Too Much Damn Parking

The headline on the Commercial Appeal was a great way to start my trip to Memphis. “Parking study finds too many spaces Downtown, still thousands more to be added.”

To make it more poignant, I was planning on racing a parking lot criterium, not far from the downtown, the next day.

Memphis, which I’ve been visiting for over 20 years, has changed significantly in terms of how it views transportation. When I first came by, it was allegedly one of the most dangerous places to ride a bicycle in the United States. Much of it resembles what I guess can be called “post-war America.” Lots of straight, flat, wide roads designed to maximize the speed and convenience of drivers. The design was probably easy to implement as the terrain is pretty flat and much of the city’s growth has been to the east, as the city is limited to the west by the Mississippi River. In the newer parts of the city, commercial spaces, be they office or retail or industrial, are surrounded by parking lot moats, and everyone has a space at work and wherever they are thinking of shopping, so they can drive solo for all their needs.

The old city, which was founded in 1819, had smaller roads, but is clustered to the west and the city line moved progressively eastward over time. As white flight and such hollowed out the downtown area, with blocks and blocks cleared and left empty, it was probably fairly easy to widen the main arteries and provide more than ample parking. Since I first stayed, the city has invested in cycling, with bike lanes, a bike share system, and an expanding network of rail trails and on-street bike paths.

For Memphians used to driving, that they can’t find a parking space exactly outside the place they want to go seems to be an affront, so the idea that there’s too much parking seems absurd to those who ooze car culture.

However, the numbers are fascinating. There are 71,364 parking spaces in the Downtown and Medical District areas. The Downtown Memphis Commission, an organization funded by an assessment on commercial property in the city’s Central Business Improvement District, that is trying to improve the area to attract people and business to live, work and play in the area, commissioned a study that found the neighborhoods could do with 50,000 spaces, even 20 years from now, even with the growth they’re projecting. That’s an excess inventory of 43%. And most parking, even during the middle of the week, 7am-7pm weekdays, is underutilized, with 31-60% occupancy most of the time; only midday in the Medical District does it go above 60%.

The car set doesn’t seem to believe this. They feel the DMC is interested in making it harder for them to drive downtown. But this could be an age thing. A few years back, I was riding with a Memphis chain gang, and a middle-aged rider was telling me about how he was pushing hard for bike amenities in Memphis. He was a cyclist, of course, but he also was an employee of a large corporation that needed people to move to Memphis. Younger adults, he reasoned, weren’t in to the car culture, and unless Memphis did something to modernize itself, the city would lose those younger adults to places like Indianapolis.

Looking at the DMC’s Downtown Parking Study Working Group, it’s clear they have buy-in from the city as well as some of the bigger businesses, with even AutoZone, which is based in Memphis and has named the minor league baseball stadium downtown, is on board.

There are oodles of surface parking lots, taking up space that could be turned into residences or businesses. There are some garages, and more are planned.

The DMC wants to reduce the number of parking spaces, make more people pay for parking, and add enforcement. They want the money gained to go into projects like improving bus service, adding to their bike share program, improving sidewalks—all things to make it easier to walk, ride, or use mass transit to get around. Currently, 83% of people working in the study area drive solo to work, with another seven percent car- pooling. 69% of people living downtown drive alone to work, a group that the changes the DMC is proposing will benefit from.

The Memphis story dovetails with an article recently published in The Atlantic, which looks at how the law is configured to benefit driving and drivers. Not only is the home-mortgage tax deduction a benefit to those who drive, but, so, too, is the parking deduction, and the often-legal requirement that many municipalities put on businesses to provide a parking space for every worker. According to the article, “parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities.”

It’s a classic case of induced demand. When Memphians fled the city, often as part of white flight, they went east, north, and south, to places where they could have bigger houses, more space, and longer drives. Business also moved east. The city was hollowed out. New roads were built wider and old roads were widened.

Now, there’s an interest in moving back into the city, and reducing commute time and minimizing car-centric culture. But the transition is difficult and slow. Germantown, which grew as Memphis shrunk, has continued to grow as I’ve returned and returned to the city. It’s “downtown” is my idea of a suburban nightmare; several long blocks lined with parking lots and malls in the middle. They have a performing arts center, GPAC, which can’t be seen in the middle of the parking lot. The same with the public pool, and the local malls, which seem to be what the downtown is made of.

Just north of this downtown is a development that seems intent on creating an urban oasis within. It is centered on a clock tower in the middle of a traffic circle, with a hotel, apartment building, and stores. Across the street from the apartment are townhouses. Down the street is a retirement community. Yes, ample parking, but potentially, people could commute to/from work and then leave their car in the garage for a while. But limiting the “urban” advantage is the fact that walking outside the development, even across the street to GPAC, or up a few blocks to shop, or less than a mile to the large park, isn’t easy. Few crosswalks, lousy sidewalks. But as there’s a wide, straight, underutilized street running from the development south, it could be relatively easy to redesign the street to prioritize walking and cycling, though most such changes are hard-fought.

That’s where parking comes back in. If parking isn’t so convenient, if supply is reduced, demand will adjust.

There’s too much damn parking.

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