Parking in downtown Charleston can seem like a hassle, particularly during big events or on popular shopping days. So it might come as a surprise that, at least from a purely economic standpoint, the peninsula actually has too much parking space.
That’s only one of many eye-opening conclusions from the city’s first comprehensive parking study in two decades, the results of which were recently released and given City Council’s stamp of approval Tuesday.
There are some caveats, of course. Several of the city’s parking garages fill up almost completely on a regular basis at peak hours. Some neighborhoods have given out more parking permits than available on-street spaces — in one case more than twice as many.
But the entire peninsular parking system — garages, surface parking, private parking and on-street spaces — doesn’t typically fill up beyond about 75 to 80 percent of capacity. The study’s authors estimate that about 1,000 spaces are empty even during peak conditions.
In other words, the problem isn’t that there’s not enough parking on the Charleston peninsula. In fact, there’s a little bit more than necessary. The challenge is helping people who need to park find spaces quickly and efficiently.
Some of the proposed solutions are rather technically complicated, like creating parking apps or installing technology to monitor available curb space. Others would be more easily implemented, including creating consistent signage and consolidating parking management. All merit consideration.
Of course, part of an effective parking system is minimizing how frequently people need to park in the first place.
More than half of respondents at public information sessions and in an online poll conducted as part of the parking study said they’d be willing to use public transportation, which is notable since nearly 90 percent said they currently get to the peninsula in a car, most of them driving alone.
Participants were also asked to split a hypothetical $100 in public funds on transit to the peninsula, transit around downtown, bike and pedestrian infrastructure or improving parking. About 73 percent of the money was spent on transit and non-car infrastructure.
Suffice it to say that actual public spending in the Charleston area does not typically reflect those priorities.
A park-and-ride system, however, has shown that people are willing to use transit to get around the peninsula when the price is right — all-day parking in the park-and-ride lot is $5 and the shuttle is free. It’s likely that an expanded park-and -ride effort could work beyond the peninsula as well.
Cost remains a concern for low-wage workers who commute downtown by car from elsewhere, and solutions ought to make affordability a priority.
The most recent study only looked at the peninsula because that’s the only part of Charleston where the city owns and operates public parking. But some of its findings are of note in the suburbs and in other area municipalities as well.
If the Charleston peninsula has a slight oversupply of parking, for example, most of the rest of the region has an outright glut. That excess capacity carries both direct and indirect costs for residents by eating up valuable real estate and reinforcing car dependency — and the associated congestion, accidents and expensive traffic fixes.
We need places for people to store their cars, of course. We could certainly do a better job maximizing parking capacity we already have. Charleston City Council now has a smart set of proposals to do so.
But our focus ought to be primarily on places that work for people.