10 Tools to Tackle Most Any City’s Downtown Traffic and Parking Problems

This post is derived from a discussion given at The Last Stand Neighborhood Forum on Transportation and Affordable Housing on June 9, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. at the Eco-Discovery Center in Key West, FL and has been updated with additional information over the last year. A snippet of video from the event is here .

Cities small and large across North America want to get more people biking, walking and using public transit instead of driving alone. Why? Because people-friendly, walk-bike-transit places spur economic development and make cities more green, healthy and happy too.

Streets and sidewalks take up 25-50% of a typical North American city’s land. This is a huge community asset. If you use this asset to speed cars around you get one kind of place. If you use this asset to prioritize people instead of cars you get another.


What are some of the ideas that make up a people first approach? What tools are useful for cities in using this great asset better? Research shows there’s no one single magic bullet that’s going to fix traffic and parking congestion in a city’s downtown. Rather, it takes a multi-pronged, holistic approach. Here’s 10 Tools that any city may consider doing to increase biking, walking and transit use and decrease traffic and parking congestion:

(1.) Parking Garages

If you need to build a garage for visitors, build it, and keep the congestion off the streets. But build it outside of your downtown district. No need to bring more cars inside an already small, tight and congested area. Do this AFTER you’ve done all the other steps and only if you really need it.

(2.) Wayfinding

parking signs

Direct people to garage parking with wayfinding signage so they aren’t hunting all over the place for on-street parking. Help pedestrians and bicyclists too.

  • Develop a truck/delivery plan for the main street so it is less congested with delivery and trash and recycle vehicles at all times of the day. Coordinate the merchants and plan the hours.

(3.) Transit

Transit is an important part of a city’s transportation system.

philly phlash
Philadelphia’s Philly Phlash Circulator

Downtown Circulator. To make it easy to get around downtown you need better ways of circulating around it. Many cities provide downtown circulators specifically for tourists and the folks who live and work close-in. Make the route easy to understand. Provide frequent service. Make it easy to pay.

  • Maps and Info at Bus Stops. Apps are great, but there is no substitute for putting a map and schedule at every bus stop. Brand the bus stop. Put amenities at the bus stop.
  • More frequency/Simplified system. Successful cities emphasize transit as a first option for the majority of people to get around. Don’t design your system so that only those that have to use it, will. Simplify routes. Increase service frequency. Make it easy to pay.
  • Vanpools and Carpools too. Supplement transit with a robust vanpool and carpool program.
  • This article points out the importance of frequency vs. coverage: Many Americans Live Near Transit, But Few Live Close to Good Transit. Also visit the Transit Center think tank and the Human Transit organization.

    (4.) Bikeways Network and Bike Parking


    About 60% of the population would be willing to bicycle, if it were easier and safer to do so.

    • Build a network of protected bikeways and trails and low-stress streets so that people of all ages and abilities can easily go anywhere by bike.
    • Provide ample bicycle parking everywhere people want to go.
    • Teach people to share the road.
    • Slow the cars down by redesigning the streets using traffic calming techniques.
    • Enforce the speed limit.

    For more information on best practices in bike networks and bike infrastructure visit www.peopleforbikes.org and their Green Lane project. Also check out NACTO‘s Urban Bikeway Design Guide. Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern, article by Alex Pines in Strong Towns.

    (5.) Carshare

    Studies show robust carshare programs increase the amount of walking, bicycling and transit. When you pay by the hour, people are more attentive to how often they drive, and as a result they drive less. People occasionally need the convenience of a car. What they don’t want necessarily is the hassle of owning and operating it.

    For more information on carshare visit Car-Free Key West’s carshare page.

    (6.) Bikeshare

    citibike miamiEven if everyone seems to have their own bike. Even if it’s easy and inexpensive for tourists to rent a bike, bikeshare works because it is in-between ownership and rental. It’s about getting from point A to point B spontaneously. Research show it enables one-way trip decisions. You may walk or take the bus in and decide to bikeshare back. It’s priced so that if used for more than a couple hours it is much more expensive than a rental. Bikeshare is part of a transit system. Studies show bikeshare programs complement walking and transit and decrease driving. Studies show bikeshare is a gateway to more biking and even getting people to buy bikes.

    For more about bikeshare visit: Cities Must Understand Bikeshare is Transit, April 17, 2015 and Car-Free Key West’s Bikeshare page. Also visit the North American Bikeshare Association, the  Better Bikeshare organization, and NACTO’s Bikeshare Guide.

    (7.) Education and Encouragement Programs

    bike map example

    Providing good options, or infrastructure, like transit and bikeways and bike parking is only half the battle. If people aren’t aware it exists or they’re unsure how to use it, they won’t. Research shows you get more out of the investment in transportation options infrastructure by educating people about it and encouraging them to use it. A local example is Car-Free Key West.

    • Work through Employers/Hotels. One of the best ways to do education and encouragement is through businesses. Especially hotels. A business influences their employees and their guests, with information, how-to-guides and passes. (Local example)
    • Target everyone to share our streets safely. Teach people behind the drivers’ wheel to slow down and share our streets. Teach people on two wheels to obey the rules of the road. And people on two feet too.
    • Encourage visitors not to bring cars to your downtown. But if they do, you want them to set it and forget it and use alternatives to get around once they’ve arrived instead.

    For more on Education and Encouragement see this article: 10 Steps to Take 100,000 Cars of DC’s Roads, May 6, 2015; Explanation of Education and Encouragement activities proposed by Bike/Walk Key West during the FY17 Budget discusssions; Car-Free Key West.

    (8.) Taxis and TNCs – Transportation Options That Support Bike, Walk, Transit

    Research shows that people who use taxis and TNCs (transportation network companies)  – like Uber and Lyft – also walk, bike and use transit more often. Taxis and TNCs support bike, walk and transit because they enable one-way trip decisions. You may take the bus or walk in and then decide you need a cab or TNC back.

    For more on how taxis and TNCs support transportation options visit the Shared-Use Mobility Center think tank. Article: Data for the Public Domain, from New Cities Foundation.

    (9.) Better Data. Open Data

    Historically cities have collected traffic and highway counts. We’ve measured a streets Level of Service or LOS. So to get beyond just cars, cities need to begin collecting pedestrian and bicycle counts. We need to measure how people are getting around, not just cars. And cities need to share this data and ask that all public and private transportation and parking operators publish open data too. This is the only way we can enable better and more comprehensive technology tools and apps.

    How open data helps promote transportation options like transit, biking and walking from Mobility Lab’s research.

    (10.) Parking Strategies

    pay to park

    If you want to encourage more walking, biking and transit and to make a dent in traffic and parking congestion apply the right parking strategies. Manage the parking you have to it’s maximum. Don’t give it away or subsidize it (under-price it), as this works against all the previous strategies.

    • Encourage Turnover for Retail. Metered parking should be tailored to encourage turnover in retail areas to help merchants. People who want to park for longer periods should be directed to longer term parking places. Consider that metered parking reflect location and  time of day/week/season.
    • Discourage Cruising for Free On-Street Parking. Research indicates that in some congested downtown up to 30% of cars are cruising for under-priced curb parking. Good wayfinding eliminates some of this. Right-pricing parking is even better. Given today’s technology from multi-meters to pay-by-cell, it is easier than ever to designate pay for parking spaces too.
    • Residential Permit Parking is intended for resident to be able to park within a few blocks of their home. Zones should be small and only available to people who reside or have a business within that zone. The permits should be priced so that each additional permitted vehicle costs considerably more.
    • Parking Revenue should be returned to the area it was generated in the form of amenities (benches, sidewalks, street lighting, pocket parks, flags, etc.) for that neighborhood and should be used on a broader scale to provide options to driving by investing in transit and bike services and facilities.

    car parking pricing nad cruisingAdditional information about parking strategies:

    This is a Key West specific bonus:

    (11.) More and Better Inter-city Ground Transportation

    About 84 percent of the people coming to Key West to visit get here by car. Airfare is expensive and the ferry and bus service is infrequent. Many of the people who fly in, whether to Miami or into our city directly, then get a rental car. We need to encourage people landing in other cities to take luxury coaches into the city, and encourage people landing here to taxi, transit, bike and walk, not rent a car. See # 7.

    So what do you get if you do all this? People First Streets


    Think about the places you’ve been and where you love to be. Are these usually full of people or cars? If you do all of these things and you use that great asset of our streets better, you have the opportunity to:

    • encourage more street space for pedestrian only areas and places for people to sit, chat, eat and people gaze. It doesn’t have to be entire streets. It can be parts of streets or even just parklets. Or alleys. Or for a weekend or a season.
    •  encourage complete streets that prioritize pedestrians, bikes, transit and then cars.

    The bottom line is that if you want to decrease traffic and parking congestion and increase biking, walking and transit you’d want to consider all of these tools. They work together. They support each other. They build upon each other. And doing these makes cities more prosperous, healthy, green and happy.

    For additional information please read: 11 Books About Fighting for and Building People-First Cities, February 21, 2016.

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