STAMFORD – A parking study that began three weeks before the onset of COVID-19 has been released, concluding that the pandemic added to events that were already shifting patterns in the city.
Changes in population and the workforce that unfolded between 2010 and 2020, the first year of the pandemic, substantially affected parking demand, the study found.
The changes were driven by pre-pandemic development in the downtown and South End, according to the study.
During that decade, Stamford’s population grew by 11.5 percent to more than 134,800 people. The city’s workforce grew by almost the same ratio, 10 percent.
The workforce increase included people who live and work in Stamford, plus Stamford residents who commute elsewhere to work. But the share of residents who work outside Stamford grew significantly more – almost 22 percent, the study found.
So more of Stamford’s newest residents were commuting to jobs in New York and elsewhere. Since most of them had moved to the South End and downtown, the neighborhoods closest to the train station, the hope was that they would ride the rails to work and not drive, and perhaps give up their cars altogether.
But that’s not what happened, according to the study.
A car-centric city
Between 2010 and 2020, the share of Stamford households without a car dropped from 11 percent to 9 percent, the study found.
So more people are driving.
Not only that, but 74 percent of people who work in Stamford drove to their jobs, the study found. Only 7 percent took the train, 4 percent walked, and .3 percent rode a bicycle.
“These data demonstrate that residential parking needs have become more prominent both downtown and in the South End,” the study states.
That’s only part of the story. The study says “it is also recognized that development and change in other neighborhoods has affected parking conditions.”
Because of that, the study, conducted by BJF Planning for the city’s Transportation, Traffic & Parking Bureau, looked at not only downtown and the South End but the West Side, East Side, Waterside, Glenbrook and Springdale.
One goal was to find ways to alleviate “ongoing and emerging parking concerns,” according to the study. Another goal was to advance city policy goals to promote Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate street fatalities; reduce air pollution; and ease parking requirements so it will cost less to develop affordable housing.
On page 70, however, the study warns the city to take into consideration that lessening parking requirements for lower-rent units “may result in localized parking shortages.”
COVID made the complex study of parking moreso.
Municipal garages underused
The original scope of the study included surveying on-street and off-street parking, but when the pandemic forced people to work from home and stay away from stores and restaurants, the surveys were canceled.
The pandemic also made it difficult to predict parking demands for train stations, office buildings and retail establishments, “since it appears that future travel patterns will not revert to pre-pandemic levels,” the study states.
But the researchers pushed on. They found that use of the three main municipal garages on Bedford, Bell and Summer streets – with a total of 2,025 spaces – fell during COVID, but vacancy rates were high, 30 percent to 60 percent, before the pandemic, the study says.
Researchers also found that, despite predictions that autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services would usurp car ownership, reducing traffic and demand for parking, that didn’t materialize.
“The introduction of ride-hailing services in the large, dense cities does not seem to affect car ownership. In New York City, car ownership has actually slightly increased over the period when the ride-hailing services became prevalent,” the study states.
It appears, in fact, that ride-hailing services worsen congestion because drivers travel long distances without passengers, it states.
And researchers “do not expect any significant changes to parking demands” because of autonomous vehicles.
The study found that one of the largest downtown parking sources, the 3,665-space Stamford Town Center mall garage, is so underused that managers lease 1,100 spots to car dealers.
Voices in the study
BJF Planning consultants held six meetings by Zoom in January and February of 2021. One meeting was with apartment building managers; one with downtown “stakeholders;” one with the Stamford Chamber of Commerce; one with residents of Glenbrook and Springdale; one with South End and East Side residents; and one with West Side and Waterside residents.
They got an earful.
The supply of on-street parking in the South End is increasingly limited, residents said. Tenants of the new Harbor Point high-rises park on the street to avoid paying for space in their buildings, competing for curbside space with residents of the older multi-family houses that have no driveways, residents said.
On the East Side, landlords of three- to five-family homes and condominiums do not provide enough parking, so people fight for on-street spaces, residents said.
On the West Side, residents are concerned that new developments will dramatically worsen “chronic on-street parking challenges,” the study states.
It cites a possible solution. The city’s Residential Permit Parking Program provides that, if 65 percent of the residents of a street agree, and the congestion threshold is met, residents may purchase permits allowing them to park curbside. Enforcement officers ticket parked cars that don’t have permits.
But there are problems with enforcement, getting people to agree to the program, and preventing guests from getting ticketed, residents said.
How many spaces are enough?
To determine whether the Zoning Board has set accurate parking requirements for residential complexes, BJF Planning counted cars in 11 buildings during the peak parking time, which is overnight. In eight of the buildings, parking demand was less than what the Zoning Board required, according to the study.
In some cases, however, the zoning requirements are too low.
Parking demand for studio apartments is not less than for one-bedroom apartments, the study says. It’s about the same.
That’s true, too, of parking demand for affordable housing units and market-rate units.
Parking demand for two- and three-bedroom units is about the same as for one-bedroom units, the study says.
And it’s not clear whether proximity to a train station by itself affects demand.
This week the study was presented to the Planning Board for approval, preceded by a public hearing that went on for an hour and 15 minutes. Residents’ frustrations were evident.
“People with two cars (in their household) are always driving around looking for a place to park because their building doesn’t allow them to have two spaces,” South End resident Sue Halpern said.
That may be a reason for traffic stoppages downtown, resident Monika Twal said. Since the 414-unit Smyth luxury high-rise opened on Tresser Boulevard, parked cars block that busy state thoroughfare, Twal said.
“People are parking on Tresser Boulevard. There’s no parking on Tresser Boulevard,” Twal said. “Then there are Amazon and UPS deliveries, and drivers stopping to drop people off or pick people up.”
Parking in Stamford “needs to be looked at,” Planning Board Chair Theresa Dell said.
“The idea that people are going to stop driving cars is a nice thought, but it’s not going to stop any time soon,” Dell said.
The Planning Board voted to approve the study. Transportation Bureau Chief Frank Petise said Wednesday that the study offers recommendations for his department and the Land Use Bureau, and they need to go through it together “and produce the list of next action items, as some recommendations will take longer than others to implement.”