of Philadelphia. Starting around middle school when my parents would allow it, I could get on a trolley, ride to the endpoint of the El, take that to Center City Philadelphia, and go where I pleased on foot for the day. Reading Terminal Market was my favorite place to do this. I could actually take a trolley out in the other direction to a suburban mall, but I can't remember any times when I actually did this. What was great as a transit user was that I could get out, experience a place that had variety of fare (Thai food, pizza, Middle Eastern, unusual cheese, Indian, old-style ice cream, Amish farmers' markets, used books, etc.) all in one place.

There are lots of offices located in what used to be the headquarters of the Reading Railroad for the whole country, so the space doesn't survive on the farmers' markets and restaurants alone. Providence could copy a model like this and add parking-free apartments to boot, so that there would be a natural audience for transit use. Not including parking also makes apartments more affordable, which is key to meeting the needs of working class people as well as students, two groups of people who exist in large numbers in Providence. Empty-nesters would also find the apartments useful, and transit access would help older folks who can't drive anymore.

The Reading Terminal was so named because it was the terminus of the Reading Railroad. In the 1980s when Philadelphia connected the commuter lines that used to be part of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the Reading Railroad lines through an underground tunnel in Center City, people weren't sure what was going to happen to the old train station. But instead of tearing it down, adaptive reuse kept the market alive, and it's far and away one of the most popular attractions in the city. You can get any commuter train that serves the Philadelphia region, or jump on the subway/el, and it's only one stop to catch the other major subway line and intra-urban trolleys.

The market is helped by transit, but transit is also built by the market.

Findlay Market, Cincinnati, Ohio

My friend Kate's dad owned a Middle Eastern store in Findlay Market, in Cincinnati, and I was privileged enough to get to meet her dad on a brief visit to that city some years ago.

Findlay Market is part of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, which is just now getting to celebrate its victory in preserving a streetcar proposal that had been challenged by a Tea Party mayor. The city of Cincinnati stood to pay nearly as much to not complete the streetcar as it would have to complete the project, even before federal authorities threatened to withdraw $40 Million in funding for non-completion.

The streetcar is great, and since Providence is trying to get its own going, we should look to this neighborhood for inspiration. But the rail project itself isn't what will make or break the success of Cincinnati. What upholds the possibility of successful rail is the fact that the neighborhood has preserved a multi-use, walkable, dense environment where transit would actually be useful.

Which would you rather have, a parking garage, or this?

The Embarcadero

Providence removed an interstate highway to get this development opportunity, so maybe we should look at what San Francisco did when it removed the Embarcadero.

After an earthquake caused part of the highway to collapse, San Franciscans had to ask themselves if it was really worth the money to put such an eyesore back in. They decided against it, and now they have a vibrant neighborhood for it.

(Note: the key to this success was not parking. It was transit, bike lanes, walkable spaces, parks, and mixed-use spaces.)

A Crossroads

Given the choice of a parking garage without transit, or a parking garage with transit, I'm not even certain I'd choose option B. Transit's success is based on there being actual locations that people want to visit, with multi-use opportunities to live, work, or shop in the location. Putting a bus hub under parking may actually doom the transit hub to irrelevance, and that will undermine the ability to fix the mistake with future funding if that means transit advocates loose credibility with the public.

We need to recognize that a parking garage with a bus hub under it is an unacceptable proposal. It's not a compromise we should be ready to take. We gotta' stick it out for the real fight, which is getting Providence to allow public or private money to build places that will make our city memorable.


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