Thursday, August 02, 2007

Suburban Parking Woes: Improved Transit Service Can Help

In just the past week, the Town of Pittsford has been in the news for two separate stories related to parking shortages. One is a seasonal issue, the Buffalo Bills Training Camp, which only lasts for a month between late July and late August. Two designated off-site parking lots (at Pittsford Sutherland High School and East Rochester High School) are not large enough to handle the number of fans that the Bills attract to the St. John Fisher College campus. Not only are these lots not large enough, but they are not appropriate places to direct such large throngs of traffic. Both of these schools are located in already traffic-clogged, densely-populated villages. As the above-cited article points out, once these lots fill up, fans are parking illegally on narrow village streets, causing a very unsafe situation should emergency vehicles need access them.

The other Pittsford parking problem is occurring at Pittsford Plaza, associated with the opening of some sort of upscale chain restaurant and the continuing redevelopment of the plaza. According to the plaza's owner, the property is operating at "the max" right now and with a bunch of new stores coming soon, one can surmise that the parking situation will only get worse. Apparently, shoppers are being forced to park in lots across busy, high-speed Monroe Avenue and walk (the horror!) to their destination at the Plaza. Unless they want to kill the burgeoning future of Pittsford Plaza and the entire Monroe Avenue shopping district around it, this parking shortage issue must be resolved.

This prompts the question, why must we drive everywhere? It's a simple equation, if more people choose to walk, bike, or take public transportation, there will be more parking spaces available for those who choose not to. But it seems that very few of us are selfless enough to make the choice to change our lifestyles. The reasons behind our apathy toward alternative modes of transportation are completely understandable. Cars are just too damn convenient, even with soaring gas prices, increasing traffic, and parking shortages at key destinations. There are ways to address this problem, but they will all be met with defiant opposition from those who fear change and a perceived assault on their "way of life."

For one thing, the only place that should be free for you to park is your own driveway. If there were a charge to park at every space in the area, people would begin thinking about making changes. Why do you think you have to pay to park in Downtown Rochester? This is about supply and demand; it's basic capitalism, folks. If you had to pay to park at Pittsford Plaza, wouldn't you think twice about driving? Maybe you'd park somewhere else and walk over; maybe you'd hop on your bike and ride over; or maybe you'd take public transit. Then again, if the parking fees were reinvested in the Plaza to create a more appealing destination, it could have the opposite effect. When the Old Pasadena shopping district in southern California instituted paid parking and used the proceeds to improve the streets, sidewalks, landscaping, etc., it dramatically increased the number of visitors coming to the once-struggling district. Therefore, putting an end to free parking is only part of the answer.

Creating a viable bicycle/pedestrian environment with safe, well-maintained, and appropriately-marked bike lanes, sidewalks, and crosswalks will ensure that those who would choose to walk or bike to their destination have the ability to do so. This is simply not the case on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford or any of the other suburban commercial strips in our area. I recently had the pleasure of strolling along Jefferson Road in Henrietta when I dropped my car off for service for a couple of hours. I can safely say that, as long as I have a choice, I will never do this again. Unfortunately, many lower-income individuals in our community have no choice. So long as we want our office bathrooms cleaned and our chain restaurant food microwaved, we should provide an environment that allows our neighbors of lesser means the ability to walk to their jobs with dignity, and safety. Not to mention those of us who actually enjoy walking!

Finally, and quite obviously, our transit system does not come close to serving the needs of shoppers on Monroe Avenue or visitors to the Bills training camp. Current RTS service is almost entirely focused on rush hour commutes; this does nothing for your average suburban shopper (I should note that bus service within the city is generally pretty good; unfortunately, it is all but impossible to live your life entirely within the city limits these days). By instituting express bus service on both crosstown and hub-and-spoke routes, we can begin to serve these other trip purposes. Beyond that, we need to have a serious discussion in this county about planning for a county-wide light rail system. Yes, it's expensive and no, it is not a money-making venture, but unlike bus service, permanent reliable rail service can have a profound long-term impact on tourism, commuting, and car ownership in a community. While the City of Rochester has supported the concept of light rail transit service for a long time now, such a service cannot be limited to just the city if it is to be successful. It must be a complete system, stretching north, south, east, and west to key destinations all across the county. This means not only Charlotte, Kodak Park, Downtown, and the University of Rochester/Strong Hospital; but also RIT, Marketplace, the Airport, SUNY Brockport, the Villages of Fairport, East Rochester, Pittsford, Spencerport, and Brockport, etc. This requires the support of our area's major institutions and suburban governments; support which, to this date, has been entirely non-existent.

Think about it, if there were a light rail line running on the former Auburn Line through Pittsford, potential Pittsford Plaza shoppers could hop on a train near their home, get off at a stop on the other side of Monroe Avenue, walk along newly-constructed sidewalks, cross at newly-marked crosswalks, and enjoy their afternoon or evening at Pittsford Plaza. Similarly, if there were a light rail line running along the CSX mainline through East Rochester, Bills fans could get off at the Linden Oaks stop, and take a shuttle from there to the College. This would cut down on the amount of asphalt needed at our destinations; that would allow developers the opportunity to build on that wasteful asphalt; and that would allow our local governments to increase their respective tax bases. Sounds like a win-win to me, so what's the hold-up?