Monday, December 20, 2010

The Norwalk Harbor Loop Trail

Mike Mushak lays out plans for the Harbor Loop Trail

"Ride the Loop!". This was the call-to-action from Mike Mushak and David Westmoreland as they outlined the work they've done to chart the last steps needed to complete the Norwalk Harbor Loop Trail.

This trail has been on the books in the Harbor plan for 30 years, according to Mushak. Every time there is major construction on a harborfront property, another segment gets built. Combined with the work that's occurred for the Norwalk River Valley Trail, Norwalk is now tantalizingly close to having a complete 3-mile loop around its harbor.

This isn't one of those projects that may be completed for the next generation to enjoy. This is a project than can be completed now--this summer. Mushak has set July as a goal. He positions it as an economic stimulus plan for Norwalk.

But there is one big difference between the Harbor Loop stimulus plan and other more controversial plans...the Harbor Loop plan is crazy cheap. Our distance to the finish line can be measured in the thousands of dollars, not the millions.

In fact, the biggest piece missing is political action. We need to get our city leaders to push this project through to completion. There is one short segment of trail that will need to be built across the undeveloped embankment of an existing property. The city needs to push that easement forward. Some money should be set aside for wayfinding signage and paint on pavement.

We can soon have families walking and biking past Norwalk's major attractions: the aquarium, Stepping Stones museum, Lockwood Mathews, Wall Street, East Norwalk, SoNo. If we build it, they will come. We need every leader in Norwalk to help push us past the finish.

The Harbor Loop Trail route. Blue segments are trail that has been completed or will be this Spring. Purple segments are on-road. The red segment is the only missing link.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How to fix parking in SoNo

Spots taken. [Image source: robinsresources.com]
South Norwalk parking has been getting a bit of coverage recently. And there's no doubt about it...parking in SoNo is a pain.

For business owners the pain is most acute, as they perceive customers lost to the easy-parking strip malls on Connecticut Ave or the free-parking towns of Darien and Westport.

What to do? First, we need to remember the original purpose of metered parking: keeping parking available where it is in short supply. Meters increase turnover and ensure that arriving customers can find a spot. Charging for parking also helps prioritize spaces for those customers likely to spend the most at local businesses.

When parking meters were first introduced--in 1935 in, of all places, Oklahoma City--they were tested by introducing meters on only one side of the street. According to the city manager at the time,
The two sides provided comparisons which are obvious. On the unmetered side is confusion. On the metered side is order, sufficient room for every car to be parked and driven out quickly and easily, and there are usually parking spaces open. [source: The High Cost of Free Parking]
Two years later, according to an article in American City,
Merchants and shoppers are both in favor of them. When one side of the street has them, merchants on the other side demand them. When one town has them, the merchants of nearby towns demand them, showing that they draw out-of-town shoppers rather than driving them away. [source: The High Cost of Free Parking]
So, where did SoNo go wrong? Why were those parking meters popular with businesses while SoNo's paid parking is so unpopular. The big reason is, SoNo's parking policy isn't making it easier to park.

When most people want to come to SoNo--a Friday evening, for example--on-street parking is free and impossible to find. When SoNo is mostly empty, like midday on a weekday, parking is $1/hour, discouraging retail.

What's more, it costs just as much to park on out-of-the way streets as it does to park on Washington Street or North Main Street, and it's often cheaper to park just in front of a store than it is to park in one of the less-convenient off-street lots.

It's no surprise, then, that we find it impossible to park on North Main Street or Washington Street, or that we find employees taking premium spots that would be better used by customers.

The solution is market-based parking. Parking should be cheap or free where there is low demand, and higher where there is high demand. Those looking to save money or leave their car all day can park a little further away. Customers stopping for a short time, or prioritizing convenience, can park right in front of the business.

This can be done in a way that both maintains the revenue to the Parking Authority and resolves the dual complaints that parking in SoNo is either too hard to find or too expensive.

85% occupancy is widely considered the ideal for parking planning. This translates to 1 or 2 spots free on every block. It's a worthy goal, one that would help businesses and customers.