Greater City Providence

Guest post: Parking reform should start at the State House


The State House with a lot less parking. Photo courtesy of the Providence Department of Planning & Development.

[alert type=”warning”]Reader James Kennedy writes about reforming parking at the State House. Follow James on Twitter: @TransportPVD.[/alert]

The State House is a great place to start reforming Providence’s parking crisis. The great map that Jef put up last April shows that the State House contributes considerably to the overwhelming of our downtown space by surface parking.

From the outset, 10% of State House parking lot space should be repurposed as a vegetable and flower garden, which could be run in private-public partnership with the Southside Community Land Trust. Repurposing State House parking will highlight one of the city’s best reasons for optimism, the Land Trust’s Lots for Hope program. Produce from the raised beds could be used to fill food banks around the state, or could be sold at Rhode Island’s farmers’ markets to return a modest revenue boost to the state budget.

The remaining spaces should no longer be free. Legislators and other State House employees should receive a transportation stipend, equal to the amount of money currently being spent on paving a parking spot for them to use. Those who continue to drive to the State House would not lose money, but they will at least be aware that parking is a fiscal choice. But many others will choose to save money by carpooling, taking transit, or biking to the capital. The plan will be revenue neutral to taxpayers, in that it will simply repurpose funds already being spent.

Parking demand will decrease if this plan is put in place, and as it does, the state should gradually remove more spaces to increase the area of the garden. As in Denmark, where cities have committed to remove 2-3% of parking spaces per year to reduce their carbon footprints, the State House could set a per year goal for removal of spots, with the eventual culmination of a parking lot half the size of the current one. The gradual pace of change will allow for other transportation options to be developed.

If having legislators pay for their own parking sounds radical, consider that in California, a model for just this kind of transportation reform has been in place in many private workplaces since 1992, called “the parking cash-out”. A 1997 study evaluating the effects of the law noted a 17 percent drop in solo driving at affected workplaces, which broke down into a 64 percent increase in carpooling, a 50 percent increase in transit use, and a 35 percent increase in walking or biking to work. And it makes sense: Donald Shoup, who helped push the reforms, and who has become the nation’s leading advocate of parking reform, notes that parking figures greater in people’s choices about car use than even gasoline prices.

Legislators who either use RIPTA or know a colleague who does will be more likely to view multimodal transportation as the urgent issue it is. Although there have been modest improvements in funding under the Chafee administration, Rhode Island still ranks far behind comparably dense and populous states in per capita funding for public transportation. Bringing the transportation crisis directly to the commutes of lawmakers would change that quicker than you can say RIPTA appropriations.

Several readers of my last guest post about redesigning Dean Street as a multimodal boulevard added that the gaping cloverleaf next to the State House should be an even bigger target for reform. Perhaps the most compelling reason that the legislators should look at their own workplace as a locus of transportation change is that it would lay the groundwork for such a future reworking of that transportation nightmare. Parking lots are to cars as still water is to mosquitoes. The cloverleaf can be conquered if we see how parking lots around it justify its existence.

Simply writing about this does nothing. I hope that if you find this idea appealing, you’ll actually take the next step and contact your state assemblyperson, tweet to the Providence Journal, or put together a demonstration on the next Park(ing) Day. We can change the map of Providence, one parking lot at a time, starting right at the State House.

James Kennedy


  • Another excellent post, thanks.
    About 5 years ago the legislature mandated a study of reducing state employee commute traffic, but nothing yet has been done, in part because state employee unions resist anything that might jeopardize their “free” parking, though we’e heard when construction of a new viaduct on I-95 starts this may change as that is expcted to make congestion worse.
    I note the State House area is near the rail station, so a parking cashout program for state employees might boost the struggling commuter rail.
    I also think Ripta has perversely refused to market to the State House, even though 4 bus lines go up there. There is no combined schedule (as there is to Wayland Square, Olneyville, the airport…) there is no shelter and no distribution or posting of schedules to the public in the area. Its not just state employees, there is an army of lobbyists, people attending rallies, and tourists who come up there too.
    Those who agree with this post need to make their presence felt, there is an opportunity to make progress.,

  • There’s not quite enough parking area at the State House. There’s the two smallish lots off to the left side if you’re looking at it from Smith St. You can get in there with an offering to your favorite deity, especially when they’re not in session.

    Then there are lots directly across the street next to D.O.T. and then there’s one up behind the DOA building, it’s an underground lot. I know, I still have an access card for those lots. Haven’t had opportunity to try it out though.

    But the problem is, between the State House, DOA, DOH, DOT etc. there’s a LOT of parking required. All the lots fill up very quickly and the overflow goes into the streets.

    You could use the PPM garage – it has plenty of space. Then if you really wanted to be progressive you could have a shuttle that runs every 10 minutes between the mall and the state complex. You’d only need to run it for an hour or so a day – a half hour in the morning, a half hour at night.

  • At least be glad the marble entrance plaza on Smith Street no longer serves as the VIP parking lot.

  • Not a sarcastic question, but an honest curious one. What recent history would suggest that, as Barry suggests, “there is an opportunity to make progress” with respect for transit in the state. Because from my perspective, despite a material increase in ridership, we have not seen the required legislative support for the agency.

  • Barry,

    Thanks, glad you liked it. As someone who would like, with other parts of political soul, to support unions, I think the great hope for reform in this area will be communicating with them clearly about the fact that this fiscally benefits workers. It really should be an issue of solidarity with the working class, if with no one else, because the poorest people are least likely of all to have a car.

  • Removing parking from the state house is an interesting idea. I would argue that the majority of people parking in those lots are members of the upper middle class or are Rhode Island Elites (legislators, “public servants”, lawmen…etc). Many of these people are commuters from outside Providence, who largely drive new or nice automobiles. While many of these people still enjoy plebeian pleasures, such as an occasional big mac and large fry, they do it from the comfort and isolation of a luxury automobile. The automobile both physically and figuratively cushions its passenger from many of the “bumps and holes” around our city. These lawmakers are not alone in preferring the comfort of an automobile for traveling around Providence, most of us, rich and poor, drive. We aren’t really talking about parking spaces here, I think the issue here is cars. Currently there is no reasonably comfortable alternative to driving for the people who use those lots surrounding the state house. And I am inclined to agree with them. Try waiting in the T.F. green interlinc’s dismal and inhospitable train shelter for a mbta on a cold morning and then advocate getting rid of parking downtown.

  • Jef Nickerson’s satellite image above was obviously taken on a Sunday. Anyone who actually tries to park in one of those lots during business hours knows that unless you arrive prior to 8:30 a.m., you’re in the street and at the mercy of the Providence ticketing agents.

    Whereas I am all for open space and green living, let’s be practical in our thinking and realize that these buildings are public buildings. Removing parking spaces will not hurt legislators or state employees. It will hurt the taxpayers who need access to these buildings. Secondly, whacking state employees with a parking charge – but not the general public – will be just one more nail in the coffin. They’ve taken a beating on pension reform, longevity pay, and overall compensation. (The Segal Report that was just issued last month backs this up. RI is way behind in retaining and recruiting the best employees.)

    Fewer parking spots will exacerbate the problem. Many people on Capitol Hill DO take the bus and bike to work. Most drive, yes, but many have a reason for doing so such as having to drop off kids at school, the need to visit satellite sites, etc.

  • The aerial image was not posted to mark the number of cars, but the ocean of parking lots.

    As for the fairness of charging state employees, but not the general public? Really? You think the rest of us are just rolling in free parking? I’m looking for my tiny violin to play for state employees.

  • That’s the reality of urban land use. Dense development means less parking spaces. Free parking in an urban neighborhood where the demand outweighs the supply does not make good policy. If you want to make spaces available, charging for parking may change behavior and incentivize those who can use transit to do so, making more parking spaces available for those where transit may not be an option. Otherwise, taxpayers are the ones who subsidize the free parking spaces, and I would rather have my tax dollars go to investments in education and infrastructure., not an asphalt lot.

  • Arman is wrong. I’m pretty sure that most of the people who park in the state offices lots (not the ones directly next to the state house, but the ones across the street) are not upper middle class. They’re state employees. Sure they have cushy jobs and good benefits, but they’re not making a ton of money.

    Also, in response to Pete… is the general public actually allowed to park in those lots when they have to make an appearance at those state offices? I was under the impression those lots were all for employees only.

    As for the original post… it lost me at the vegetable and flower garden thing (I am not against urban farming, I just don’t know that it’s the best use for those lots, at least not permanently). Sure, great idea, but I’d rather see the lots built on and the ENTIRE state government consolidated right there in Providence, getting rid of the offices in Cranston (Department of Corrections being the exception). Or if they can’t afford that, sell off the property (to be used as something other than parking). Put it on the city tax rolls.

    I am all for getting rid of that parking, and I say this as someone who has parked in the lots directly next to the state house to go to Waterfire. I’m all for having the state employees get free or discounted RIPTA passes (give free passes to the General Assembly, if they don’t already get it). But the use has to be smart and actually useful.

  • Various state offices give different directions to their offices and instructions on parking. Dept. of Administration and Dept. of Health both direct people to their parking lots (I don’t know if people have to pay). RIDOT does not offer up any parking. The site for State House tours instructs people to use metered street parking or the Legislative Lot when the Assembly is not in session.

    They all give some form of information on Public Transit access.

    It never occurred to me that there would be public parking available at the State House (paid or free) and everyone I know who drives up there looks for street parking.

    Providence City Hall does not have any public parking devoted to it.

  • I always assumed that the lots were for employees only. Don’t they all have gate arms that go down during the day? And the only time I’ve ever known it was ok to park in the state house lots was on weekends or at night (or maybe at night on weekends).

  • Towne asks what recent history suggests the car-only culture in the State house area might become more transit-friendlly:

    1 the DOA task force in response to the legislation seeking to reduce state employee commuting is still meeting and might come up with a plan; the CTC and newly formed Ripta-Riders has asked them to do so as part of their recently organized voices for transit advocacy
    2 the DOT is considering a transit promotion plan as part of the mitigation for the congestion coming when work on repalcing the I-95 viaduct begins;
    3 our new Governor has more of an interest in transit than predecessors, especially the commuter rail that stops near the State House, and RIDOT has a real interest in promoting the struggling new commuter rail service;
    4 RIPTA sees the mall-train station-State House area as one of a few transit corridors to be promoted, and, I just learned, is finally preparing a combined schedule for the routes that go there;
    5 The Assembly did pass legislation noted in #1 seeking less state employee commuter travel, and did bail out RIPTA a few years ago by adding 2 cents to the gas tax, and a current bill to add funding has support from many interests
    6 with the completion of the COA to deploy resources more efficiently, and the appointment of the resource team and State Police presence now running RIPTA, there may be more credibility with the Assembly and the public if they say internal problems are addressed and more funding is needed.
    7 now also spreads the word about enhancing urban living by reducing negative autocentric impacts
    8 Mayor Tavares seems generally supportive of such efforts, having created a bike/ped committee, while previous Mayor Cianci had no such interest

    So all this should give us some hope we have an opportunity to make progress if we persist.

    To Pete’s point that it is unfair to whack state employees again, its no whack if they get a transportation allowance that they can use to pay for parking if they wish, or pocket some of it by walking, carpooling, using transit, or biking. Those who do would be BETTER off. But so would we all, there is experimental evidence this parking cashout system reduces vehicle miles travelled.

  • A real key to this is that parking destroys transit. I think that’s the biggest reason I think that parking is a major concern worthy of a lot of attention.

    Donald Shoup studied San Francisco, and in a 2005 paper showed that S.F.’s zoning code requiring commercial spaces to provide parking undid their subsidization of public transit. At the time of the study, San Francisco was charging $5 per square foot to developers for their train service (compare that to the $0.95 per square foot that was tossed around for the streetcar project a few years ago, and $0.55 for properties farther away). The $5/square foot charge was the highest in the country. But one parking space extra put a $24/square foot charge on development, which meant it was almost five times greater. Those spaces, which were required to be put in, made building more expensive–but the parking remained free.

    One issue about access to spots is the free-ness of them too. People who don’t have to pay for a parking spot will drive a few blocks to do something, while people who have to pay for their spot will only drive if it’s really necessary. If you find yourself having trouble parking downtown, it’s certainly not because there aren’t spaces, as Jef’s map showed. It’s because a lot of people take a space who didn’t really need to drive, and also because people who might have spent a short time in a space spent a long time instead.

  • Runaway Jim – If they aren’t rich does that mean they deserve to ride RIPTA (east bay) or freeze on an MBTA platform (west bay) ? Sure, they could park in the mall, but that gets expensive if you aren’t rich. They could carpool too, but lets face it, that isn’t always possible.

    I see no other way to look at this. In order for the size of those lots to shrink, more people will have to utilize public transportation. For most people that means RIPTA. I feel like you can really only advocate riding RIPTA if you don’t. I ride it almost everyday… the buses smell bad, the people are inoffensive at best, and the predictability of service…. Imagine all those white collar office workers waiting in Kennedy Plaza, rain or shine, for a heaving bus to take them home after a mindless day of bureaucratic labor. They’ll likely huddle near the shelters on Exchange st., hoping to avoid the throngs of wild teens at KP, trying to cling to the last memory they had comfortably driving home at the helm of their late model car.

    Bus service needs to be substantially improved if it is going to be a serious alternative for white-collar car owners. I really can’t think of any alternative transport or parking solution which can mitigate the loss of those surface lots at this point in time. I think it would be more valuable to discuss how RIPTA could tailor services to court ridership among people who actually have the option of using other modes of transportation, than focusing on surface lots. These lots are merely a symptom of a larger problem here in RI, the lack of compelling public transportation, removing them will only superficially solve the underlying problem.

  • Arman. If the employees at the State House insist on driving, they should pay for it like everyone else does, I should not be forced, through my taxes, to subsidize their excessive lifestyle by building and maintaining free parking within yards of their offices. Everyone else who has a job figures out how to get to said job and makes decisions about what they are or are not willing to go through or pay for to get to that job. State House workers get a free ride on their parking spaces and the environmental cost that those parking spaces, and the drive to them foists upon the rest of us with no penalty to themselves.

    If they really want their jobs, they’ll either suffer the horrors of public transit, or pay to park and maybe have to walk a few feet (oh, the poor babies), it is up to them.

  • Arman- If state employees, including legislators, are riding RIPTA more often, don’t you think something will change? Think about it… the people who control the money riding the bus with the rest of us… they’re either gonna be like “screw this, we’re driving” or “let’s fix this problem so that more people will ride the bus” or “let’s carpool” (which certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing).

    It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing to get RIPTA fixed. More people who have power ride it to say “this sucks and needs to change” or they just start throwing money at it randomly until it’s fixed and attractive to more people. One of those options works better than the other.

    Personally, I don’t give a crap about the legislators and other folks with cushy state jobs. They can wait in the cold for the bus or train like everyone else. What makes them more special than us? Seriously? I want to know. Because that’s what you’re implying.

  • Just to reframe the debate a bit,

    I also do not want to subsidize the driving lifestyle of anyone, but the proposal above would not actually take away people’s free parking (even though that might also be a good idea). In the proposal above, which is modest, I say that we should simply make the cost of parking visible to employees. They get a stipend, and that stipend fully covers the parking–which is the same, fiscally, as getting free parking–except, that now, they can choose to redirect their stipend to buying walking shoes, a RIPTA pass, a bicycle, or whatever else they want. If employees drive, they see no change in their lifestyle at all. If they decide to change their mode of travel, they get savings which they can use to buy a new TV for all I care.

    It really doesn’t have to come down to whether you support public employees or not. I’m aware that unions can be corrupted at times, and I have my criticisms of them, but I would say that I’m much more pro-union than many (which is ironic, since there seems to be a correlation between comments that support my proposal and comments that are negative towards state employees).

    Non-driving state employees (and there probably are some) currently do the equivalent of buying a parking space which they do not use, without anyone consulting them. That is what would change here. It’s good for workers.

  • The black and white photo at the top of this post must be from 1910s or early 20s, before start of construction of the Masonic Temple or Veterans Auditorium.

    The density and cohesiveness of the surrounding neighborhood(s) is really remarkable. Even as late as early 1990s there were still houses in the block west of the State House and north of Veterans Auditorium and the area, now a parking lot, along Orms Street was lined with 3-deckers. It’s incredible how destructive the blind acceptance of cars has been to the city.

    Whether it’s minimum parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, required street frontages, maximum number of permitted dwelling units, suburban like lot coverage maximums, or height limits, Providence’s zoning regulations, most of which were written in the early 1950s, has reinforced the slow continuous dismantling of the city.

    It’s not just around the State House or Downtown, but everywhere. How many 3-deckers or single-family houses in any of the city’s residential neighborhoods or mixed-use buildings along its commercial corridors have been demolished in order to create surface parking for an adjacent property?

    Besides demographic shifts, because of the car and lousy land use regulations it shouldn’t be any surprise that city’s population remains 70,000 short of the three or four decade mid-20th century peak.

  • Just to throw a slightly different perspective onto whether/why we should be reducing free parking around the state house:

    Why should we make it easy to live a 45 minute drive away from where you work? There’s a huge cost to constructing and maintaining the roads to sustain that travel. There’s a cost to your use of a car for that period every single day. There’s a cost to the neighborhoods, economy, and safety of the city to maintain seas of surface lots.

    Removing free parking is removing just one of the very many ways that we subsidize far flung suburban development. We are effectively hiding a big portion of the cost of living further and further away from work.

    So the answer has nothing to do with making RIPTA busses smell better or a largely white, white collar, middle class workforce more comfortable in a more mixed income, mixed race transit mode. The answer is to ensure that statehouse employees, when considering where to live, are confronted with the cost of that choice. Maybe realizing that parking is NOT free (because whether we charge them directly or not there are real costs), they’ll be more likely to choose to live closer to where they work or along existing public transit corridors that provide convenient access between work and home.

    We need to stop encouraging everyone who is above the poverty line but not wealthy enough for the East Side to go ahead and move to North Kingstown or Western Cranston.