Brattleboro hears results of parking study

Results show ‘mismatch’ between perception and availability, town planner says

BRATTLEBORO — According to a recent downtown parking study, “there are more parking spaces than people think there are,” said Planning Services Director Rod Francis.

Francis was at the May 1 regular Selectboard meeting to present some findings from the study, which was funded by a municipal planning grant to address how the town could improve downtown parking facilities.

Also present was Andy Hill of Desman Design Management, the firm that conducted the study, the results of which could inform imminent budget discussions.

The study focused on public and private parking, on- and off-street, in 13 blocks of downtown.

The inventory, Hill said, counted 2,314 spaces in this area with 52 percent in private parking lots, 31 percent in public and off-street - mostly in the Transportation Center - and 9 percent a mix of public and private, are off-street, and are by permit or for employee use only.

The remaining 8 percent are the most in-demand parking real estate: the on-street, public spots. The ones right outside the restaurant, shop, or bank where you want to go.

Hill mentioned a common perception about Brattleboro: you can't park downtown. But his study results, which included a survey, don't quite support that notion.

“We have a mismatch between where people think the parking is, and where the parking actually is,” Francis said.

Although the study found peak weekday utilization at noon, it did not find any public lot full all day, with the exception of “the very small lot near Whetstone Station,” Hill said.

317 new spaces?

With a number of development plans in the works, including new restaurants, offices, exhibition spaces, and residential units, plus the possible loss of the Preston Lot, the system could experience some stress, Hill said. By running this scenario through a program commonly used in municipal parking planning, he determined the need for 317 new spaces.

But Hill sounded no alarm. He said that lots adjacent to the areas likely seeing higher demand could easily handle the need. The issue is more about “significant management issues,” he said, which add to the public's perception that key parking spaces aren't turning over quickly enough.

According to the data collected during the study, this perception is off, too.

“Our observers looked at the typical length of stay and how many times the spaces turned over,” Hill said.

The results? Nearly all people who park along Main Street and in Harmony Lot - the shortest-term parking spots - comply with the established two- and three-hour time limits.

On Main Street, most spots turn over five times on a typical day, Hill said.

And, most long-term parkers are in lots or in the garage.

“That's really good,” said Hill, because “that's the sign of a well-managed system.”

To alleviate some off-peak parking issues, Hill suggested the town enter into agreements with the owners of off-street spots, such as businesses, to allow public usage. These agreements could cover liability, he noted.

The Desman study included what Hill described as “extensive outreach” in the form of stakeholder surveys. These were distributed in paper form at the Brooks Memorial Library and at the Municipal Center, and online on the town's website, Francis said.

Of the approximately 12,000 Brattleboro residents, 1,000 people completed the survey, and about 800 of them were validated, said Hill. He noted that's “statistically a reasonable representation.”

Survey participants were younger than the average Brattleboro resident as reported in the 2017 census, and more women responded than men.

Just over half live in the 05301 zip code, and most identified themselves as people coming to town to shop, dine, and seek entertainment.

A smaller number said their primary reason for coming downtown is to work or live.

Against dynamic pricing

Hill noted the survey respondents expressed little support for dynamic pricing, which makes parking more expensive during peak usage times. They want consistent rates, cheaper rates, and time limits. They don't want higher rates and no time limits.

“Are we expensive, compared to other communities?” asked Selectboard member Tim Wessel. Hill noted Brattleboro's parking rates are in line with Rutland, and cheaper than Keene, N.H., Springfield, Mass., or Montpelier and Burlington.

Those surveyed expressed frustration that meters only take coins. They want meters to take credit cards, but “there's not so much interest in smartphone payment,” said Hill.

A simple solution, said Hill, is to install updated meters, or central kiosks, and the town can save money by leasing or entering into a revenue-sharing agreement with the vendor, rather than buying the machines outright.

Hill recommended the town improve the municipal website. It needs better information on parking and transportation options, he said.

He also suggested the town address the misconception about what happens to the money collected from parking tickets. There's a belief that it's a “profit-grab,” he said.

The truth is, that funding supports improved parking, and is paying the debt for the Transportation Center, and public officials should communicate that much better, Hill said.

“A significant number of comments” were about the Transportation Center, he noted, which was described as “dark” and “dangerous.” However, most people using parking facilities downtown rated them as in average or better condition, said Hill.

Hill gave a few “low-hanging fruit” suggestions for how to make the garage more inviting: Use refractive paint on the floors and ceilings, and install more lighting.

He did not recommend installing “panic lights” because those give the public the perception that the area is unsafe; he also cautioned against closed-circuit television because of “liability issues.”

Car culture

Most survey respondents - 83 percent - said they come to town via car, and only 2 percent by bicycle. But, Hill noted, the survey collected many comments indicating if the infrastructure is there, with bicycle parking and dedicated bike lanes, more people would take two wheels into town.

In an attempt to address the common merchant complaint about potential shoppers giving up on downtown because of a lack of parking, Hill said the survey asked participants about the acceptable walking distance between where they park and their destination.

“A majority of people indicated they were comfortable walking a block away, up to two blocks away, some of them even farther,” he said. And, Hill noted, “the vast majority of people can find parking in 10 minutes or less,” even during peak times, and over half said they can find a spot in five minutes or less.

“That's a pretty good performance rate,” Hill said.

He acknowledged “a very small percentage of respondents said, 'I will turn around and go elsewhere, I'm not going to try.'” Hill noted, “most of them said, 'I will park some distance [from] my destination and walk back.'”

“This is great news for you folks,” Hill said. “You built a very dynamic, attractive downtown and folks are willing to get over the very small barriers to access it.”

But what about people for whom the barrier is much higher?

Selectboard member Brandie Starr noted she has received “many complaints” about handicapped parking on Main Street.

“Vermont is an interesting state,” said Hill. Legislation allows anyone with a handicapped parking placard to park in any public parking space for up to 24 hours without a fee or citation, said Hill, “as long as you are not violating some sort of life safety statute,” like parking next to a hydrant.

Selectboard Chair Kate O'Connor noted the Board will discuss the Fiscal Year 2019 parking budget at the May 15 Board meeting, “so the results of this study may inform some of our decisions.”

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