Gazette opinion: Creating better ways of getting around downtown

2014-08-12T00:00:00Z 2014-08-12T15:19:19Z Gazette opinion: Creating better ways of getting around downtown The Billings Gazette
August 12, 2014 12:00 am

For the majority of us who drive downtown, snagging a parking spot is part of the daily routine.

But downtown looks different from a bicycle. Parking configurations can be obstacles.

MET riders have a different perspective. The bus needs to stop at their destination on time.

Individuals with disabilities encounter hurdles as pedestrians and as drivers.

More broadly, neighborhood security, cleanliness and attractiveness affect people who come downtown and influence their decisions about coming downtown.

To make a better parking plan, Billings must look at downtown from many angles.

That’s exactly what happened last week when parking experts from several Western cities joined Billings downtowners to start work on a strategic parking plan.

About 20 people, including downtown business owners, city officials and representatives groups interested in a thriving city center gathered for the kickoff meeting Wednesday morning.

Ed Gulick, who bicycles downtown and serves on the city’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory board, raised alternative transportation concerns.

“Put at least one accessible spot in every block on both sides of the street,” suggested Joe Burst, executive director of Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow. He noted that handicap accessible curb cuts and ramps benefit a wide variety of pedestrians, including people with strollers, canes and wheelchairs. He also noted that although valet parking is popular for some folks, it is not an option for some using accessible vehicles that have been modified for special needs drivers.

Mike Schaer, owner of Computers Unlimited, observed that Park 2 regularly has about 100 empty spaces in the garage, although there’s a waiting list for assigned spaces. He recommended selling spaces that aren’t assigned to allow for more efficient use of the garage and more parking.

Noting that parking is more available since removal of meters on Montana Avenue, Schaer also suggested eliminating all meters, offering two hours of free parking, then using license plate scanners to identify violators who would get tickets in the mail.

The strategic plan is being created just as the city is about to finally open its newest parking garage. Opening of the Empire Parking garage has been delayed, but is expected to start gradually later this month. Eventually, the structure will house retail businesses on street level.

On Thursday evening, the experts were back with preliminary recommendations to share with a public audience of about 25. The recommendations included making parking garages cleaner and safer, using cell phone technology to pay parking fees, improving signage, review loading zone policies and taking a hard look at how expensive parking garages work for the city.

The panel also urged the city to keep working with bicyclists, MET riders, and disabled individuals to make a plan that helps them get around downtown more conveniently and safely.

Is must be stressed that these are preliminary recommendations. The city has a new parking manager, it is putting together a new strategic plan. The public is encouraged to weigh in. Take an online park survey at the Downtown Billings website.

“This is just the beginning, stay engaged,” said Dennis Burns of Kimley-Horn.

Among the best advice so far is this observation from Dave Feehan, president of Civitas Consultants: “Our primary business is really creating experiences that people like, that they want. If we focus overall on giving people a good experience, the money takes care of itself.”

A solid downtown parking plan must be about much more than meters and garages. This is an opportunity to think about how people get around our city center and how to make that travel safer, more efficient and more enjoyable for everyone who lives, works or visits in downtown.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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