Downtown Hartford’s Parking Must Be Drastically Reduced

Union Station’s Spruce Street Lot, owned by the Greater Hartford Transit District.

The Greater Hartford Transit District (GHTD) recently held a meeting regarding the future use of Union Station. The Station, which serves 700,000 bus and rail passengers a year, will find itself on the wrong side of the tracks when the I-84 relocation project is completed and a new facility will be needed.

But with any Downtown Hartford development comes a misguided emphasis on parking. Vicki Shotland, the executive director of GHTD, is quoted as saying, “[T]here needs to be more parking: 200 spaces is not enough.” It was claimed that the proposed block-long parking garage is needed because as Downtown grows, the demand for parking will increase.

Hartford Off-Street Parking in Red — compared from 1960 and 2000.

Since 1960, Hartford has tripled the amount of off-street parking available. Many believe that this was a tragic mistake and hurt the city more than it helped over the long run. With the highway being moved and rebuilt in a far more sympathetic way, what do we do now?

As for the parking at Union Station, the answer should be nothing. By my informal count, there are over 3400 off-street parking spaces within a five-minute walk of Union Station, not including the garage in the XL Center. Downtown overall, according to research, has close to a staggering 40,000 off-street spaces in total. If the demand for parking cannot be satisfied by that many spaces, then it is safe to say that the demand is simply not possible to meet.

The GHTD’s proposal to replace the Spruce Street lot with a massive parking garage and bus terminal.

Why do I say it’s impossible? Because the majority of cities in the United States — despite nearly all of them having increased parking — don’t even come close to providing the amount of parking that Hartford has destroyed itself to deliver. This remains true no matter how you measure parking — spaces per acre, spaces per built square footage, or spaces per resident.

What the facts say — and your own experience likely bears out — is something that most do not want to hear: no city in North America or Europe is successful, walkable and thriving and also has parking available at these high levels. This is because of geometry — you can not reach a critical mass of concentration of activity when such a substantial amount of space is dedicated exclusively to the storage of motor vehicles.

To say that Hartford can succeed with this level of parking — or even more — is to say that Hartford can do what no other city has ever done. Hartford has enough challenges for it to continue taking this one on needlessly.

The Greater Hartford Transit District is looking for additional sources of revenue with this project, and that we can all appreciate. But research shows raising our parking levels brings with it a corresponding increase in private automobile use and a declining share of transit use. Given the organizations’ ostensible purpose is providing, improving and increasing public transportation, building more parking seems remarkably counterproductive, if not completely inappropriate.

Fortunately, not everyone is in denial. Hartford’s Parking Authority chief has been quoted as saying, “There’s a huge amount of [parking] supply, I’d say an oversupply.” Most of the figures and research I have referenced come from the remarkable work of UCONN’s Associate Professor Norman Garrick, and former UCONN student Chris McCahill — who sadly are able to use Hartford as a uniquely dismal and extraordinary outlier in their papers. Hartford’s new award-winning Zoning Code — ironically not applicable to a State project such as Union Station — has no parking requirements for the property in question.

Hartford before & after the construction of I-84 and I-91.

Rebuilding I-84 is a unprecedented opportunity for Hartford to undo many of the planning mistakes of the past sixty years. The time has come for us to make absolutely certain that not one thing built in its place continues those mistakes.

References for Further Reading:

Cars and Robust Cities Are Fundamentally Incompatible, Norman Garrick and Chris McCahill, Citylab, Feb. 2013

Urban Parking: Rational Policy Approaches for Cities and Towns, Chris McCahill and Satya Rhodes-Conway, The Mayors Innovation Project/Center on Wisconsin Strategy, May 2015

Visualizing Urban Parking Supply Ratios, McCahill, Garrick, & Atkinson-Palombo, Congress for the New Urbanism 22nd Annual Meeting, June 2014

Parking in Urban Centers: Policies, Supplies and Implications in Six Cities, McCahill, Haerter-Ratchford, Garrick and Atkinson-Palombo, Transportation Research Board, November 2013

Automobile use and land consumption: Empirical evidence from 12 cities, McCahill & Garrick, URBAN DESIGN International, August 2012