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The Commons
News

Brattleboro takes look at parking downtown

Boston firm to aid town in studying transportation policies, the first effort of the sort since the 1980s

Originally published in The Commons issue #418 (Wednesday, July 26, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.



BRATTLEBORO—The first public meeting on the downtown parking survey had few attendees.

Thirteen people, including municipal staff, Selectboard members, and the press, convened at the Brooks Memorial Library on July 18 for a presentation given by Andrew S. Hill.

Hill is a senior consultant with Desman Design Management, the Boston-based parking and transportation consulting firm that is conducting the study.

According to information from the presentation, Desman has worked on “more than 2,500 parking projects in its 40 plus years in business, including many municipal engagements.”

Rod Francis, Brattleboro’s planning director, told attendees the last time the town studied parking downtown was in the 1980s. The July 18 meeting is far from the last chance residents and visitors have to offer their opinions on the downtown parking situation, Hill said.

“We’re still a distance from forming opinions and presenting options,” Hill said. The next step is to collect public feedback and other data, such as a land-use inventory, work with the town’s Planning Department, and come up with a set of solutions.

“When you talk about parking, you’re really talking about how the town relates to its visitors,” Hill said.

The survey

“We’re experts in parking,” Hill said, but the people who live in, visit, and work downtown “are the experts in Brattleboro.”

To help collect that expertise, Hill presented his firm’s “Brattleboro Downtown Parking Survey,” a questionnaire anyone can complete.

“I want people to participate,” he said. “Surveys are critical because it gives us a way to interact with the broader populace” who may have ideas or concerns “we haven’t heard yet,” Hill said.

The questions cover many aspects of parking downtown: why someone spends time there, how they get there, and where they usually park. It also asks for factors that determine where someone parks and why.

The survey also asks for ratings on the town’s public parking facilities, and if users are interested in paying for parking with credit cards or finding spots using smartphones.

Interested parties can find the link to the survey at www.brattleboro.org, and those wishing to take the survey on paper can contact the town offices for a copy.

Many of the attendees at the July 18 meeting had questions, concerns, and suggestions for Hill.

Former Town Meeting Representative David Cadran advised the Desman staff to consider poor people in its study. He suggested they reach out to Southeastern Vermont Community Action or the Department of Labor to “get information from people coming into or going out of the workforce.”

He pointed out that making parking meters credit- or debit card only will leave out some of the most vulnerable, because “low-income people don’t often have access to banking, so please consider that.”

More than one attendee expressed frustration with the winter parking ban.

Cadran characterized the bans as “outdated,” and noted “hundreds of cars are competing for a space in the parking garage” during active municipal plowing. Downtown residents without private off-street parking options are the hardest hit.

“It’s a very frustrating issue for lots of people,” he said.

Hill said he wants to talk to more downtown residents, and directed them to contact him through Rod Francis and Sue Fillion in the town’s Planning Services Department.

The study

So far, Hill and his associates have been in Brattleboro for about a month to conduct a complete parking inventory. They went block-by-block and identified every downtown parking spot and recorded its allocated use — who gets to park there and for how long. They also examined how long cars stay in parking spaces, and how often those spots turn over.

They counted cars on two different days, at the top of every even hour, “which gives us a baseline,” Hill said.

He acknowledged the limits of the study. “It’s very rare that we show up in the busiest hour of the busiest day of the year,” Hill said — so part of the study includes collecting anecdotal information.

The study Hill presented showed a map of downtown, divided into 13 sectors.

Some sectors, Hill explained, have “more demand than supply” in the number of parking spaces, “and that’s where you have a parking problem.” Sometimes there are enough spaces to go around, he said, but they are poorly located or are “the wrong price.”

There are 2,290 parking spaces in downtown Brattleboro, according to the Desman study. Of those, 61 percent are private — employee, customer, residential, or mixed-use parking. There are 687 public parking spaces in lots or in the Transportation Center garage, including 79 handicapped spaces.

Nine percent, or 198, of the public parking spaces are curbside spots and, of those, 119 are two-hour metered spaces on Main Street.

The proportion of public and private parking spaces is “a normal breakdown” for towns of a similar size, Hill said.

The Desman study’s results point out that overall, the average total occupancy during the weekday was 47 percent, and peak utilization occurred at noon, when 57 percent of downtown parking spaces were filled.

About parking enforcement, Hill said, “I’ve been ticketed twice since I’ve been here.”

Ebb and flow

He considers this important data for the study. “I feel good about that because parking enforcement is happening, and that’s a good thing” for the ebb and flow of parking in a downtown. Plus, “I’m happy to contribute to municipal funding,” he said.

In the study, Hill and his colleagues identified a few places of concern — some specifically about parking, some peripherally.

One area that needs some help, Hill said, is the area near the courthouse. “The many signs on the north end of town signal a parking need,” he said, and added that he is working with courthouse staff to get their input.

Another challenge is the area that locals — and Google Maps — refer to as “Malfunction Junction.” Hill expressed wonder at how those on foot make their way from the Amtrak platform to Main Street.

The study will address how to manage or mitigate pedestrian use in that intersection.

An aspect of parking that goes beyond the number of available spaces is the town’s terrain, Hill noted, and how it affects one sector of the area’s demographics: Windham County’s aging population. Hill pointed out the severe grade change from the bottom of Arch Street along the railroad tracks — a place that could possibly offer public parking — to the upper part of Main Street.

“It’s a 55-foot vertical change,” Hill noted.

Hill and his associates have heard a variety of concerns from people who park in Brattleboro, and Hill acknowledged that while the town “has settled the low-hanging fruit” of parking issues, part of Desman’s contract is to suggest options for future planning.

Some of the remaining issues, according to public comments Desman collected so far, are requests for longer curbside parking, meters that take debit and credit cards, and some parking option other than “pay as you go” where “you have to keep coming back” to feed the meter, Hill said.

One suggestion Hill fielded was for Brattleboro to offer free downtown parking as a standard operating procedure. He said if municipal officials implemented that, it would require more parking enforcement to make sure parking turnover occurred. He characterized paid parking as “a clear exercise of individual choice.”

Hill noted that some municipalities have implemented “dynamic pricing,” which makes parking cheaper for one, two, or three hours, while longer stays cost more per hour. He again described this system as one that “puts folks in the position of making a choice,” but he didn’t address how that would affect residents and workers who have no choice but to park long-term in public spaces.

By late August or early September, Hill said, he and town officials will convene another public meeting and present what he called a “Chinese menu” of many parking-related options town officials may choose to implement.

Perceptions

Hill differentiated between “qualitative” and “quantitative” data in studying parking. Both sets of criteria are important.

The former may prove the town has plenty of spots, but the latter, “the ‘on the street’ experience,” says Hill, might be different from what the numbers say, especially if the parking spaces aren’t where people need them. Then, the public perception is, Brattleboro has a parking problem.

Anecdotally, most people prefer street parking, Hill said.

“Curbside parking is the best parking in the world,” he said, noting the ease of parking in front of your destination. Thus, “it’s very important to manage [it], you want it to turn over,” he said, “because if you don’t, people turn around and go home and say, ‘Don’t go to Brattleboro, you can never park there!’”

The “perceptive standpoint” of a first-time user is that if a section of town is at 85 percent capacity for curbside parking, “it’s full,” said Hill. The ideal is between 80 and 85 percent, he said, because then “people don’t have to hunt too long” for a spot.

Hill noted he and his colleagues have repeatedly heard townspeople’s concerns with “the large number of people congregating” in or near public parking facilities, such as on the Flat Street level of the Transportation Center.

“Parking garages have a bad rep,” he said. Hill revealed he had been involved with parking garage studies with the FBI, and, according to the bureau’s data, “point of fact, they are pretty secure facilities.”

One attendee wasn’t convinced. The parking garage “doesn’t feel safe, [speaking] as a single, young woman,” she said.

Although Hill earlier had said perceptions of safety in and around the parking garage were “outside our bailiwick,” he assured attendees the Desman study will include suggestions to the town on modifications to create a safer and more welcoming atmosphere in the facility.

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