Downtown Wichita's Parking Problem: Part I

By Alex Pemberton

With the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament finally upon us after 24 years of waiting, many of our friends and neighbors have once again been asking The Question.

You know... that question.

The question that is asked every time a new development is announced for downtown, or INTRUST Bank Arena books a big show.

It's perhaps Wichita's existential question.

"Where is everybody going to park?"

Downtown is for People

That's the title of an essay by the vaunted urban theorist Jane Jacobs, published in Fortune Magazine in 1958. 

Consider Wichita sixty years behind.

Today, in 2018, our downtown is for cars. Nearly 40% of developable land from Kellogg to Central and Washington to the river is used as surface parking. Add in parking garages and streets, and over half of our downtown is devoted to the movement and storage of private vehicles. To put that number in perspective, less than 1% of downtown land is used for public parks and plazas. It is for this reason that Yellowbrick organized Wichita's first (and only successful) PARKing Day in fall 2016.

The imbalance is so striking that simply explaining numbers or re-imagining a dozen on-street parking spaces hardly does it justice.

But it's worth a shot. 

In 2007, the city conducted a parking and mobility study to plan for the arena's impact. That study found that the downtown area has more than 30,000 parking spaces.

To put a frame of reference on how astronomical that number is, consider this: INTRUST Bank Arena seats just over 15,000. There are two parking spaces downtown for every person at even the most popular arena events.

Day-to-day, there are more parking spaces than people who live and work downtown. The oft-cited statistics are 26,000 daytime workers (until it was pointed out that that number is wildly inflated, at which point Downtown Wichita stopped using it) and 2,138 residents. Even if every resident and employee in the downtown district parked their own car, there would still be more than two thousand parking spaces sitting empty.

What we have here is a walking problem, not a parking problem.

Why Walk When You Can Drive?

That last little snarky line is nice in theory. Urbanists like me love to use it to rub in how we're morally superior to those lazy, camouflage-sweatpants-clad motorists. The problem with using that snarky line is that it ignores fundamental human nature and the results of decades of intentional decisions. 

Humans are creatures of convenience. We cannot expect them, en masse, to change. But research demonstrates that people are willing to walk, provided that the walk is just as useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting as the next option. It is this type of walk that our downtown fails to provide -- due to the abundance of parking, destinations are spread out, speeding cars dominate the streets, shade is sparse, and the most common vista is an ocean of asphalt. 

"I am a 26-year-old male urbanist seeking a city-loving companion. I enjoy long walks along giant parking craters and watching the sun set over vacant lots." - Me, sarcastically, to make a point. See how ridiculous it is to walk in downtown Wichita?

Of course, if your options are either spend ten minutes braving the unpredictable Kansas weather whilst trudging across windswept swaths of nothingness or spend two minutes in the comfort of your climate-controlled glass-and-steel cage in carefree search of (usually free) parking... you will choose the latter. 

Heck, even snobby urbanists like me do the same a good chunk of the time.

So while it's frustrating to hear the constant gripes about a lack of parking -- despite its clear and inarguable abundance -- it's certainly understandable. If we want people to enjoy our emerging downtown by foot, we need to give them a reason -- an invitation -- to walk. We need to make walking downtown so compelling, so enjoyable, that it is the first option that comes to a person's mind.

And to do that, we need to make intentional choices for a better path forward. 

How Downtown Hollowed Out

Downtown Wichita wasn't always this way. It used to be compact, connected, and convenient. It used to be walkable. 

 Prior to World War II, Wichita's downtown was filled with buildings and people. Today it is pockmarked by parking lots and - as a result - generally devoid of street life.

Like most cities across the country, eager to partake in the post-war boom -- with millions of veterans returning home to the wealthiest nation on earth, all needing a place to live -- Wichita jumped aboard a number of urban planning trends that are ubiquitous now, but cutting-edge then. These trends were almost all driven by the rise of the personal automobile.

Freeways extending into fields, which started sprouting single-family tract homes where they once grew wheat. Widened city streets to enable quick, free-flowing traffic. And, of course, parking.

Lots and lots of parking. 

As in other cities nationwide, parking was mandated by the City of Wichita. Any change to downtown -- and downtowns, by their very nature, are always changing -- required along with it new, off-street parking. 

Buildings were torn down for structured parking garages first; then, as the invasive species (the car) ate away at the flesh of Wichita's downtown and property values cratered, the economics shifted such that buildings were torn down for simple surface parking lots. 

Remember, this destruction of the city was mandated by the City. 

Path Dependency

 Breakdown of capital improvement investments, via  The Chung Report

Today it is well-understood that parking comes with high costs -- even when it's ostensibly free. And Wichita has started to make some changes in recognition of that fact. A few years ago, the City ameliorated decades of destruction by eliminating required parking minimums in areas zoned Central Business District. 

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. CBD zoning comprises less than 3/4 of 1% of Wichita's land area. The elimination of mandated parking downtown -- while a worthy and necessary change -- is a drop in the bucket in a city in which over 98% of capital improvement funds go to support getting around by car and virtually the entire remainder of the city is playing by different rules enforcing auto-dominance. 

We've hit a point of path dependency.

Wichita no longer has truly walkable neighborhoods -- much less neighborhoods with the requisite density to support robust transit services.

It is important to remember, though, that it took half a century of intentional decisions to get this way -- and it will require the same to make our way back to a vibrant, connected urban center. 

In Downtown Wichita's Parking Problem: Part II, we'll provide a roadmap for how to turn the tide of our urban parking ocean, charting a new path forward by combining national best practices with local context.