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Editorial: Parking woe - perception or reality?

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THREE parking garages later, there are many who say Columbus still has a downtown parking problem.

Actually, Columbus has had a parking problem for better than half a century. As far back as the 1950s, some far-sighted Columbus leaders were suggesting that an answer to the problem would be a multistory parking garage.

The counter to that expensive proposition was that the lack of adequate parking spaces was only a perception. Opponents usually said that they seldom had a problem finding a vacant space.

That back and forth continued for several decades until the city finally took a leap into the unknown with a four-level garage between Fourth and Fifth streets on Jackson. That structure had hardly opened until plans for a second parking structure were announced. In short order, a third garage between Sixth and Seventh on Jackson Street was opened.

In all, there are 2,000 spaces in the three downtown garages, but that number is somewhat misleading. The garage on Sixth and Seventh streets is reserved for Cummins Inc. employees. In the garage surrounded by The Cole apartments, 500 spaces are reserved for Cummins employees from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., (they are available to the public after 5 p.m.) and the remaining 200 are reserved at all times for Cole residents.

Even the public garage has limited access, since 300 of the spaces are leased, with only 100 open to the public on a limited three-hour basis.

The same conundrum exists with surface parking. A significant number of the surface spaces are in privately owned lots reserved for employees of major downtown businesses, such as Cummins Inc. and The Republic. City officials estimate that there are approximately 430 unlimited parking spaces on streets and lots which are available to the public.

The problem is deemed acute by a number of smaller downtown businesses and their employees who have to fend for spaces on a daily basis, many walking several blocks to their place of business. All agree that the problem is complex with no simple but far-reaching solution in sight.

The cause of the newest crunch is pretty easy to discern. Over the past decade there has been a tremendous increase in downtown residents and workers, equal to the spaces in the three garages.

Various ideas have been put forth ranging from a resurrection of the shuttle service between the business district and large parking areas in Mill Race Park to a change in the leasing structure of the public garage, but before those kinds of approaches are adopted, it would seem prudent to develop some real statistics about the situation rather than fall back on anecdotal evidence.

A good start would be to get an accurate count of just how many people work in the downtown. It has been several years since a thorough survey was conducted among area businesses as to the number of their employees. In 2011 city officials estimated that there were 4,100 workers in an area bounded by First, Eighth and Lindsey streets and Lafayette Avenue. Growth projections in the next few years are set at 5,300.

However, those are only speculative numbers that compound the anecdotal evidence.

City officials note that there are available spaces in or near the downtown area that are used infrequently. Proper promotion of these spaces through directional signage on the streets and maps posted prominently in downtown businesses could ease the pressure on the more popular locations.

Finally, the city is continuing to encourage workers to consider biking and walking to their places of work. Unfortunately, based on casual observations, the bicycles parked in the downtown during working hours — even at the aesthetically pleasing “C” bike racks — are few in number.

It is safe to acknowledge that there is a parking problem, but it is equally safe to say that the solution rests with the cooperation of almost everyone who uses the downtown.

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