Parking Space Or People Space?

As we continue our research into what makes a community healthy, sustainable, and livable, we can use maps and geographic data to reveal new underlying trends and identify areas where our communities need improvement. We are using our home base of Madison, Wisconsin, as our test case, but the types of analysis we are doing can be and are being performed in communities across the world.

Last week, we brought you a map of city streets in Madison categorized by how much space is given to pedestrians relative to the total right of way. To understand this question more clearly, look at this picture:
pedestrian zone visual
On this fairly standard residential street, the total right of way extends from the residential lot line where it hits the sidewalk all the way to the lot line across the street. One indicator (although by no means the only one) of the quality of the walking experience is how much space pedestrians have relative to cars or to the street as a whole. On this street, pedestrians have a relatively high amount of space relative to the size of the street.

We used the available information on Madison streets to produce the map below, which shows the ratio of pedestrian space to total right of way width for virtually every street in the city. Note that most neighborhood residential streets fall into the 0.4 – 0.6 ratio category, although some neighborhoods overachieve. On arterials and downtown streets, pedestrians do not fare as well relative to cars, and on a few streets, the road is so wide (or the sidewalks so narrow) that pedestrians have little space relative to traffic. This type of analysis can help identify streets where the walking environment needs the most help to increase the overall quality of life, environmental performance, and public space connectivity of a community.
Madison Pedestrian Space Ratio whole city

Today, we present another set of maps, these having to do with automobile parking. While streets move people, goods, and services in transit and on bicycles as well as in cars, parking lots are a use of land dedicated solely to storing cars. Local ordinances require off-street parking for most land uses, usually setting a minimum standard.

What this system has done is create a land use pattern that offers many conveniences for people driving or riding in cars, but at a cost. Every acre of land devoted to parking rather than mixed-use retail, housing, offices, entertainment, or quality public space makes it easier for drivers but makes it harder for people using other modes of transportation to accomplish their goals by spreading out the non-parking uses.

It also tears holes in the fabric of a street, isolating smaller pockets of walk- and bike-friendly development. Last but not least, it deprives local governments of revenue through property taxes forgone. After all, a landowner both receives more income from and pays more property taxes on walkable, mixed-use urban development than on a parking lot.

Madison is a relatively compact, dense, walkable community relative to many others, at least in the central city and surrounding neighborhoods. However, surface and ramp parking lots still make up 8.4% of the land area, especially downtown, on the UW-Madison campus, and along commercial corridors:

By the numbers:
-Acres in parking 368.2
-Acres, total land area 4378.1
-Percent of land area in parking 8.41%

These numbers do not include private driveways, on-street parking, or parking ramps underneath other buildings, so the actual space devoted to car parking is actually much higher. Regardless, the numbers (and the maps) remind us of the price we pay by relegating so much of our community’s available land to cars.