Pandemic parklets: how a large city and a beachfront town test people’s willingness to walk.

My latest post just went up at Urban Indy.  It’s a bit of an oddity, since 100% of the photos come from the popular vacation town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  But there relevant nexus is one that unifies many municipalities trying to revive their hospitality industry after a multi-month shutdown.  In Indianapolis, the City created car-free zones at five different commercial nodes, allowing restaurants (which couldn’t yet host indoor dining) to expand their outdoor seating onto sidewalks, streets, and parking lots, thereby promoting the requisite social distancing.  In Rehoboth Beach, they clearly allowed something similar:Willingness to walk at Rehoboth Beach restaurants, when parking turns to outdoor seatingThe approach is less radical in Rehoboth, but essentially what we see here is pleasant outdoor seating at a local eatery, on a gravel plaza that used to be the restaurant’s parking lot?  Does it work: it seemed to at Egg, the restaurant that had a 40-minute wait to get a table two weekends ago.  The transformation is remarkably subtle, since the presence of shade umbrellas and potted plants makes the seating feel like something other than a parking lot.

But Rehoboth really reveals is that, when subject to more stringent parking limitations than usual, people don’t turn their noses up at desirable destinations.  The willingness to walk is far greater than we often anticipate.  This offers a lesson for both the average suburbanite from Indy who wants to go downtown to dine, as well as business owners in urban commercial districts who bemoan the absence of parking immediately adjacent to their front doors.  If you create a significantly vibrant and appealing setting–even amidst the often legitimate panic that is forcing people to deconcentrate–people will overcome their fears to satiate their need for socialization…and get food in their bellies.

These minor experiments in ultra-urbanization help make the case for more long term solutions that help reduce dependency on parking and capitalize on people’s willingness to walk.  Let’s hope both municipalities achieve some lasting benefits from what they learn from it.  Read up, and expect that I will respond to your comments either here or at Urban Indy.

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4 thoughts on “Pandemic parklets: how a large city and a beachfront town test people’s willingness to walk.

  1. AvatarBrian M

    What chaps me is people who demand parking “right next door” see nothing wrong with walking across a vast sea of parking at their local mall or Walmart.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Excellent point! And good to hear from you again, Brian. You really raise the critical distinction here.

      The presumption seems to be–even from business owners (especially in mid-tier cities like Indianapolis–that insufficient parking close by will keep people from coming to an urban area. If the will is there (“we are going to go to X restaurant tonight, and if it’s too hard to get in, we’ll try Y restaurant close by, or then we’ll try Z”), people will walk considerable distances, though they obviously prefer not to. (A Walmart parking lot, obviously, will be filled with vehicles close to the entrance and thin out, but if people have to walk across 1/4 mile of asphalt because it’s so full, they’re going to do it.)

      My keyword or key phrase in this blog article is “willingness to walk”. It’s much greater than we presume it to be, and becomes even greater when the attractions get heavily concentrated, which is far more likely to happen if we don’t allow massive craters to put huge spaces between each business. I guess the broader concern is more “willingness to search for parking” or, at a more base level, a “willingness to leave the house to begin the whole endeavor”. This isn’t exactly eloquently put on my end, but, during the few weeks when the pedestrianized streets in Indy were in full bloom, most evidence I heard is that they were insanely popular…a huge block party. This might not have helped the resurgent COVID case load that emerged in late June, but, if we’re to believe the buzz, Indiana has not proven one of the “hotspot” states.

      I think the magnetism of a certain business or business cluster transcends the ability to find an easy convenient parking space. I mean, to use your example again, look at Walmarts on a busy shopping day. (If the power of Walmart is what we’d call “magnetism”.)

      Reply
  2. AvatarChris B

    Indy stories:

    Pre-COVID my wife and I would dine downtown on the night of a Broadway series show. And we typically ate within walking distance of the theatre so that we could find one parking spot upon arrival and stay put. It just isn’t that hard to find spaces around Mass Ave. Sure we have to pay $5 or $10, but it’s date night.

    It was more complicated when the shows were at Clowes Hall, since that usually involved eating in Broad Ripple. But there is more than one garage at the end of the strip and we’ve never had trouble getting parking. In fact, a couple of years ago we went to Brugge (now a COVID casualty) and (gasp) walked the three blocks from garage to restaurant “all the way at the other end of the strip,” about 1/3 mile and past probably at least 10-12 other dining establishments.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt

      Hi Chris–that sounds about right. As I’ve indicated, for each article I include a keyword, and the one here was among the most cumbersome: “willingness to walk”. Chances are your willingness to walk outstrips the average Indy resident, but I also think these business owners downplay this willingness…perhaps out of a lack of confidence in the capacity of their own enterprise to attract visitors?

      I’ve heard that “absolutely essential” garage that got built on College Avenue is rarely more than 50% occupied. In fact, IIRC, the owner leased out the roof to Enterprise a few years ago. Not sure Enterprise is still there–most car rental companies are in dire straits after COVID–but that is a sure sign that the garage wasn’t getting the occupancy it needed and the owner/manager needed to find a new capitalization stream.

      Sorry to hear about Brugge. If it’s any consolation, one of the Belgian places around me here in DC had to completely change its menu; it went from Belgian to Italian. Apparently mussels are not all that amenable to carry-out…? That’s the impression I’m getting, since Brugge was never hurting for business. Hopefully they’ll re-open at some point. Very sad to hear about the Basque restaurant that closed; I was looking forward to trying it the next time I was in Indy.

      Reply

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