A recent survey showed that many people are confused about off-street parking and concerned about disabled parking in downtown Olympia.
However, results also showed that people are relatively satisfied with the parking offerings in the area.
The city presented some of the survey results and discussed possible solutions to downtown parking struggles at a Thursday open house, attended by downtown visitors, residents, employees and business owners.
“Parking and accessing downtown is directly linked to the vitality of downtown,” said Debbie Sullivan, the city’s deputy director of public works. “We know that it can either enhance or hinder our future here, so it’s really important for us to take a look at it.”
The online survey was conducted between Jan. 24 and March 6. The city received 2,623 responses; however, because the respondents were self-selecting, the results are not statistically valid. Still, Sullivan said the city is taking the results “very seriously,” as she believes they reflect the views of people who care about parking and coming downtown.
The survey found that there is significant confusion surrounding off-street parking, which accounts for 80 percent of downtown’s parking stalls. About 51 percent of respondents said they aren’t sure which off-street parking lots are available for them to use. Some lots require permits, some are customers only, and some are open to the public.
Only 8.1 percent of respondents said that off-street parking is easy to find and conveniently located throughout downtown.
To demystify off-street parking, the city will consider using signs to direct drivers to usable lots, and distinct branding — similar to Seattle’s blue and white ePark logo — to make it clearer which lots are available for public use, Sullivan said.
Shared parking was proposed as a way to increase the number of available stalls in off-street parking lots — good news for anyone who finds it frustrating to drive by empty permit- or customers-only parking stalls while searching for a spot.
Here’s how it works: Say a specific business is open only from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and outside of those hours, their customers-only parking lot is empty. If they lease the spots for after-hours use to another business with later hours or to the city for use as visitor parking, that’s shared parking.
“It’s making use of what’s already existing, maximizing what’s already there,” said Karen Kenneson, parking supervisor for the City of Olympia.
Shared parking exists informally in some lots in Olympia, but could be expanded to lots throughout downtown through partnerships between private landowners and the city.
Helping people with disabilities access downtown
Another standout in the survey was the difficulty of finding accessible parking downtown.
Of the respondents who use disabled parking, 47.5 percent reported that it is inconvenient and difficult to find, and 26 percent reported that parking is a deterrent to coming downtown.
“If you combine those two numbers, that’s a pretty big number for a vulnerable population,” Sullivan said. “That is absolutely something we need to look at in terms of developing strategies.”
Solutions to improving parking for those with disabilities are difficult to find. There are no requirements for accessible on-street parking spaces, Kenneson said. And though people with disabled parking placards can park for free in on-street parking spots for an unlimited amount of time, these spots are inaccessible to people who have difficulties getting out of their vehicle onto a curb.
And while the Americans with Disabilities Act requires lots to have a certain number of accessible and van-accessible spaces, it’s a minimum standard. A lot with 400 spots would require nine total accessible parking spaces, only two of which would need to be van-accessible.
Doyle Fanning, who uses disabled parking, said going by ADA requirements is not enough. When she visits downtown for events that aren’t close enough to parking spaces she knows will be available, she often arrives one or two hours early to find a stall.
“People with disabilities want to be independent,” Fanning said. “I think all we’re saying is, pay attention to it. Don’t assume that it’s gonna be taken care of because the ADA was passed.”
Fanning also wants to see more people with disabilities getting a voice.
“I’d like to see them involve people with disabilities on some of their advisory committees,” Fanning said. “They’re very good about seeking out people who have businesses downtown, or employees. … If you’re not disabled, you’re not going to ask the questions. You’re just not.”
Sullivan said that people with disabilities were not part of an advisory committee of stakeholders, which included downtown residents and representatives from local businesses and parking and transportation programs, but that it is a “great idea” for the future.
In general, survey respondents were split over the ease of finding parking. More than one-third said that it is less convenient than other areas but not bad for a downtown, while another third said that parking deters them from coming downtown. About 10 percent said downtown parking is convenient and easy to find.
Despite the disagreement, almost 75 percent of respondents reported that they typically find parking within an acceptable walking distance to their location, while 60 percent said they often have to circle the block.
But the importance of addressing downtown parking is not lost on those who are satisfied with their own experiences parking downtown.
“We want to see the downtown be very vibrant, full of life, lots of people living here, and we know that parking’s a piece of that issue,” said Mike McCormick, who lives near downtown. He said he doesn’t have a problem finding parking there.
Other solutions the city officials will consider include centrally located parking garages, free bus passes for downtown employees to free up spots for visitors, and pay-by-phone parking, which would allow people to pay for parking with a smart phone app.
In addition to the survey, the city conducted a two-day field study to collect data on where and for how long people park downtown, which will help determine the need for parking in specific areas.
A draft of a parking strategy will be presented to the Olympia City Council in September.
Want to comment on parking?
Comments about downtown parking problems and solutions can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org through mid-August.