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The Covid Effect

March 17, 2021

Dave Burr

The pandemic has brought about many changes that will be permanent, particularly when it comes to urban planning and parking planning. This is particularly true of the changes brought by lockdowns that many communities experienced last spring—and in some cases continue to experience—which have accelerated an already active trend of technology promoting remote work and communication. Because more people are working remotely, and will likely continue to do so, cities have experienced extraordinary shifts in traffic and parking practices. In fact, the shifts are so pronounced that in many cities the very nature of urban living and working has been altered.


Increasingly, companies have, some by choice – some by necessity, embraced the technology allowing communication with co-workers and clients using computer-based audio and video software. While this march of technology would likely have occurred on its own, it was accelerated by the Covid pandemic. Companies have learned that their workers can be productive away from the office and having large offices to accommodate all their employees on site is, to some, no longer deemed necessary. Some firms have gone so far as telling their workers that they can work from home permanently. 


Similarly, the lockdowns that were common last spring, and which have reappeared intermittently, demonstrated that many items can be purchased on-line, both from established on-line retailers and smaller businesses that adapted to this new “normal” just to survive. Not everything requires a physical visit to a merchant. All these changes, in our opinion, are likely to result in a new paradigm in terms of downtowns. 


The New Paradigm


Traditional downtowns consisted of residential uses, retailers, office uses, government functions, restaurants and other entities. The residents living there were the built-in market. After World War II, many residents moved to the suburbs, and while there was an initial decline in many downtowns, cities adapted, and downtowns once again flourished. 


Communities that have traditionally catered to tourists will likely continue as before once the pandemic subsides and leisure travel returns to more typical levels. These cities will still have the critical mass of traffic to support their businesses. Not all communities are so fortunate, however. 


Prior to the pandemic, restaurants did a brisk business at lunchtime catering to shoppers and downtown office workers who commuted in for work. Evening entertainment patrons and people staying downtown to dine with friends or co-workers extended their business hours well into the evening. Hotels and conference centers in urban centers added additional daytime and evening traffic. What this all meant was that communities and the businesses had to provide large amounts of parking to accommodate this transient traffic. What happens when downtowns don’t have the office workers from insurance and financial companies, tech companies, accounting firms and so many other businesses? These individuals, working remotely, are not using the restaurants for breakfast or lunch. They are not walking downtown on their lunch hours and making a quick stop to shop or conduct other business. Can retailers and restaurants continue to survive with further reductions in foot-traffic? For many downtowns, the peak parking need occurred during the late morning and early afternoon as a result of the demand from retail business owners and their employees, shoppers, the office workers, office visitors, and restaurant staff and patrons. 


What Now?


While prior to the pandemic, many downtowns were already working to generate consistent daytime traffic by encouraging new residential developments, we believe that this will be more critical going forward as the activity from office workers is reduced. Forward-thinking communities for years have been working to convert office space to residential space thus helping to ensure a downtown population to support merchants and other businesses. This may mean having grocery stores, which many downtowns lack, and which provide delivery, will be more common. 


Other support functions may also have to fill in. For instance, some downtowns may need to change and become a more social and entertainment center for the community. Does this mean that the peak demand shifts from daytime to evening as more activity for movies, cultural activities and social gatherings occur at this time and people outside the downtown come for these activities? Does the nine to five model for some downtown’s change to a 4:00 pm to 11:00 pm focus? What does this mean in terms of parking needs? 


Residential developments within and near downtown are still likely to need to provide close convenient parking for the residents who still want a personal vehicle for other purposes, but who are now walking downtown for the evening activities. Without the need to provide parking for as many office workers to leave their cars for 8 hours, how much “short-term” high-turnover parking is needed? Can some existing parking lots that were once considered sacred be used for different types of development, with any demand for additional parking to serve those new developments absorbed by other lots and garages? 


Planning for the Future


Clearly, there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered. But hopefully, municipal planners, institutional administrators, and developers across the country are planning for these trends. As stated before, many of these changes were already underway, as many younger people were already seeking to live and work downtown. They won’t necessarily have to walk from their apartment or condominium to a downtown office to work as originally envisioned, but instead their homes will become their workplaces. Downtown parking plans must accommodate this new reality.


Also, there are still many others who prefer a more suburban existence with green grass in front of their homes, who choose instead to live outside the city and drive downtown for the social and entertainment activities offered. Just as I used to travel downtown to the 10-floor department store with my grandmother when I was a child, today’s and future generations of suburbanite will continue to return to local cities for recreational activities, dining, and shopping. While urban downtowns have certainly changed over the year, they still exist and they will continue to exert a powerful pull on people when the pandemic is over. 


Just as urban downtowns have adapted over the past half-century, so too must urban planning. The question is, how well and fast will urban planners and parking professionals adapt to our “new normal”. We parking planning professionals must be ready to help cities and towns respond to the new normal. 


 


Dave Burr is a senior parking planner with Rich and Associates. He can be reached at dburr@richassoc.com



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