Ask someone about driving in Bethesda or Silver Spring on a weekend night and he or she will give you a mouthful: “There’s nowhere to park!” But as those communities have grown, their parking demands have actually gotten lower. On an average day, thousands of spaces there sit empty.
Montgomery’s downtowns have lots of empty parking spaces. Image by the author using data from MCDOT.
This Friday, transportation planner Tom Brown and I will talk about parking and placemaking at Makeover Montgomery II, a conference about strategies for urbanizing suburban communities organized by the Montgomery County Planning Department and the University of Maryland. In 2011, Brown led a team at Nelson\Nygaard, where I now work, that recommended ways Montgomery County could better use its parking to promote and strengthen its downtowns.
Montgomery County has had its own municipal parking authority since the 1940s. A 1952 spread in the Washington Post’s “Silver Spring Advertiser” section boasted, “Look at all the parking space!” in downtown. But downtown Silver Spring couldn’t match the sea of free parking at new suburban malls like Wheaton Plaza, and it began to languish.
Many communities around the country faced the same story, especially older suburban communities that have more in common with revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods than in greenfield developments on the fringe. Yet these older suburban communities often have the power of place: unique, local shops and businesses, walkable streets, and vibrant public spaces. Today, people will eagerly deal with the hassle of parking to visit places like this and, increasingly, to live in them.
When Silver Spring started competing on place, not parking, it started to take off as an urban destination for the entire region. And a funny thing happened: as more homes and offices and shops were built around the Metro station, filling downtown’s gaps and vacant lots, the demand for parking actually decreased.
According to the Montgomery County Department of Transportation, the demand for parking in Silver Spring actually peaked in the early 1980s, when it had fewer residents and jobs. Today, a majority of downtown residents get to work without a car. Over 40% of downtown’s 9500 parking spaces are vacant all the time.
Realizing that its parking policies needed to reflect how people actually got around in its downtowns, county officials asked Nelson\Nygaard to offer suggestions. The resulting Montgomery County Parking Policy Study recommended reducing or eliminating parking requirements in urban areas, since there was already a glut of parking spaces, and finding ways to direct drivers to underused lots and garages.
Officials are starting to take the advice. Last year, the county passed a new zoning code that still mandates parking in new developments near transit stations, but requires far fewer spaces than it does for more suburban, car-dependent areas. That will conserve land and reduce building costs, as structured parking garages are very expensive to build lowering the barrier for potential residents and businesses who want to come here.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has introduced demand-based pricing in Bethesda, setting higher rates for on-street parking spaces and lowering them in garages to encourage drivers to park there instead. This frees up on-street spaces for drivers staying for brief periods; reduces circling for a space, which causes congestion; and sends a message to drivers that they’ll be able to find a space.
People will choose to live, work, and hang out in Montgomery County’s downtowns not because it’s easy to park there, but because they’re great places to be. Some parking will be necessary, but these places will thrive if our community leaders focus on urban design and create complete streets that welcome everyone who already comes to Silver Spring or Bethesda by foot, bike, or transit.
Makeover Montgomery II runs from this Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spring Civic Building in downtown Silver Spring. We’ll be part of a panel discussion this Friday afternoon at 1:45 pm. For more information or to register, visit the conference website.