Meeting the Access Management Challenges of Downtown Carrboro

I was going to try to re-hash the following into a column for the Citizen, but the issue of access in downtown Carrboro has generated so much discussion this week I figure I might as well put this out now. Below the jump is an email I sent to Mayor Chilton and all members of the BOA regarding the broad issue of access to downtown, and a sampling of several Transportation Demand Mangement strategies the town could pursue.

Dear Mayor and Board of Alderman,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Roberson Place project this week. In light of your retreat, I wish to share some ideas for the Board to consider as it prepares to deal with broader parking and mobility issues in downtown Carrboro. With that in mind, here are four over-arching themes to consider, followed by seven specific strategies and tactics for access management in downtown Carrboro.

FRAME THE ISSUE BROADLY. We all know the adage "when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." This is an easy trap to fall into when, in any parking-constrained area, people say "there's not enough parking!" This statement implies that everyone does (and perhaps far more importantly, should) come downtown by car, and that the only solution is providing more parking, probably in a deck. I assert that Carrboro does not have a *parking* problem, but that it has a growing ACCESS problem. People want to access the various attractions of downtown Carrboro- restaurants, stores, bars, the ArtsCenter, the Cradle, DSI. When they come downtown, these attractions are their primary goals, not a parking space. The primary question to be asking is not "how can we provide more parking downtown?" It is "how can we make it easier for people to access the businesses and activities that they wish to enjoy downtown?" If you focus on the latter question, I believe that you will find more tools at your disposal to make access to downtown easier, and that in doing so, you will also make parking easier for those who wish to park downtown.

CONSIDER THE POWER OF MANY SMALL CHANGES. Let's say you have 10 downtown employees, all of whom drive to work every day. Generally speaking, you will have a much easier time getting all ten of them to find a way to drive 4 out of 5 days instead of getting two of them to stop driving downtown altogether. Either approach still reduces this group of ten's collective demand for downtown parking by 20 percent. I doubt that there is any single strategy that will solve the downtown access issue, but a host of strategies that all temper parking demand by 3% here and 6% there can cumulatively have a big impact. Look for opportunities to pursue multiple strategies simultaneously.

PURSUE CARRBORO-SPECIFIC RESEARCH. Your staff probably has some books from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) called "Parking Generation" and "Trip Generation," that are used all over the country to estimate the "need" for parking in municipalities. There are case studies for 64 types of land uses in Parking Generation. Half the reported parking generation rates are based on four or fewer case studies, and 22 are based on a single case study. In all seriousness, Carrboro will be best served if these books are thrown in the garbage. The ITE itself explains why Parking Generation is an effectively useless book for downtown Carrboro:

"a vast majority of the data.., is derived from suburban developments
with little or no significant transit ridership .... The ideal site
for obtaining reliable parking generation data would ... contain
ample, convenienpt arking facilities for the exclusive use of the
traffic generated by the site .... The objective of the survey is to
count the numbeorf vehicles parkeda t the time of peak parking
demand(ITE 1987, vii, xv)."

(In short, this book excels at predicting parking needs for single-use commercial development in suburban areas with no transit service)

Carrboro, meanwhile, is one of the top 25 towns (woo-hoo!) for bicycle commuting in the 10,000 - 50,000 population size range in the USA, and has a transit commuting mode share 5 times the national average. (see below, and keep in mind that these numbers predate fare-free transit)
(Carfree Census Database)

I recommend the town determine Carrboro trip generation rates, meaning, on a daily basis, how many trips does Weaver Street Market generate, and how do people who shop there get there? Is it 80% auto access? 57% auto access? What about Open Eye, or Nested, or Carr Mill Mall stores, or the ArtsCenter? What are their percentages of people by mode?

Knowing this will be far more helpful than the dubious national figures in the ITE books. The City and Regional Planning folks at UNC could probably help the Town with this. Strategies will differ as we work to accommodate downtown visitors from Chapel Hill/Carrboro, and others from further afield. But most importantly, we need to know how Carrboro works, not the mean average of how suburbs of Tampa or Cleveland work.

RECOGNIZE THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS INHERENT IN THE PROVISION OF FREE PARKING When I moved to Carrboro seven years ago in 2001, I-40 provided free, unpriced access between RTP and Cary on a two-lane road section of Interstate in either direction. During peak traffic demand hours, it was an arduous, 9-mile-per-hour slog from RTP to Cary in the afternoon. In 2008, seven years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, we now have a three-lane, unpriced Interstate in either direction, and it is an arduous, 6-mile per hour slog from RTP to Cary in the afternoon. While OWASA is in decent shape, other Triangle cities have underpriced and undermanaged their water, and face difficult circumstances. I am sensitive to the comments of the business owners downtown, but if any of them believes that providing more free parking with no parking management will solve the problem, they are mistaken. Just as Raleigh's water users and the motorists on I-40 have no signals (price or otherwise) to help them use these resources more efficiently, a "free parking everywhere always" approach will yield similar results.

With those ideas in mind, what can Carrboro do to make it easier for people to access the businesses and attractions downtown?

1. START A DOWNTOWN TRANSPORTATION MANAGEMENT ASSOCIATION (TMA). What's a TMA? It's an organization, usually composed of public and private entities, that works to solve transportation issues that individuals or businesses cannot solve on their own. SmartCommute in RTP is an example of TMA that has been very successful at educating employees in RTP about their transportation options beyond driving alone. TMAs often focus on those who make regular, frequent trips to the TMA zone. In Carrboro, working with employers to spread information about bus routes which access downtown Carrboro, providing tips on all-weather bicycle commuting, etc., could begin to convert those who drive downtown to work 4-5 days per week to those who drive downtown 2-4 days per week.

2. IMPLEMENT A ZIPCAR PROGRAM IN DOWNTOWN CARRBORO. Zipcar ( is a car-sharing service where you can rent a car by the hour, and it is already in use at UNC. Imagine a downtown Carrboro worker who has managed to start biking or taking the bus to work most days. There are still those times when he/she has to go to the dentist, run an errand midday, etc. that would ordinarily necessitate bringing the car downtown and parking it all day. Zipcar allows the employee to work around it by renting the Zipcar for an hour or two. In cities where residents live near Zipcars, member households begin to "shed" cars and one Zipcar can often fill the second-car needs of 7 one-car households simultaneously. This can reduce the need for residential parking downtown with the many new buildings coming on line. The last time I talked to staff at UNC-Chapel Hill about this, Zipcar wants around $1500 in guaranteed revenue per month from rentals of the car. Some months at UNC, the cars are subsidized by the university. Other months, the cars turn a profit and need no subsidy from UNC.


4. CONSIDER HOW TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EXISTING FACILITIES. Carrboro has a large park-and-ride lot at University Lake off of Jones Ferry Rd, just 1.35 miles from the corner of Greensboro and Main St. A smaller, more nimble transit vehicle than the standard Chapel Hill Transit bus could probably cover the park/ride lot, Jones Ferry Rd, a right on Roberson St, a Right on Greensboro, a left on Main and back in 12 minutes, or 6 minutes for a one-way trip. That's five roundtrips per hour. This type of bus service might be very effective in bringing people from out of town to evening events at the arts venues, or to bars and restaurants. I also suspect it might cost less to operate than the debt service on a parking deck.

5. CONSIDER CONVERTING BIKE LANES TO METERED ON-STREET PARKING. This one probably looks controversial at first glance. However, there are some bike lanes whose need is somewhat questionable, such as the stretch of Main St from PTA Thrift to the Century Center. Speeds are slow enough that bicycles should probably be merging with car traffic here anyway. Metered, on-street parking may work well here. However, if it's the only paid parking, it will fail. Any pricing needs to be part of a holistic strategy of pricing and management.

6. UNBUNDLE RESIDENTIAL PARKING IN NEW DOWNTOWN BUILDINGS. This is the strategy I mentioned Tuesday. Those who buy condos or rent apartments have the opportunity to buy or lease up to a certain number of residential parking spaces. If a 2-person household only wants one parking space, we shouldn't force two spaces to be reserved for them. Let residents decide how much auto parking they need, and ask developers to provide covered, secure bicycle parking. You will see lower numbers of spaces used by residents. Typical reductions from unbundling are in the 10-30% of residential demand range. Asheville has had some success with this downtown. Spaces that go unused by residents due to unbundling can be allocated for office and retail uses in the same mixed-use buildings.

7. IMPROVE DOWNTOWN SIGNAGE TO COMMUNICATE TO MOTORISTS ABOUT EXISTING PARKING. The distance from the public lot on West Weaver Street to Tyler's is about 900 feet. The distance from the movie theater to the food court at Southpoint is about 1000 feet. However, it is a little difficult for an out-of-towner looking for parking for Tyler's to figure out that there may be 15 open spaces on West Weaver. Consider putting up wayfinding signs that read "parking- 3 minute walk from this intersection," or some similar message that emphasizes the ease of walking from the parking to destinations. Portland, Oregon and Philadelphia have excellent wayfinding signage systems. Wayfinding Sign example

Hopefully, this provides a few ideas that the town can consider to address the access challenges downtown will face as it grows in accordance with our Downtown Vision Plan. I also recommend Todd Litman's "Parking Management Strategies, Evaluation and Planning(PDF)," a report from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute that has many, many more approaches to this issue. Litman has an excellent summary on pages 7 to 9 where he talks about auto dependency and the need to shift to a new parking paradigm from the one that is currently used.



Great post Patrick. I learned a lot from it. I appreciate the logical approach. Lots of good ideas here for the town(s) to pursue.

What are some ways individual businesses can encourage their customers to arrive without driving? Especially customers who don't live in Chapel Hill or Carrboro.

BTW, I'm seriously interested. Not trying to start an argument. :)

I was thinking about that the other day when I was having a conversation about transportation demand management strategies. Below is a small (but not exhaustive!) list of ideas I was considering for commercial traffic.

  • For some businesses, especially doing B2B sorts of things, providing a delivery service makes sense, and even more so if the deliveries are chained in a logical order.
  • As someone who used to (but not so much anymore) do almost all of his traveling by bicycle, I quickly became familiar with which retail locations don't have adequate bike facilities. Racks are important, but so are many smaller design details in parking lots, like small gaps between speed bumps. Eastgate comes to mind as a bad example...
  • While not technically a means for preventing car trips, taking steps to encourage trip chaining would certainly help. Partnering between related businesses to offer discounts and other cross-promotions would both stimulate the local economy and hopefully force some transactions into the same trip.
  • Likewise, another not-quite-an-answer-to-your-question solution I thought about was time staggering. Peak road usage occurs, not surprisingly, during the hours of 8-9am and again in the afternoon starting around 3-6pm. Parking usage probably isn't much different, and looking at what times of day lots are least in use to try and draw in customers would reduce congestion, resulting in quicker trips (and less idling, consequently less smog), and require less infrastructure. Perhaps offering a 5% discount for purchases during off-hours in retail establishments (or instead a 5% surcharge at peak) would be worth it to some businesses seeking to maximize potential customers.
  • TOD :)
  • Of course, sometimes something as simple as a business noting that they're conveniently on a bus line (and which bus line!) on their website and other promotional material can make a difference.
Other ideas? I'm curious to hear creative solutions.

Brian, thanks for reading. While obviously getting folks to shop in downtown Carrboro without a car would be ideal, I would make our first outreach group downtown employees, for a couple of reasons:

1. If we target regular tripmakers, we can put a bigger dent in parking demand than trying to reach a broader number of infrequent tripmakers.

2. It's easier to find them!

This relates to the TMA idea above. You'd be surprised at how many people who live in town and see the buses every day have no idea where they go, if they stop near their house, etc. Just putting information about the choices that are currently available regularly into the hands of employees is a great place to start.

As for the folks coming from out of town, I'd reach out to the bar/restaurant/entertainment crowd first. If you wanted to promote a downtown shuttle bus from the Jones Ferry lot, for example, it would be more cost-effective for the town to start only on Thu-Sat nights, or even Fri-Sat nights. Intercept those folks at the park/ride lot, and while they may 5-6 minutes for the bus, they won't spend a lot of time hunting for a space. You need to do a service like this for at least 6 months for the word to get out, and you also need to promote it, and you need the businesses working with you to have the biggest impact.

I think signage improvements would also help. I'd be surprised if the lot at Town Hall is full on weekend evenings. It's a pretty short walk from there to all the evening entertainment opportunities.

You make a great point. We have an excellent free bus service, but it is a lot harder to learn how to use it than "just jump in the car."

How many DUIs could be prevented by people taking the bus?

In DC, I knew the Metro like the back of my hand. I never drove. However, I lived next to people that bragged that they never used it.

It sounds kind of kooky, but maybe we need a little more publicity about how to use the bus system.

It wasn't until my car broke down that I realized how good our bus system is...

I still think we are missing the point by this "POD" 1950's model and should start mixed/use throughout the county - this should not mean more strip malls!! However, a bus primer for suburban folks like myself would be very useful.

It was dumb luck that I found my way cross town without knowing a thing about which line to get on. If I can do it, there is hope for everyone else.

Why not include a lecture in bus usage for the High Schools?

When my parents grew up in the 50's and 60's they took the city bus to school - no one could afford a car where they lived. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing...

--Freedom is not just another word

You make several points quite well! but you seem (to me--ICBW) to avoid some of their obvious implications:

Most notably, though you seem to recognize it, you do not state clearly that free parking is bad. Am I missing something in either your statement or your position? Assuming not, I note further that nowhere in your recommendations do you state the obvious corollary, which is that we should provide less free parking. Is this not part of the "new parking paradigm" to which we "need to shift"? Fortunately, Litman is clear that "users should pay directly for the parking facilities they use," and that "all significant costs and benefits should be considered in parking planning" (both p2). Given that "generous parking supply is part of a cycle that leads to increased automobile dependency" (Litman p7), and the significant external costs of smogmobiling (e.g. greenhouse gas impacts, reduced personal fitness) which free parking subsidizes, the aggregate cost of parking must increase significantly, which implies free parking must decrease significantly.

By contrast, you state clearly that Carrboro should "unbundle residential parking in new downtown buildings." Noting that, currently
Mark Chilton on Mon, 01/28/2008 - 5:20pm.
What ends up being the upper bound of development [in downtown Carrboro's B1G zoning district] is the parking.
do you not mean to say that Carrboro zoning rules should decrease the amount of free parking which they oblige developers to provide?

Note the need for clarity. Previous discussion (et al) has made clear that Carrboritos talk greener than we walk (or bike or transit--pun intended). (E.g. at the Focus-the-Nation kickoff @ UNC Great Hall Wednesday night, Mark Chilton congratulated UNC for creating an environment where it's "less desirable to drive because there's nowhere to park.") Given the current state of our polity and discourse, I find it unfortunately probable that, in the absence of clarity, the powers-that-be in this Town will enthusiastically adopt your proposals (possibly after neutering #6) and preserve current levels of free parking--or even increase them--to satisfy their business constituency, thus reducing, or even negating, the benefits which your proposals might provide. Be clear, or be greenwashing.

Hence I'd like to suggest a change in focus. The primary question to ask is not "how can we make it easier for people to access the businesses and activities that they wish to enjoy downtown," provided one allows whatever means such people may choose to utilize. It should rather be, "how can we enable people to sustainably access the goods and services they can sustainably enjoy?" The universe cares not about our ease. It is under no obligation to provide us with cheap fossil fuels, or to dispose of the products of their combustion, and is unlikely to sustain these mad, bad practices too much longer. Our land-use policies must take heed.

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