» Featured Research Project

Featured Research Project


CTLS 10-03: Assessing the Relationship between Transportation Mode Choice and Transportation Land Consumption 

Principal Investigator: Dr. Norman Garrick



What Killed the Hartford Whalers? Parking Lots! – A look at CTLS project 10-03

By Christopher Burns

Without the automobile, the American city as we know it today would not exist. 4 lane streets, and traffic lights dominate even the United States’ most walkable cities – like New York and Boston.

Dr. Norman Garrick is a University of Connecticut Professor and a researcher with the Center for Transportation and Livable Systems. He noted in a recent interview that because of the assumed economic reward of making a city “car-friendly,” many well-intentioned city planners modernized their cities by increasing the production of parking lots, wide-laned roads, and suburban communities. What many of these officials did not realize, he says, is that these policies were effectively strangling the economic viability of their city.

In the 1950s there were more cars on the road than ever before, while rail based systems like trains and trolleys – which once dominated the public’s access to transportation in most cities and rural areas – slowly succumbed to the rise of the automobile. By 1960, the concept of local trains and inner-city trolleys were all but destroyed by inexpensive access to gasoline and automobiles. As one would assume, automobile integration became a large priority of U.S. cities at that point.

However, the effects of prioritization have not been spread uniformly over those cities. Some have managed their land usage throughout the existence of the automobile effectively, while others have been very ineffective.

The effectiveness of a city’s car-integration, according to Dr. Garrick, has had a huge effect on its economic and environmental sustainability. Additionally, he says parking areas are far more important to a city‘s success than the roads which bring cars to them.

“Once you build roads,” he said, “they stick around for a long time.” Compared to the static nature of roads, parking areas are most indicative city’s continuing transportation success, because their placement and size are constantly evolving, he added.

Despite the importance of this dichotomy, says Dr. Garrick, the issue has received little attention
from policy makers as well as researchers.

“All transportation Engineers seem to care about is moving a car from ‘there’ to ‘there,’ but once the car is parked, researchers don’t really care about what happens to it.”

In order to better inform both the scientific, and government communities of the effects of transportation infrastructure on the livelihood of American cities, the UConn researcher began a study in 2010 entitled Assessing the Relationship between Transportation Mode Choice and Transportation Land Consumption.

Following this line of thinking, his study took aim at understanding how the amount, and placement of land dedicated to parking relates to the overall transportation system of a city.

By carefully delineating aerial maps of 14 diverse urban centers from the 1960s, to the 2000s, Dr. Garrick and his team identified the growth of land dedicated to parking over the course of 40 years, and compared that to the mode of transportation most used by residents traveling to work.
In seeking to understand these connections, Dr. Garrick made some interesting discoveries.

The overdevelopment of parking space, he maintains following this research, is the most-ignored cause of recently failing cities in the United States. Using the differences between Hartford and Cambridge (two of the fourteen study sites) as an example, Dr. Garrick explained his rationale in a recent interview.

In Cambridge, there was a large amount of early emphasis on maintaining the city as a ‘walkable’ city, he said. This meant that city planners – although they took into account the eventual influx in car traffic – specifically looked to maintain the area’s real estate, and commercial hot spots by restricting the placement of land reverted into parking areas. Tactics like this one provided a balance between economic input from automobile traffic and walking traffic; allowing the city to sustain solvency.

On the other hand, Dr. Garrick says that Hartford did not follow this model.

Instead, they “took out a lot of the structure of the city” when residents first began moving out of the inner city and into the suburbs. During this time, city planners removed a large chunk of Hartford’s low-story buildings, and replaced them with parking lots, he said. This created a disjointed city with very little community feel.

Dr. Garrick believes that Hartford officials operated (and currently operate) with a “…need to compete with the suburbs. They saw that the way they could compete with the suburbs was to become more auto-oriented. All of these policies are based around competing with the suburbs.”
In order to compensate for real estate lost to parking, developers were encouraged to ‘build up,’ creating a few taller buildings to take its place, he said.

Due to a lack of economic growth, the creation of tall buildings “hasn’t compensated” for lost real estate, Dr. Garrick said. As a result “They have basically lost employment, residents, and all of their retail.” Perhaps more importantly, they lost the Whalers.

Following the suburban exodus, Hartford found itself so geared towards automobile-integration that its ‘walkability’ was nearly destroyed..

Though Hartford’s policies have never been successful, city officials “have never questioned the basic premise of… Does this actually work?” Dr. Garrick said. In fact, they continue to follow this model of competing with the suburbs today, with parking lots currently being built and subsidized by the State of Connecticut.

When Dr. Garrick and fellow researchers point to the success of Cambridge relative to Hartford’s parking structure, he finds that many policy makers feel that “Cambridge is something special. They see it is something exalted and say ‘well we are not Cambridge!’ but that’s the point, isn’t it?

…when the assumption is that the status quo is correct, you have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt [to show] that this is the main cause. That can be very difficult because there are a lot of other things going on. So the intent of this study is to systemically prove that there is a connection” between parking and economic viability, Dr. Garrick said.

Though the literal upwards growth of the city’s landscape makes it appear like Hartford is a growing city, the emphasis placed on parking areas has had a jarring effect. The city, rather ominously, now has more parking spaces than the amount of employees, shoppers, and residents in need of a parking space on the busiest day of the year.

But that’s the point, isn’t it?




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