Jackson has paved paradise, a new study finds, needlessly filling some of the most valuable property in America with empty asphalt.
The study, led by a Jackson resident, analyzed parking in five U.S. cities of roughly descending magnitude: New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Des Moines and Jackson.
Though the smallest of the sample, Jackson has by far the greatest parking excess based on several metrics. Perhaps the most startling is the town’s 27 parking spaces per household, taking up 37 percent of the land.
“It’s such a huge opportunity to build homes right in town, where people won’t be generating traffic,” said Eric Scharnhorst, author of the report, funded by the Research Institute for Housing America, a branch of the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The obvious objection is that Jackson needs lots of parking for hordes of visitors, especially in summer.
But another study commissioned by the town in 2017 found that even at peak population in the middle of an August weekday, half the parking spaces in Jackson’s midtown and 57 percent in its residential core were open. At their highest vacancy, those numbers rose to 74 and 73 percent, respectively.
Excess parking may also seem helpful when street parking is off-limits in the winter. But Scharnhorst said closing alternate sides of a street for plowing at different times, leaving one side open each day, would leave plenty of room to fit Jackson vehicles.
“Just like everything else,” he said, “it’s a problem that’s been solved in other places. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
Scharnhorst, a principal data scientist at the startup Parkingmill, noted that the problem isn’t unique to Jackson — it’s an American city problem. But some are realizing their failures and working to correct them, Scharnhorst said, and Jackson officials could learn from them.
“The cool thing,” he said, “is because we’ve waited so long to do anything, we can look around at what lots of other cities have tried, and we can borrow the best ideas.”
Scharnhorst recently met with local officials to go over his study, which he called the first comprehensive parking inventory for the town. Though officials were not surprised, the figures are “valuable additional data,” said Alex Norton, Teton County’s long-range planner.
That data — revealing a total of more than 100,000 spaces that would cost nearly $200,000 per household to replace — reaffirms the importance of tempering runaway parking. Building excess parking sends the wrong signal, according to Mayor Pete Muldoon.
“Our community is sending the message that we want to house your car but not you,” Muldoon said.
He argues the town’s current parking policy is an incentive for people to live in cheaper places outside Jackson, creating traffic to commute and then spending the money they make here in another town or state.
“And,” Muldoon said, “we want you to do that so badly we’ll pave over some of the nation’s most expensive real estate so you can park your car on it for free.”
For a year he has advocated something akin to Aspen’s model, implemented in 1995, in which people buy parking passes from kiosks around town and parking is limited to four hours a day.
Besides generating revenue for the town and downtown businesses, Muldoon has said this would make parking more efficient, in turn reducing the number of spaces developers must build and granting them greater floor area to address the town’s housing shortage.
According to Scharnhorst, parking costs could vary by season, perhaps remaining free in the shoulder seasons. And really, he said, Jackson would likely need to charge for parking only on a few blocks downtown.
Muldoon said Jackson must “break its addiction to unlimited ‘free’ parking.” In what he calls a choice between housing cars and housing people, Jackson is in some cases already favoring the latter.
For example, at the Town Council’s meeting on Aug. 6, four of five councilors voted to skirt parking requirements, allowing the developers of the affordable housing project at 174 King St. to provide five fewer spaces than their 30 units entail.
“The challenges we face to create housing opportunities are great,” Councilor Don Frank said. “And getting relief on this one small impediment has a huge rate of return in terms of putting roofs over heads.”
Scharnhorst said the idea that increased housing density leads to worse traffic is a myth. He said decades of data suggest the opposite, that greater proximity curbs congestion.
“Right now, for a lot of people, driving is the only option,” he said. “But if you can get stuff closer together, you can give them multiple ways to do things.”
Some cities, Scharnhorst said, have found ways to reduce traffic in winter, when walking and biking seem unappealing. Copenhagen plows bike paths before car lanes, he said. So people drive through slushy streets or take the well-maintained bike route.
Other cities have found ways to alleviate housing issues through parking policy, Scharnhorst said. In Seattle, where a study found that each parking space adds $50,000 to the cost of a house, officials have eliminated minimum parking requirements.
Instead they decided to sell parking separately from housing, essentially shifting the onus of determining the appropriate level of parking to developers.
“They have the most skin in the game,” he said, making it unlikely they’ll provide too much or too little.
Scharnhorst said this pay-for-what-you-use strategy is helping improve traffic and make housing more affordable in Seattle. But he added that there are “dozens or hundreds” of examples of how other cities have managed parking to achieve those results.
Congestion and the housing shortage are among Jackson officials’ most central concerns, and both are inextricably linked to where we put our cars.
“There are no solutions to our housing and traffic problems,” Muldoon said, “without addressing parking.”