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Imagine Rochester: On-street parking is critical for successful Main Streets

Imagine Rochester: On-street parking is critical for successful Main Streets

In this edition of Imagine Rochester I will be tackling a subject that most think is mundane: on-street parking. Specifically, how on-street parking impacts commercial Main Streets in cities like Rochester.

Main Streets used to be the principal thoroughfares of American towns where people could find all types of goods and services. They were the center of commercial, social and civic activities, and thrived up until the 1960’s and 70’s, when large-scale auto-oriented shopping centers became popular. Today, many communities are revitalizing their Main Streets to return to a traditional mercantile environment or are creating hybrids of traditional and contemporary mixed-use centers.


While Main Streets vary from community to community, there are some universal characteristics. They are usually short segments of arterial or collector streets, often only a few blocks in length. They are usually within a grid of local streets serving the commercial center of town (or neighborhood) with short, walkable blocks with minimal or no driveway accesses and are often served by alleys.

Land uses on Main Streets are composed of compact, mixed-use development with an emphasis on retail and entertainment, but can also include residential. The buildings have storefront facades that are oriented to the street without a setback, and are usually attached or closely spaced. Parking lots or garages are located behind the buildings, and support a “park-once” environment. Main Streets also include wide sidewalks or “streetscapes” that support active uses such as street cafes, social interactions, strolling and window shopping. They are by tradition and design, pedestrian friendly.

Photo: Omaha / Andy Masterpole

Yet one of the most critical components of a successful Main Street is the benefit provided by on-street parking. In 2008, Norman Garrick of the Center for Transportation and Urban Planning at the University of Connecticut, released findings from a study that demonstrated the important role of street parking in creating a vibrant and healthy Main Street environment.

He found from this study that on-street parking plays a crucial role in benefiting Main Streets on numerous levels. Some of the main benefits include:

Higher efficiency: Users of Main Streets consistently selected on-street parking spaces over off-street surface lots and garage parking. The on-street spaces experienced the most use and highest turnover.

Better land use: Using on-street parking saves considerable amounts of land from becoming a surface parking lot. Medium-sized Main Streets can save an average of more than two acres of land by providing street parking. This efficiency can allow for much higher density commercial development than is possible if the center relies solely on off-street surface lots. Parking garages take up less space and are an important part of a Main Street’s parking strategy, but are expensive to build with costs around $20,000 per space.

Photo: Denver / Andy Masterpole

Increased safety: The study showed conclusively that drivers tended to travel at significantly slower speeds in the presence of features such as on-street parking and small building setbacks. Slower vehicle speeds provide pedestrians, cyclists and drivers more time to react, and when a crash does occur, the chance of it being life-threatening is greatly reduced. For pedestrian walking on the sidewalk, the parked car provides an excellent buffer from traffic. There’s a phrase in the planning profession, “when fear arrives, pedestrians depart.” A major source of fear is the possibility that a car might run off the street and hit you. On-street parking alleviates this fear because the cars act as a shield. People don’t consciously recognize this all of the time, but it is also why you never see a sidewalk café next to a freeway.

Better Pedestrian Environment: The study results showed that Main Streets with on-street parking and other compatible characteristics such as generous sidewalks, mixed land uses and higher densities recorded more than five times the number of pedestrians walking in those areas compared with the control sites, which lacked these traits. On-street parking in urban areas is often used in conjunction with curb extensions (also called bulb-outs). Curb extensions extend the sidewalk into the parking lane to narrow the street and provide additional pedestrian space at key locations; they can be used on corners and at mid-block.


All of this adds up to the creation of a better retail and pedestrian environment. On-street parking provides the opportunity for shoppers to make a quick “stop and go” commercial purchase, which is a tremendous benefit to businesses.

Retail expert Bob Gibbs says that every on-street parking space in a thriving retail district is worth $250,000 in sales to the nearby merchants on that street. People will walk much further along an interesting Main Street to get from their parking space to the store they’re going to than they will walk from a parking lot.

If you want to kill the businesses along a thriving Main Street, just remove the on-street parking. It’s guaranteed.

Andy Masterpole is a member of the nonprofit advocacy group Imagine Kutzky. He is a landscape architect and urban designer with more than 20 years of experience working in Rochester.

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