Economic Development and Government

Parking ideas supported by new mobility focus

Topping the list is formation of a new Mobile GR agency.

June 19, 2015
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In order for Parking Services to meet the needs of downtown Grand Rapids parkers, the organization needs to undergo a name change and broaden its focus beyond cars.

That was one of the key recommendations laid out on recently by Mark de la Vergne, of Sam Schwartz Engineering, to Parking Services commissioners.

The recommendations and five-year strategic plan for implementation are the result of a parking and mobility study conducted by Sam Schwartz Engineering on behalf of the parking commission.

The study looked at current parking and mobility options in downtown and how expected development will impact parking needs of the future. The goal of the study is to give parking commissioners a guide by which to make more informed decisions and help Parking Services provide better customer service to everyone utilizing downtown.

De la Vergne said to better serve parkers, Parking Services should become “Mobile GR,” an organization responsible for multiple modes of transportation. He said Mobile GR would require more staff to handle the additional responsibilities it would undertake, as well as a change in culture to support the new mission.

By focusing on multiple modes of transportation, the goal is to decrease parking demand by giving people alternative ways to get to, from and around downtown, which is seen as one of the best solutions to any future parking crunch.

De la Vergne said Mobile GR would require three new positions: a Mobile GR and Parking manager, a Mobile GR supervisor and a Mobile GR outreach person.

According to Pam Ritsema, managing director of Parking Services, the three additional positions would cost approximately $350,000 annually, which comes to $3.5 million over a 10-year period. In addition, there would be costs related to office space and other overhead costs, including a website overhaul.

In addition to managing parking, Mobile GR would focus on developing car-share and bike-share programs, which allow members of the program to rent cars or bikes as needed, and increased public transit options in downtown, although Mobile GR will not necessarily be the funding source or manager of these programs.

De la Vergne recommended the city shoot for a car-share agreement that would bring 10 cars to downtown Grand Rapids. He noted that to obtain an agreement from one of the car-share operators, Grand Rapids would likely have to ensure a certain amount of revenue, and therefore take on some of the risks involved.

By doing so, he said, a revenue-sharing agreement might be reached that could be beneficial in the future. He said the recommendation is for Mobile GR to launch a car-share program by late 2015 or early 2016.

In 2017, de la Vergne said the city should launch a 25- to 30-station bike-share program. He said startup costs for the program, which are estimated at between $500,000 to $2 million, could be covered by sponsorships, grants and other funding sources, and by the end of year two, the program should be operating in the black or at least breaking even.

A robust transit service is also important, particularly in the case of achieving better dispersement of parking among city lots and ensuring any monetary incentive programs for parking in less coveted lots is successful.

To increase ridership, de la Vergne said free or reduced transit options should be increased.

He recommended a collaboration between Mobile GR, The Rapid and Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. for a one-year pilot program that would include giving free transit passes to up to five businesses and one higher education institution. At the end of the pilot, an evaluation would take place on how the free passes impacted ridership, parking and operation costs to determine whether or not to expand the program.

He said a revised DASH service should be implemented and should function as a circulator so people can park anywhere and quickly reach their destination via bus.

Recommendations call for replacing the current DASH service with two new, simple bus lines comprising the DASH Circulator that, one, would connect current parking facilities to destinations and, two, would create a high-frequency downtown circulator that complements the current Rapid public transit network.

To build support for these increased mobility options, Mobile GR will work closely with employers to help them solve their transportation needs. The new outreach person would work directly with employers to develop transportation solutions, educate employees on mobility options and provide broad marketing.

De la Vergne said encouraging employers to adopt a cash-out policy is important. Rather than purchase parking for employees, employers would give that money to the employee and allow them to make the decision of how to use it: They can use all of it for parking or keep the money and take transit.

This arrangement would also support the recommendation to raise rates in many downtown lots — by up to 50 percent in the most high-frequency lots around the Arena South area — to disperse parking more equally around the city by letting people choose where to park and how much of their parking allotment to use or save.

De la Vergne said Mobile GR should draft a Parking and Transportation Demand Management Ordinance, similar to what has been done in Cambridge, Mass.,that would require future development projects to include a plan for supporting multiple transportation modes. A Transportation Demand Management Ordinance would be similar to the current ordinance that is tied to how many parking spaces a development project needs to provide.

Parking commissioners raised some minor concerns with the recommendations but, for the most part, seemed supportive of the overall vision for Mobile GR.

Several next steps need to be taken before parking commissioners vote to adopt any of the recommendations, including community input, which will be gathered as part of the GR Forward public outreach effort, and discussions with the city manager, city commission and other city staff.

A finalized plan will be presented to the parking commission later this year.

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